[For this Super Bowl week, I’ll be blogging about interesting American Studies moments, texts, and issues related to the history of sports in America. This is the third in the series.]
What the three distinct and even contradictory stages of John Rocker’s public disintegration reveal about contemporary American sports and society.
As a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, I was, in the fall of 1999, a John Rocker fan as well—Rocker was the young relief pitcher with the near-100mph fastball who had blazed onto the scene during that season, helping the Braves reach the World Series in the process, and it was hard not to like the kid (despite, or perhaps even partly because of, his over-exuberant mound presence and antics). And then came the December Sports Illustrated profile piece, an article on Rocker’s extreme personality and perspective that included some of the most bigoted and disgusting quotes (about New York City, about one of Rocker’s own teammates, and more) I’ve seen outside of an anonymous internet comments thread. The article tore away any pretense that sports or America were free of old-school bigotry and hatred (such as that faced by Aaron during the home run chase) at the turn of the new millennium.
Rocker was suspended by the Braves for a good bit of the next (2000) season, but during that same period a second, very different and even contradictory set of stories and narratives about Rocker began to emerge. The stories focused in particular on his parents and home, and on their experiences taking in fellow minor leaguers of multiple races and ethnicities to live with John and his family during his time in the minors. Inspired in large part by those stories, prominent local African American leaders like Andrew Young (a Civil Rights hero and generally inspiring American) intervened on Rocker’s behalf with the media and the Braves, and helped get him both reinstated from his suspension and (to a degree) more balanced news coverage. Both the stories of Rocker’s family and the efforts of men like Young suggested new, cross-cultural communal relationships and identities in America, ones that might indeed represent changes from the kinds of divided pasts that Rocker’s comments had so echoed.
Rocker went on to a brief and undistinguished career with the Braves and a couple subsequent teams, but the real third stage of his American sports narrative has only begun unfolding. With a book on his social and political views (seriously) in the works, Rocker has begun speaking out again, and in so doing has admitted not only to using steroids in the 1999 and 2000 seasons, but to Major League Baseball having tested him and known about (and thus covered up) his steroid use. The story indicates in part that Rocker has not learned from his prior experiences the value of holding back, although I suppose this honesty is at least as self-critical as it is generally belligerent (not expecting to say the same about the forthcoming book ,but I’ll try to keep an open mind). But it also reminds baseball and sports fans that the true outrages of baseball at the turn of the 21st century were not the bigoted beliefs of individual athletes, but the widespread and dangerous deceptions in which even far more well-spoken and admirable players played an equal role.
One more sports post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
2/2 Memory Day nominee: Solomon Guggenheim, the son of Swiss immigrants and very successful businessman whose love for and relationships to the world of modern art led him both to contribute to the creation of some of the 20th century’s most innovative museums and to start a hugely influential and ongoing foundation for art and education.