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Shea What? Rocker Perfect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Shea Stadium parking lot hours before the first pitch Thursday night resembled a scene from “Police Academy” as hundreds of officers awaited deployment.

On the grass around the batting cage, dozens of reporters aimlessly rubbed shoulders while a battery of photographers stood poised near the dugout tunnel, from which Brian Jordan emerged, elbowed his way through the cameras, shook his head and asked: “Is this the World Series already?”

The Atlanta Braves, who generally know a World Series when they see one, experienced an illusion Thursday night.

The media horde and heightened security merely marked the Shea return of Atlanta reliever John Rocker for the first time since he ridiculed a large segment of the city, including gays, foreigners and minorities, in a December article in Sports Illustrated.

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A marked man who has been surrounded by police since his arrival with the Braves in New York late Wednesday night, Rocker would read another apology before the game but having nothing to apologize for after it.

He silenced the resounding boos and derisive chants of a crowd of 46,998 by pitching a flawless eighth inning to help preserve a 6-4 victory over the New York Mets in the opener of a four-game series that seems almost incidental to Rocker’s return.

Some paper cups and other items were thrown at the loathed left-hander as he sprinted from the sanctuary of the newly enclosed visitor’s bullpen (Rocker’s Roost?), but he experienced a much ruder reception at Dodger Stadium in May.

Of course, there were some 600 police officers at Shea, roughly two for every member of the media, which filled the cramped clubhouse after the game only to be told Rocker wouldn’t be talking.

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Third baseman Chipper Jones did, saying Rocker and the Braves may have “exorcised some demons” by getting through their reliever’s long-anticipated appearance here without incident, winning the game while getting a boost from Rocker in the process.

“They say you have to face your fears,” Jones said. “We’ve been kind of dreading this series and now we’re glad it’s here. We’ve been living with this for seven months, but I think that after this series, for the most part, it will be behind us. We want to build on tonight’s win and get out of here alive.”

Rocker struck out Robin Ventura and got Todd Zeile and Jay Payton on infield grounders, walking calmly to the dugout as the box-seat zealots hooted and waved at him.

Kerry Ligtenberg pitched a perfect ninth to help extend the Braves’ lead over New York to three games in the National League East. Worse for the Mets, starter Rick Reed suffered a fractured left wrist when he deflected Andruw Jones’ line drive in the third inning and will go on the disabled list today, a costly loss.

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The Braves, meanwhile, got five solid innings from John Burkett as a replacement for Greg Maddux, sidelined because of flu, and Andres Galarraga continued his remarkable comeback from bone cancer with a three-run homer and run-scoring triple. Mike Piazza drove in two runs and singled twice for the Mets, extending his hitting streak to 17 games.

Piazza also has driven in at least one run in the last 12 games, the longest RBI streak in the NL since Rip Collins of the St. Louis Cardinals also had a 12-game streak in 1935.

The Mets expect sellout crowds for the final three games of the series, and Rocker can be expected to pitch again. He has definitely shown an ability to handle the pressure of New York, having now struck out 14 in his last 10 2/3 shutout innings here, including the playoffs against the Mets and World Series against the Yankees last October.

For his ballyhooed return, Rocker acceded to the wishes of baseball and security officials and traveled from Manhattan to the stadium in Queens in an unmarked police van rather than on the No. 7 train, as he recently said he would--the subway line he compared to traveling through Beirut in the Sports Illustrated article.

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“I think he wanted to ride the train as a way of apologizing,” said Gene Orza, associate general counsel of the players union. “I think he wanted to say to the people of New York, ‘OK, I’ll ride the train and we’ll have some fun with it,’ but when he realized that there would be no one on it except for police, it wasn’t going to be the fun experience he envisioned.”

Instead, Rocker delivered another apology at Shea before the game, showing a bit more warmth while saying he never intended any malice in his magazine comments, that he is not an evil person, that he hopes the attention can be put back on his team because his own “thoughts, opinions and attitudes are of little importance,” the media having “overestimated my significance.”

The apology, read in the interview room, was replayed on the left-field screen before the first pitch but drew only boos from unsympathetic fans, many of whom had held up the anticipated array of redneck and “dumb and dumber” signs with Rocker’s name and portrait on them as Rocker shagged balls during batting practice.

Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox, however, said he felt this apology--allegedly written by Rocker in his hotel room at about 2 a.m. Thursday--was his most sincere, and Jones said: “It sounded like it came more from him than somebody else.”

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Rocker, of course, has been isolated in the Atlanta clubhouse by teammates disturbed by the distraction and potential danger he has created with his comments.

Jordan, who has described Rocker as a cancer, said he didn’t hear his latest apology but noted that with so many of the Atlanta relievers sidelined by injury “we need him if we’re going to win. He came in tonight and did his job, and that’s all we can ask of him.”

Except, perhaps, to adhere to his own words in his apology and keep his insignificant thoughts, opinions and attitudes to himself.


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