ST. PETERSBURG - The easy thing would have been to boo.
The safe thing would have been to stand in the aisles, cup the hands around the mouths and, by golly, let John Rocker have it.
The acceptable thing would have been to blister his eardrums, to remind him of a thousand days passed, to let him know that we, too, are intolerant of intolerance.
Somewhere else, they would have jeered every step toward the mound and cursed every pitch toward the plate. And why not? This is Rocker. This is the pariah.
Yet, as Rocker cocked himself in that corkscrew motion of his and threw major-league pitches again, the most amazing, most unexpected sound of them all came rumbling from the stands.
They were cheering.
They were chanting.
Who knows? Maybe it's about time.
Once upon a time, Rocker said some things that were incredibly, indescribably stupid. Maybe you heard about it. He made statements that were insulting, statements that were indecent and statements that were indefensible. There is no defense, then or now, for his comments.
On the other hand, when is his debt paid?
What is the sentence for saying something stupid? Life? How long must someone pay for his insults? Eternity?
When, exactly, does Rocker get to face the parole board?
It's interesting. Rocker could have bet on the game, and fans would have forgiven him. He could have shoved cocaine into his face by the brick, and drank alcohol by the drum and tried to choke his manager, and he would be accepted back into the fold. He could have divided his time between jail and rehab, and a job would have been waiting.
"If I had robbed a bank, it would be over by now," Rocker said, laughing softly. "I'd be back, and people would have forgotten."
Instead, Rocker talked.
And the statute of limitations still has not expired.
Even now, the words hang over Rocker like the word balloon in a comic book. They have come to define him, to haunt him. Quite possibly, they have contributed to the derailing of a career.
Again. How much is enough?
"We've all said some things we'd like to forget," Rays manager Lou Piniella said. "In this country, we're supposed to forgive and forget. If he's regretful, and he has been, then we should move on."
But how do you unsay insults? How do you get the tarnish off your name?
Are all the boos punishment enough? All the catcalls? All the whispers and turned heads and jokes? The lost wages and the shredded reputation?
As for the rest of us, how do you forgive someone for saying the wrong thing, for thinking the wrong way? And if you do, can you do it without endorsing what he said to begin with?
"If you want to wipe the slate clean and judge him on how he's conducted himself," general manager Chuck LaMar said, "how he's handled the media, his fans, his teammates, from the time we signed him, he deserves the opportunity. If you're still judging him on what he said years ago, he would never be ready."
No one, not even Rocker, can judge how much of his career has been affected by what he said. The scrutiny, the scorn, the controversy could not have helped. There are those in baseball who will suggest Rocker tried to prove too hard he was tough enough to withstand the swirl. Others will say he rushed getting back from his injury because of it.
Regardless, he has not been the same pitcher. In a game of three outs, Rocker is on his fourth team. His reputation has been shredded. His salary, which was $2.5-million last season, is down to $300,000.
Three years ago, Rocker seemed to be on the verge of a great career. During four seasons as a closer for the Braves, he struck out 11.82 batters every nine innings, the fourth-best ratio in history. He was a flamethrower then, with a persona as nasty as his stuff.
Then Sports Illustrated came to town to do a piece on this over-the-edge reliever. Rocker gave them over the edge, all right. He talked his career off a cliff.
Since then, he has been something other than a baseball player. He has been a villain, an outcast, a racist, a cancer, a target. There is a Web site, baseballhumor.com, that has jokes about Rocker in 12 different categories. Yes, Rocker has had defenders, but some of them are scarier than the detractors.
Some things are more forgiveable than others, it appears. And so it is with Rocker. It is easier to keep the label on him, safer, more convenient. Keep the jokes coming. And, for goodness' sake, keep the tape recorders running.
If you need a bit of perspective, ask Al Martin, the Rays outfielder. Once, Martin said something he regrets, too. He told a reporter he had played running back for USC, which was untrue.
"None of us are perfect," Martin said, sighing. "We say stupid things. We do stupid things. It doesn't mean you're a bad guy. It means you're human. I know that more than most people."
If the crowd Friday night was any indication, perhaps people are finally ready to let Rocker's past rest. He had moderate cheers as he came in, mixed boos when he was announced. But as he worked two full counts to Bobby Higginson and Dimitri Young, the crowd awakened. A place that never chants the names of ballplayers was chanting his, over and over.
And there it was, Rocker's reputation. It was impossible not to wonder what the fans were cheering. Were they cheering second chances? Were they cheering a close game? Or were they somehow endorsing what he said?
Personally, I'd like to think they were pulling for someone trying to outdistance his mistakes, and haven't we all made them? I'd like to think they were rooting for a fresh start.
Late Friday, the two of us stood in a corner of the dressing room and talked, about his pitching, about his potential, about his past. For what it matters, Rocker seemed open, aware, eager for a fresh canvas. It isn't much to judge a man on; still, neither is one paragraph spoken years ago.