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'I'm a different person now'

A courteous John Rocker works out, says he wants to move on from controversial comments he made in 1999.

By TOM JONES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's a little after 10 a.m. and 20 or so Devil Rays minor-leaguers are working out on a field at the Naimoli complex. Most days, only a few sea gulls and a couple of dog walkers stop to watch monotonous pitching and catching drills.

Not Saturday. On this day, a dozen members of the media line up along the fence, watching a long, lanky, left-handed relief pitcher working out in the bullpen. But they are not here to watch him pitch. They are here to listen to him talk.

He's John Rocker. And now, he has little to say about something he said a few years ago.

Rocker, signed by the Rays to a minor-league contract Thursday, worked out with the organization for the first time Saturday. Afterward, he did talk. He was courteous, pleasant and a perfect gentleman. But when the subject came up, Rocker acted like he was pitching to Barry Bonds: He didn't offer much.

Rocker created a firestorm in 1999 when, as a young pitcher with a bright future for the Braves, he was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article making disparaging remarks about minorities, gays, New Yorkers and others. He was fined and suspended by Major League Baseball, and heavily criticized in many circles.

For Rocker, though, that was yesterday.

"I'm not really here to focus on the past," said Rocker, 28. "I really want to move forward. I'm a different person now. I think everybody wakes up a different person than they were the day before. Certainly, from years past, two or three or four years removed from everything, I'm definitely a much different, much better person than I used to be. I'm just looking forward to moving forward."

Rocker's career spiraled downward after the comments. He was traded to Cleveland in June 2001, then went to the Rangers, where he went 2-3 last season with one save and a 6.66 ERA in 30 games. He said his season was wrecked by a shoulder/neck injury.

Ignoring doctors' advice to rest, Rocker tried to pitch through his injury and threw "five or six" innings in Puerto Rico in January, the last time he has faced batters. Rocker said it's his injury, and not his controversial past, that scared teams away from signing him.

"Pretty much all around the league from every team I've played on, I still got a really good relationship with a lot of the guys I played with," Rocker said. "The rest of the league, the GMs and the coaches, they sort of know what kind of person I am."

Now the Rays need to learn what kind of pitcher Rocker is. He will work out in St. Petersburg for the next two weeks or so, then report to Triple-A Durham. If he is called up to the Rays, he'll make the minimum $300,000. He said that time will be whenever general manager Chuck LaMar and manager Lou Piniella want him there.

"I would like to be there in like a month," Rocker said. "Everything depends on how they feel I'm progressing and whether they think I'm ready to be up there.

"I really owe a lot of thanks to Chuck LaMar and the people who make decisions in Tampa for giving me the chance. For them to step out on a limb and give me a chance ... it really means a lot. I'll work my butt off to just make those guys look good."

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