- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

NEW YORK John Rocker and New York collided Thursday night, and the city is still standing.
So is John Rocker much to the relief of the Atlanta Braves and the hundreds of New York city police that turned Shea Stadium into a military compound.
Four hours before the game began, more than 500 police officers gathered in the parking lots at Shea some on horseback, some on bicycles, all there for the express purpose of protecting Rocker from the city he had incited. He did so first by confronting fans during last year's playoff series between the Braves and the New York Mets and later with his controversial comments about New Yorkers in a December Sports Illustrated interview.
But it all turned out to be anti-climatic as a crowd of 46,998 about 10,000 short of a sellout watched the Braves defeat the Mets 6-4 without death or dismemberment.
The crowd remained relatively subdued, cheering only when the Mets scored in the bottom of the third and the sixth innings. But the bullpen door opened in the bottom of the eighth at about 9:59 p.m., and a roar went up when Rocker came charging out.
Several objects were thrown from the stands on the field as Rocker ran toward the mound, none hitting anyone. The crowd directed obscene chants at Rocker as he warmed up, then stood and roared every time he threw a ball to the first batter, Robin Ventura.
After being down in the count 3-1, Rocker came back to strike out Ventura and quiet the crowd. He kept it quiet by getting Todd Zeile and Jay Payton on ground balls to end the inning.
The fans stood and booed loudly as Rocker walked off the mound toward the dugout, and about a half-dozen police officers ran onto the field. Rocker just walked into the dugout without making any of the gestures he made toward the crowd during last year's playoff games at Shea.
That was his only inning as Kerry Ligtenberg came on to pitch the bottom of the ninth for the Braves.
Braves starting pitcher John Burkett said they were relieved to have the game over, and hopes the Rocker controversy that has engulfed the team is over as well.
"I thought the crowd was well-behaved and I thought John handled himself real well," Burkett said. "We sure hope it is over, but you never know."
Team president Stan Kasten noted that the game itself the Mets were just two games behind the Braves in the National League East before Thursday night's game presented enough drama without the furor over Rocker.
"It was just a baseball game, a good baseball game," he said. "That was the story tonight, and thank goodness for that."
Rocker did his best to defuse the situation before the game by meeting with reporters about 45 minutes. He didn't answer questions but read a prepared statement similar to what he said during spring training, after he returned from his two-week suspension.
"I would like to say that I am happy to be back in New York, believe it or not," Rocker said. "I've been involved in some great games and always seem to pitch well here. Unfortunately, this situation has continued to escalate about my presumed hatred for the people of New York. The comments I made over six months ago offended many people. I am fully aware of this, and for that I sincerely apologize."
This was Rocker's first time back in the city since that interview when he said, among other things, that the thing he didn't like most about New York "are the foreigners… . You can walk an entire city block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. How the hell did they get into this country?"
They were speaking a lot of English about Rocker in the city Thursday, as his day of reckoning began with the sports talk shows filled with diatribes against Rocker and the tabloids weighing in on the controversial relief pitcher's arrival.
The New York Post back page read, "Johnny Rotten," while the Daily News front page declared, "Rocker Wimps Out," referring to his abandoning plans to ride the No. 7 subway line to Shea Stadium that he made so famous in his SI interview. ("Imagine having to take the 7 train to looking like you're [in] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing.")
In an interview last week with USA Baseball Weekly, Rocker said he was going to ride the train to Shea Thursday night. But pressure from city officials and Major League Baseball forced him to change his mind. Rocker arrived at Shea Stadium Thursday about 4:30 p.m. in a unmarked police van.
Shea had already been turned into an armed fortress by then. A large unit of police officers marched from one end of the parking lot to the stadium to get their security orders for the night.
The police presence more than overwhelmed the fan presence outside the stadium before the game. A small group gathered near the subway stop, and others waited for the Braves to arrive outside the press gate, which more than 350 reporters passed through to cover the event.
One of the fans stood out because he was wearing a Rocker jersey. Don Wugman, 24, of New City, N.J., said he was a Braves fan and would not back down from flying his colors despite being in such hostile territory.
"I support all the Braves, no matter who they are," he said. "I'm not afraid to wear this jersey."
Rocker had another fan in 34-year-old Chuck Borhorst, also from New City, who not only defended Rocker's right to free speech but also what he said.
"What did he do that was so bad? Basketball players spit at kids, Dennis Rodman kicks a cameraman, but all Rocker did was tell the truth," Borhorst said.
But the Rocker backers were widely outnumbered by his detractors, many of whom, like Aaron Napolitano, 20, of Holmes, N.Y., were wearing anti-Rocker T-shirts.
The Mets put black fencing around the stands near the Braves' bullpen, and the seating area for the players was covered by plywood and canvas. Fans were not allowed within several rows of the Atlanta dugout during pregame warmups.
When Rocker did emerge from a tunnel for the short walk to the bullpen, some fans booed, and continued to do so while he was in the bullpen. At one point, Rocker went over to the stands followed by police, and signed some autographs.
The fans saved much of their venom for former Mets outfielder Bobby Bonilla, now with the Braves, and Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones, who had some harsh words about New York fans during a Mets-Braves series last season.

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