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Rocker gets shot at a fresh start

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 11, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- John Rocker got his first chance to pitch in the major leagues from Chuck LaMar. The Rays general manager may be giving the left-hander his last chance as well. Thursday, Rocker signed a minor-league contract.

Rocker, 28, saved 81 games for the Braves in 1999-2001 but became a lightning rod for controversy after his 38-save 1999 season, when his disparaging remarks about minorities, gays, New Yorkers and others were published in Sports Illustrated that December.

"It's obvious he made some mistakes in the past. He'll be the first one to admit that and if we end up signing him again he'll admit that again," said LaMar, who signed Rocker to his first professional contract as Atlanta's assistant general manager after drafting him in 1993.

After some extended spring training with the Rays, Rocker will report to Triple-A Durham. If he makes it to the Rays roster he will be paid a prorated portion of the $300,000 major-league minimum.

The Rays have no timetable for Rocker's progress in the minors. "He's going to get an opportunity to work his way up to the big leagues," manager Lou Piniella said. "He wants to prove that a lot of people are wrong. He sat out there all winter in the free-agent market and nobody picked him up. This is a wonderful opportunity to prove people wrong."

LaMar said Rocker's controversial past doesn't trouble him. "We're concerned with putting the best team on the field," LaMar said. "If he can help us win games and fits into our budget, which he does, and he's not getting in the way of a young prospect, then we have to consider signing him."

GLOVES ON BOTH HANDS?: The Rays, 4-6 in home games, leave their climate-controlled home for tonight's game at Yankee Stadium, the opener of a 10-game road trip to New York, Boston and Baltimore. It's going to be very cold -- the evening temperature is expected to be in the 30s -- and windy.

Then again, the Rays might get a brief reprieve. The New York City forecast also calls for heavy rain tonight.

GETTING USED TO IT: On manager Lou Piniella's to-do list for 2004: schedule more spring training practices at Tropicana Field to familiarize the fielders with the stadium sooner, and get FieldTurf put down on Progress Energy Park's infield practice area behind the right-centerfield fence.

"It's a totally different ballgame when you get used to playing over at (Progress Energy Park) on grass," Piniella said. "Now you move into a quick surface in a closed dome where you can lose the ball. We're going to use this park a little more than what it's been used for, boat shows and other things. ...

"What's the sense of having two grass infields (for spring games and practice) when all of a sudden you're going to play on this? I wasn't aware of it" before he became manager of the Rays. "You start thinking about it after you've seen it. It'll be money well spent."

GET USED TO IT: Some things aren't as easily changed. The roof, for instance. It can make it tough for a fielder tracking a fly ball. "You can't take your eyes off it," Piniella said. "The Metrodome in Minnesota's the same way. ... We had trouble when we first went to Seattle (as the Mariners manager in 1993). Then we started to paint (the roof) darker and darker and darker and darker and that problem was alleviated. Over here you can't really do anything."

ETC: Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli extended season-opening hitting streaks to career-high 10 games. That matched the Rays record set by Brent Abernathy at the start of the 2001 season. ... The three-game series against the Orioles drew an announced combined attendance of 28,782, third lowest in Rays history (Texas 27,964; Kansas City 26,914, both in 2001). ... At 2 hours, 17 minutes, the game was the Rays' shortest of the season.

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