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June 13, 2008 at 9:22 AM

Doing TV with John Rocker

I’ll have to admit, my curiosity was peaked (maybe piqued, as well) when I was asked to go on TSN’s Off The Record Show in Canada two days ago and was told one of the guests would be John Rocker. The network is the Canadian equivalent of ESPN and the show has been around forever and features four “celebrity” panelists who sit and argue about a bunch of sports topics.
Over the years, I’ve met a bunch of famous, interesting folks on the show. There have been tons of athletes from the NFL, NHL and MLB, but also people like former Los Angeles Kings owner and convicted fraudster Bruce McNall, the lead singer from Platinum Blonde, the guy who plays one of the killers from the opening scenes of A History of Violence and others. Folks you wouldn’t ordinarily run into. But I’ve got to admit, getting to meet Rocker really intrigued me. I wanted a glimpse of what he was like off the set. They have a type of “Green Room” where everyone meets before the taping, eats sandwiches and goes over how the show will play out.
Now, let’s get this out of the way. I thought Rocker would be dumb. A hick, so to speak. Yes, I know he’s been writing a political book. Big deal. Lots of dumb people write books. Plenty of athletes shoot their mouths off in public, like to think they sound intelligent when talking to reporters in a post-game question-answer format, but get them in a debate outside the stadium (taking away their security blanket and ring of protection from teammates and club officials) and they wilt. So, I wanted to see what Rocker would really be like, ask him if he’d ridden the Toronto subway that afternoon or something else that would be clever.
After meeting him, I can tell you one thing: John Rocker may be controversial, but he is no dummy.
Much as some of you may hate me saying this, I came away very impressed by the man. He’s got a wicked sense of humor (usually the first sign of intelligent life). The guy is just plain funny. He’s sharp, quick and…very important…self deprecating without forcing it. He comes across as humble and confident at the same time. I’m trying to put this into words to make you understand, but the best I can do is to say, he isn’t walking around beating himself up every day about the things he said about gays and minorities back in that Sports Illustrated article from January 2000. That said, he isn’t repeating those things, either. At least, not verbatim. He rides the New York subway when he gets back to the Big Apple, which is often.
After all he’s been through, much of it of his own doing, he seems very comfortable with who he is. And that’s rare. I’m sure it’s taken him a long time to reach this point.
Look, I don’t want to portray him as a saint. He isn’t one.

I’ve had many conversations with the author of the SI story, Jeff Pearlman, over the years (a couple of them on the New York subway, by coincidence). Pearlman is a gifted writer and a fine journalist. A controversial one, but read his Love Me, Hate Me book about Barry Bonds and you’ll know what I mean. Game of Shadows may have been the definitive smoking gun book about Bonds, but Love Me, Hate me gives greater insight into the type of person Bonds is. I’d highly recommend it.
Anyhow, Rocker likes to go around talking about how Pearlman sandbagged him during the SI interview. Says Pearlman took only a few off-the-cuff comments and wrote his entire story about them after spending hours with the ballplayer. Yeah, well, that happens. Don’t know what the beat writers in Atlanta were like at the time, but I can tell you that if I was in Pearlman’s shoes, I would not have sat on lines like those given the context of who Rocker was — a highly inflammatory figure who had already ticked off the New York populace during the 1999 playoffs.
I once got dispatched to Eric Hinske’s hometown in Wisconsin to do a feature on him when he was en route to winning AL rookie of the year honors in 2002. Spent four days there, tracing his roots, meeting his family. But I inadvertently stumbled on to the reason why he didn’t go on to being a football player, as talented a high school running back as he was in a football-driven state. Turns out, he’d been arrested for underage drinking and later, for vandalizing a rival high school. He wound up suspended both times — the latter, following a lengthy police investigation — and his team, from small-town Menasha, favored to possibly win a state title, missed the playoffs because of losses in his absence. Any whiff of Division I scholarships vanished at the time. Hinske was about to play Division III baseball until a family friend with connections intervened and got him a full-ride for baseball to the University of Arkansas at the very last minute.
I only learned of all this when a town local inadvertently made a vague reference to “the trouble” during an otherwise positive interview. Had to go digging through microfilm of the town paper at the local library to get bits and pieces of the full story. Later tracked down Hinske’s high school quarterback, who’d also been suspended for the vandalism, to get all the details. Now, at the time, unlike Pearlman, I did not make my entire Hinske story about that. Hinske had obviously overcome some setbacks in his youth, things that would have traumatized a kid in high school, no doubt. Rival fans at his high school basketball would be holding up signs in the stands with alcohol level readings to make fun of his drinking arrest. That shapes part of who a person becomes. But it was also from Hinske’s high school days. We’ve all made mistakes in high school. So, while this information helped round the story out (especially explaining why he became a baseball and not a pro football player like his older brother — something Hinske had always glossed over in prior interviews), it was not something you make an entire story about in that context. My general Hinske story was a positive one, about how a career can shift based on one or two key moments in life. It was a story befitting a guy who was about to achieve the highest honor of his sports career. The other stuff was included about halfway down. Not placed in glaring headlines. It was not a “gotcha” expose. It was in the proper context to the story being told.
Hinske’s family liked the story and even asked me for extra copies of it. But Hinske himself was furious that I’d even mentioned his past. He never got over it. Never pulled the “I’m not talking to you” stunt that some athletes like to do in post-game scrums. Always answered any question when I stood by his locker after games. But our relationship was never the same. That’s life. My career hasn’t suffered for it. His career is his business.
In Pearlman’s case, though, the context was different. He wasn’t sent out to do a story on the AL’s upcoming Rookie of the Year. He was doing a piece on a guy who was already controversial. A guy who liked to sprint to the mound from the bullpen, infuriating rival fans. And a guy who said some truly dumb things.
Having sat and listened to an unscripted Rocker the other day for just a few minutes, I can see how he got himself into trouble. He is, as I said, a funny guy. Always looking for the next one-liner. He said too many of the wrong one-liners to Pearlman and got himself in serious trouble. As I mentioned yesterday on the Rick Sutcliffe thing, you just can’t mess around when you’re saying things for public consumption. If you do, then you need some serious guidance from a professional on this matter. There’s a difference between being yourself and being the kind of yourself you would be with a close friend of 30 years, especially when a reporter is involved. I give interviews all the time and trust me, I don’t relax and let it all out. I relax to a certain extent. But I don’t joke around with reporters to the point where it could get me in trouble. You can’t. You have a responsibility to your employer and to the public at-large when you give an interview. Rocker forgot about that when he spoke to Pearlman. As smart a guy as he is, he made a mistake.
And he is smart. He is also the only person to ever get me to shut up on the Off The Record Show, which I’ve done too many times to remember. Not by threatening me, or shouting me down. By something he said. I’d just finished a monologue about how Rocker’s troubles weren’t the media’s fault (and I still believe that) and that the American public will be willing to forgive and forget just about anybody who sincerely apologizes.
At that point, he interrupted and reminded me how he had, in fact, done that to the people of New York on the giant video screen at Shea Stadium prior to his first return there after the SI story appeared. I had forgotten about that one. Have been too busy with the Mariners and did not do enough research before shooting my mouth off on-air (another big mistake you should not get in the habit of doing — here’s some more of the show, a debate about Ken Griffey Jr.). For one of the only times in my life, I did not have a comeback for that one. So, I did what anyone should do in that situation (though hopefully not on live television). I resisted the temptation to dig myself a deeper hole and conceded the point to Rocker.
Wow. That doesn’t happen very often. Never dreamed it would happen with Rocker.
But it got me thinking. Why can’t Rocker be forgiven for what he’s done? This is a society where Kobe Bryant is now a hero to millions of basketball fans despite that ugly case a few years back where he was accused of rape. Yes, I know the case was later dropped and a civil suit settled out of court. But at the very least, Bryant was guilty of having cheated on his wife. No matter. He seems to have been forgiven.
Jason Giambi took steroids. He apologized, though never really admitted out loud to having juiced (for contract reasons) and was forgiven.
Onetime Blue Jays manager Tim Johnson has never been forgiven for lying about having served in Vietnam. Johnson was fired after one 88-win season and has never managed another major league game. I was the one who wrote the story that got Johnson in trouble back in 1998. Never imagined I’d be handing his major league managerial career a death sentence. Johnson apologized. But he has never been completely forgiven. Why is that?
When Johnson eventually dies, his obituary will mention the Vietnam stuff. When Rocker eventually passes on, I have no doubt he’ll be remembered as the baseball racist over everything. Rocker is well aware of this, trust me. But he’s moved on.
Now, I’m well aware of Rocker’s pro-conservative leanings. I know he was part of a “Speak English” campaign to get foreigners to the U.S. to learn the English language. Some will say that is racist. I don’t know that I’d go that far. It is certainly controversial. But I also know it’s a view shared by millions in this country. And I also know it is not flat out the same as the things he directly said to SI all those years ago. It’s the kind of stuff Bill O’Reilly has been saying for years. And he’s got a number 1 rated show on Fox. So, I don’t know that a claim can be made that Rocker is still spouting the same things he did years ago. He has apologized for that. He has conservative leanings, yes, but what’s he supposed to do? Pretend that he doesn’t? Live his life as a lie?
There is no easy answer for this. But I’m curious to know what some of you think. Why do some guys get free lifetime passes while others spend their entire lives living down a mistake? Why can Jason Giambi still play baseball while Tim Johnson can never manage again?
I spend a lot of time thinking about this issue, given the role played by the media in all of it. You’ve heard my take. What’s yours?



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