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The People vs. Rocker will be in session a while

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2000

DISNEY WORLD -- Mickey, Goofy, Minnie, Donald and Pluto were joined by Dummy.

John Rocker, costumed in blue Braves jersey, toting heavy if invisible baggage, came meekly from the shadows of shame Thursday.

For 30 minutes, behind guarded locker room doors, the Sultan of Slur held a peace summit with Atlanta teammates.

Word was, Rocker gasped to harness tears. His voice breaking, there was a mass apology for the relief pitcher's bigoted outburst. John's ultimate plea: "Please, guys, let me play."

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox spoke briefly. So did Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Brian Jordan, Reggie Sanders and Terry Mulholland.

Randall Simon, a first baseman from Curacao who says he was the "fat monkey" in Rocker rantings, received a more personal apology.

"He looked me in the face," Simon said. "I believe he regrets what he said. Everybody makes mistakes. We all are trying hard to understand."

Ned Yost, a coach, flared with anger during the Rocker powwow. He asked No. 49 how he felt at making lurid, degrading comments printed in Sports Illustrated.

Jordan has been among Rocker's most bareknuckled critics. "He's got a long road ahead," said the outfielder who once played pro football for the Atlanta Falcons.

"John must deal with this in every city, with every fan and player and media. The hard part is just beginning for John Rocker."

Soon, his emotions harnessed, Rocker left his uniformed associates to go elsewhere in the Wide World of Sports complex.

In an arena, the ballplayer faced 22 television crews, 100 reporters, a beehive of tape recorders and a flock of still cameras.

He read an apology.

Questions were obvious.

Rocker, his First Amendment rights being defended by many, plunged into Fifth Amendment territory, refusing to answer media queries on grounds that such testimony might tend to further demolish him.

Wise, perhaps.

At the shank of Rocker's 400-word blurb: "No further comment on this matter." With that, the 25-year-old athlete turned his No. 49 backside and departed. Some of his script did reverberate.

"Have hurt people."
"Owe an apology."
"Not a racist."
"Poor example."
"Redeem myself."

Five minutes later, Rocker was in the Florida sunshine, playing catch with fellow reliever Rudy Seanez. Trying to blend into the spring scenery. Clicking cameras and probing eyes followed him everywhere.

We now know the price for ugly, prejudiced, boneheaded baseball blabbery. It'll cost Rocker $500, plus a 14-day work release program at a minimum-security facility called Disney World.

As surely as Marty McSorley planted a mean, disgusting hockey stick on the head of Donald Brashear, the Rocker off-season oratory was a sickening, blind-side slam whack to the skull and heart of Major League Baseball.

Once a softie arbitrator, Shyam Das, opted to maxi-shrink Rocker's official penalty, in effect the case was thrown into People's Court. Jordan is right. This will be the real trial. There is continuance, through baseball's summer. Venues to include not only ballparks across America but every locale where Dummy goes.

We are, of course, a forgiving nation. If, in Philly and Chicago and St. Louis and even New York, the young man exudes a now-scrubbed, now-equitable mentality, the trial could ease by July or August.

He's allowed no loss of patience. No strike-backs. Rocker should wear ear plugs. He can't lose it in Wrigley or Shea and flip birds at vocal spectators. This incident won't die, but it can subside. I can become convinced to quit calling him Dummy.

He deserves a chance.

Opportunity to convince.

Public majorities are likely to bellow support for Rocker. Every poll suggests so. USA Today asked citizens to vote on the Das ruling. Sixty-four percent saw the jock's punishment as too severe.

Thursday, as No. 49 and other Braves stretched muscles, I asked 10 grandstand patrons at Disney, "Do you think Rocker has been treated too harshly?" Eight said yes. Six blamed the media.

When the workout ended, Rocker stopped for 10 minutes to sign autographs. "We still love you, John," shouted a woman. "First Amendment," said a guy. Nobody mentioned the Fifth Amendment. Braves general manager John Schuerholz was asked if extra security has been ordered due to the Rocker factor. "Nothing I know of," he said.

I'm guessing that will change. Needs are almost sure to arise. It would be idiotic for the Braves and Major League Baseball to not react with proper care. Not just to protect Rocker but all those around him.

We guard royalty, presidents, popes and entertainers, shielding them against threatening acts. Until the need is obviously no longer apparent, there is reason for security, not only in stadiums but in hotels, at airports, in restaurants and on streets.

Be safe, not sorry.

Even if a public majority gives No. 49 thumbs up, there are many who disapprove of what is evolving with the Rocker case.

Atlanta's population is more minority than white. Civil rights spokespersons are begging for the Braves to trade Rocker.

His reception at Turner Field will be intriguing. It will be June before the Braves make it to New York, the area of heaviest Rocker demeaning.

Among all the bad-boy cases in sports, this is unique. Unlike all the brushes with drugs, murder, abuse and deceit.

I'm for allowing it to simmer, then fade. Who needs it? I'm tired of the smell. I'd sooner whiff hot dogs and popcorn.

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