From reflections on his career as a left-handed pitcher to his right-wing political thoughts, Rocker remains candid as ever, and it’s all there in his book, “Scars and Strikes,” published last December. It’s as much a memoir about accomplishing his childhood aspirations of playing professional baseball as it is a litany of Rocker’s thoughts on topics like immigration, media bias and free speech.
The book is “90 percent” by Rocker, but he was helped by co-author J. Marshall Craig, a self-described liberal immigrant from Canada with no interest in sports, who said it was a pleasure working alongside Rocker.
Rocker, who moved to his current home in Sandy Springs six months ago, also began a weekly column at the conservative website WorldNetDaily in June.
“There are no real misconceptions about me,” he said. “I pretty much wear everything on my sleeve. I’m not trying to hide anything or pull any punches or make people think I’m something I’m not.”
Rocker’s not one for staying idle, either. He’s been busy in real estate development since his retirement from baseball in 2005 and is transitioning into real estate-owned asset acquisition and liquidation. In September, he’ll join wrestler Rocky King and comedian Jeff Foxworthy for Bodyslam Homelessness in Hapeville, where he will wrestle at a canned food drive for homeless veterans. This winter, he will join former Brave Otis Nixon and be a motivational speaker at economic empowerment seminars run by Ryan Mack, a former Wall Street investor.
As assured as he is in words and deeds now, in “Scars and Strikes,” Rocker discussed battles with self-doubt and injury to rise to become a star closer for the Braves during their glory days in the ’90s.
“I just wanted to write a book to motivate not only adolescents but motivate pretty much anyone that reads it that if [you’ve] got a dream, you only live once, life comes and goes in a breath, and you need to get out there and pursue your dreams,” he said. “Failure is not the worst thing in life. The worst thing in life is never trying.”
Rocker’s best season came in Atlanta’s last World Series appearance in 1999. With a fastball capable of exceeding 100 miles per hour and effective breaking pitches, he saved 38 games and struck out 104 batters in 72.1 innings. His sprints to the mound delighted Turner Field crowds who knew they had a warrior getting the last three outs.
“When Atlanta’s fighting for a pennant year in and year out, you weren’t afforded a day off,” Rocker said. “You had to be sharp and be on every day and a lot of that was just your mental approach, and my mental approach was attack mode, constantly. There never could be any letdowns, never be any lethargy.”
Rocker saved his best for the postseason. In 20.2 career playoff innings, he struck out 26 batters and didn’t surrender a single earned run.
While the Braves were swept in the World Series by the Yankees in 1999, they did beat the other New York team, the Mets, to get there, in six games in the National League Championship Series. They were his favorite squad to face.
“[John] Olerud and [Robin] Ventura and [Bobby] Bonilla were on that team,” he said. “They had some swingers. We just matched up well against them and I really liked to play against those guys.”
Their fans also became his biggest enemies after a story by then-Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman, printed in December 1999, included comments by Rocker portraying him as highly intolerant and xenophobic. He was lambasted nationally as a bigot and suspended for 14 days by Commissioner Bud Selig.
Rocker contended then and now that his remarks were taken out of context, and he addressed the infamous interview in the book.
“That whole quote that gets replayed time and time again, that I hate foreigners supposedly, there’s an entire chapter [in my book] on immigration,” Rocker said. “That quote came from a 25-to 30-minute conversation on immigration policy and things like that, to which Pearlman crudely reduced to, ‘I hate foreigners.’”
Added Craig: "Now he’s got this image, and it’s never going to go away, but that’s why I [helped] write the book. I wanted to give him a voice, because I thought he got burned. He did set himself up. He admits that. He admits that in the book, but he’s not a bad person. He’s a very, very kind man."
Craig said he lost friends who were appalled he would help give a voice to the pitcher. In print, Craig said, Rocker's quotes got lost in translation.
"Had that been a TV interview, John never would have been a pariah," Craig said. "People would’ve gotten it. He’s messing with people. He’s trying to get a rise out of people."
In his book, Rocker wrote of his admiration for immigrants who succeed, as well as his insistence that they show respect for the host country and speak English as a first language. When he played in Puerto Rico and Venezuela in winter ball during his pro career, Rocker said he made an effort to speak Spanish.
After the firestorm surrounding the interview, Rocker, who’s admitted he used steroids during his career, remained an effective reliever with the Braves, finishing with 83 saves. But he had an ERA of 6.00 during uneven stints with the Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays from 2001 to 2003.
After surgery on a torn rotator cuff in 2003, Rocker didn’t pitch in the majors again. His comeback attempt in 2005 with the Long Island Ducks, a minor league team not affiliated with Major League Baseball, was a wash, and he ended his major league career with 88 saves and an ERA of 3.42.
“I’d have loved to win a World Series,” he said. “I always wanted to be able to retire on my own terms. I didn’t want to be forced out of the game by any injury or anything like that.”
Nowadays, he still keeps in touch with plenty of former Braves like Nixon, Ryan Klesko and Brad Clontz, and he especially likes watching reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds flamethrower Aroldis Chapman on the mound.
He’s grateful for his career, topsy-turvy as it was in its six seasons.
And tough as it was getting his book finished, he said it was worth it.
“Absolute undertaking right there,” he said. “But once it’s all said and one, you’re finished with it and you actually go to your post office box and there’s your big first box of books that were sent to you from friends and family, it’s pretty rewarding.”