Rocker Demoted To Minor Leagues

Tuesday, June 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) — John Rocker couldn't control his mouth, and he didn't fare much better with his pitches.

Now, he'll get a chance to work on both in the minor leagues.

The Atlanta Braves banished their top reliever to Triple-A Richmond on Monday, essentially using one move to address two problems: Rocker, the wild thing on the mound; Rocker, the wild man away from the field.

No one knows when — or even if — the pitcher who throws nearly 100 mph and saved 38 games a year ago will ever wear an Atlanta uniform again. Rocker has three days to report to Richmond and must remain there for at least 10 days no matter how well he pitches.

``What John does in Triple-A, only time will tell,'' Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said Monday night after a 9-3 loss to Toronto. ``He has to let all this other stuff go. Unless he goes out and concentrates on his job, he's probably down there to stay.''

Already struggling with his control, Rocker was demoted to the minors just one day after he threatened the reporter who wrote the story about Rocker's offensive views on foreigners, gays and minorities.

The pitcher apologized to his teammates and vowed to tone down his antics. But after serving a two-week suspension at the beginning of the season, he continued to spar with heckling fans and had a testy relationship with the media.

``He told us in spring training he was going to change,'' injured catcher Eddie Perez said. ``But he didn't change a thing. Maybe he can go down there and change.''

Braves officials said the move had been under discussion for nearly a week as a way of addressing Rocker's control problems: 25 walks in 18 1-3 innings. But Sunday's confrontation with Sports Illustrated reporter Jeff Pearlman made the decision a no-brainer.

``He made the decision himself when he went after the SI guy,'' said outfielder Brian Jordan, who has referred to Rocker as a ``cancer.''

Pearlman said Rocker made threatening comments such as, ``This isn't over between us,'' and, ``Do you know what I can do to you?''

Rocker, 25, was fined ``a substantial amount'' for threatening Pearlman, according to manager Bobby Cox. A baseball source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the fine was $5,000.

Cox said the Braves planned to demote Rocker last week but couldn't because of an injury to reliever Greg McMichael. The Braves insisted the demotion had nothing to do with Sunday's incident.

``This is something that's been brewing for a while,'' he said. ``We've been bailing him out. It couldn't go on like that forever. He's taxing the rest of the bullpen.''

Commissioner Bud Selig said he was saddened by Rocker's latest problems, but ``satisfied that the Braves have moved expeditiously and have treated the matter with the seriousness it deserves.''

Rocker, who has 10 saves and a 3.93 ERA, told the Braves he would have to talk to his agent before reporting to the minors. He cleaned out his locker and left the stadium without talking to reporters.

The demotion has the potential to cost Rocker millions if he remains in the minor leagues for 20 days or more.

Rocker, who is making $290,00 this year, was on track to become eligible for salary arbitration next winter. If he stays in the minors less than 20 days, he probably would get $3 million or more in arbitration instead of the $300,000 to $400,000 he would receive if Atlanta can unilaterally determine his salary.

Rocker was given the news about the minors when he arrived at Turner Field for the game against the Toronto Blue Jays. He was clearly surprised.

``He thinks he's pitching good,'' said Cox, who grew more and more exasperated at Rocker's inconsistency.

The Braves often had to get another pitcher throwing in the bullpen as Rocker struggled to throw strikes. Three times he had to be pulled in the ninth inning. He lost another game on a balk. Last Saturday against the Yankees, he nearly squandered a four-run lead when Shane Spencer's attempt for a tying grand slam was caught at the edge of the wall. The following day, he gave up two hits and committed a balk before pitching out of trouble.

``When John is going good, he makes us a better ballclub,'' starting pitcher Kevin Millwood said. ``But he's not the same John Rocker as last year.''

The Braves, already shorthanded in the bullpen with injuries to McMichael and Kevin McGlinchy, will use Rudy Seanez and Mike Remlinger to close games. The Braves also have Kerry Ligtenberg, who had 30 saves in 1998, but missed all of last season after elbow surgery.

Jason Marquis, 21, was called up from Double-A Greenville to replace Rocker.

The Braves travel to New York for the first time this season on June 29 for a series against the Mets. General manager John Schuerholz said the New York trip would not influence the decision on when to bring back Rocker.

``If he gets people out, he'll be back up here,'' he said.

But in New York, Mets reliever Turk Wendell said he didn't expect to see Rocker at Shea Stadium anytime soon.

``The Braves are a first-class organization, a classy organization,'' Wendell said. ``He hasn't handled himself in a first-class manner in any way, shape or form. Before, he could get away with it because he was pitching well. Now, he can't.''

At Turner Field, where Rocker was given a standing ovation every time he pitched, some fans even seemed tired of his antics.

``I'm glad he's gone,'' Barry Blair said. ``A professional athlete should be able to conduct himself in a professional manner.''

``He's got to deal with some consequences here,'' Creighton Kelly added. ``The Braves have done all they can to let him work his way out of this. He needs to have some discipline.''