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Rays may gamble on Rocker

Controversial reliever works out for the team, and he may sign a minor-league deal.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- The Devil Rays are talking about giving John Rocker, whose controversial comments and actions overshadowed his pitching success, a chance to get back in the game.

Rocker, 28, worked out for team officials Wednesday at Tropicana Field and threw well enough -- clocking at about 90 mph -- that the Rays are in discussions to sign him to a minor-league contract and allow him the opportunity to work his way back to the big leagues.

"I thought he showed enough to warrant an opportunity," manager Lou Piniella said. "He's champing at the bit to get back into baseball and get himself back in the big leagues. I think it would be a good gamble."

General manager Chuck LaMar is likely to have further talks today with Joe Sambito, Rocker's agent, about a deal that would send the left-handed reliever to Triple-A Durham then pay him the $300,000 minimum salary should he join the Rays.

Rocker had a tremendous 1999 season for the Braves, saving 38 games, but was more known for controversial things he said and did. Most offensive, and most publicized, were comments he made in a December 1999 Sports Illustrated article, where he made disparaging remarks about minorities, gays, New Yorkers and others.

A storm of controversy followed as Rocker was fined and suspended by Major League Baseball, criticized by many social and political groups and castigated by some teammates. But he continued to pitch relatively well until a June 2001 trade to Cleveland. He had problems on and off the field while with the Indians and last season with the Rangers, going 2-3 with one save and a 6.66 ERA in 30 games and missing time with shoulder and neck discomfort.

None of the 30 teams thought enough to invite Rocker to spring training, but Sambito was persistent and the Rays agreed to take a look.

"I think he learned from a few of his experiences," Piniella said. "That's probably one of the reasons he's still available."

Sambito said Rocker is healthy and "there's no doubt in my mind" he can be successful again in the big leagues.

LaMar, who helped sign Rocker with the Braves, seems willing to give him another chance.

"You can't have a discussion with John if you're thinking about signing him without talking about what has gone on over the last few years," LaMar said. "He understands that if we do give him that opportunity that we don't expect anything less than professionalism on and off the field. ... He knows what has gone on in the past, and I think he wants to get on with his career and become a successful major-league pitcher again."

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