In 1999, John Rocker was a promising, left-handed closer for the Atlanta Braves. His strong play on the mound and his aggressive, outspoken interactions with opponents earned him many fans and haters.
But one Sports Illustrated article transformed Rocker from a solid pitcher to a villain in the public’s eye.
A media firestorm erupted over comments that Rocker made that were deemed “xenophobic” and culturally insensitive. The negative reaction the article generated led the young baseball phenom to be fined and suspended, and even to a Saturday Night Live skit with Will Ferrell playing an exaggerated version of Rocker.
The problem was, in Rocker’s opinion, that the reporter who wrote the piece exaggerated his words and took them out of context.
And nearly 15 years later, that very same reporter, Jeff Pearlman, has revisited the SI article that defined his career to reaffirm what he wrote and accuse Rocker of further wrongdoing.
“To say he cherry-picked and exaggerated is an overwhelming understatement,” Rocker told The Daily Caller Wednesday when discussing the article that made him a nationally-known figure.
Rocker had two interactions with Pearlman during 1999 and in contrast to the way they were portrayed in the subsequent story, the former baseball star remembers them as very cordial and there was no indication from the reporter that he had any problems with Rocker.
“It was just two guys hanging out, just riding around all day, interacting more like friends than interviewer and interviewee,” Rocker remembered about his interaction with Pearlman that became the basis of his story.
He took particular criticism for his remarks on immigrants, which Rocker felt the article shorted his views and whittled them down to a short quote to sell magazines.
“I’m a conservative guy, I love talking politics,” Rocker said. “We were discussing — he from a liberal point of view, me from a conservative point of view — on what I felt about current U.S. immigration policy, where I felt we were going, the way I feel about certain immigrants who come to this country and my feeling that the only reason they show up is seeking to take advantage of all the goodies that America has to offer. As an American citizen, that offends me on a number of different levels.”
According to Rocker, that was a 20-minute conversation and all that Pearlman got out of it was that the pitcher simply didn’t like foreigners.
“To say that John Rocker hates foreigners — that looked a lot sexier on the page and sells a hell a lot of more magazines than the full 20-minute conversation,” Rocker said. ”When this thing came out, I took great offense to it and I’ve defended myself for years and years and I’ve had many teammates of the past defend me for years and years.”
He also claimed that Pearlman only contacted him for the latest article the night before it was published, and he was given little time to give him a comment for the story.
Rocker has now dedicated most of his time to the charity group Save Homeless Veterans and writes a weekly column for World Net Daily. He wrote a book in 2011, “Rocker: Scars & Stripes,” where he discussed his baseball career and views on various political issues, including immigration.
He believes that, despite the damage the article did to his reputation, it also gave him the opportunity to continue to do charity work and lend his voice to causes that he otherwise would not have had if he had just been another baseball player.
“The notoriety and the fame that this article gave opened up more doors than it closed,” Rocker said. “There have been plenty of people that dislike because of this article, but there’s also, I would argue, just as many that love me because of this article. I only played six years in the big leagues. I can’t see any other players who played the same amount of time as me doing the things I do now.”