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Rocker Receives Standing Ovation

April 19, 2000 GMT

ATLANTA (AP) _ John Rocker returned to a standing ovation Tuesday night, pitching a scoreless ninth inning in his first game since rejoining the Atlanta Braves after a two-week suspension.

The crowd of 34,903 gave Rocker a big cheer when the reliever sprinted in from the bullpen. One fan held up a sign that read: ``Rocker for President.″

Rocker struck out the first hitter he faced, Philadelphia’s Mickey Morandini, walked the next batter and then got two flyouts.

Rocker left with the score tied at 3. When he exited after his one-inning outing, many of the fans left Turner Field, too.

The Braves eventually won 4-3 in 12 innings.

``It’s all out of the way,″ said Braves outfielder Brian Jordan, one of the reliever’s harshest critics initially. ``Rocker’s back. Hopefully, things will quiet down a little bit and we can get back to baseball.″

Perhaps hoping to avoid another misstep, Rocker continued his policy of refusing to speak to the media about the controversy.

``Beat it, media,″ he barked at reporters who surrounded his locker after the game. ``Are you deaf?″

There was hardly a hint of protest before the game, with Rocker hoping fans remember his fastball more than his comments about minorities, gays and immigrants. Overall, it seemed just like another nondescript, midweek contest game for a lot more reporters.

Rocker said he heard only one negative remark while traveling with the Braves last weekend in Milwaukee.

``It’s not a big deal,″ Rocker told TBS for an interview that aired before the game. ``I think when the team starts winning and we get the ball rolling, all that will be forgotten.″

His teammates made peace with the reliever during spring training and he had already pitched in Atlanta during an April 1 exhibition game.

``Before the season, I was thinking about this night the whole time,″ catcher Eddie Perez said. ``But once the season started, I didn’t remember anything about it until you guys brought it up.″

However, he talked with Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson for the interview with TBS, owned by the same company that owns the Braves.

Most fans arriving at the ballpark on a cool, windy night were ready to welcome the reliever back.

``There’s not one person walking who hasn’t opened his mouth and said something he regrets,″ said Sandra Seagraves, munching on a snack in the picnic area beyond the center-field stands. ``He picked the wrong time to say the wrong thing. Unfortunately, he got crucified for it.″

Her husband, Charles, added, ``I’m going to stand up and cheer like crazy when he comes in.″

But Larry Lee of New Orleans, in town for a convention, said he wouldn’t cheer for Rocker.

``Personally, I’m not going to cheer for someone who seems to be a heck of a lot more prejudiced than he’s letting on to be,″ said Lee, who is black. ``I wasn’t a big fan of him before and I’m certainly not now.″

The Braves planned to put Rocker right back into his familiar role as closer. A year ago, he had 38 saves _ one short of the franchise record _ and his absence was felt as Atlanta split its first 12 games.

The bullpen went 1-4 with a 5.14 ERA and two blown saves while Rocker was suspended. Former closer Kerry Ligtenberg, coming back from a serious elbow injury, struggled with a 10.13 ERA.

``The thing we really missed was having him in the game,″ Perez said. ``That’s what I’ve been thinking about since the season began.″

Phillies first baseman Rico Brogna wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of facing Rocker in the ninth inning.

``I’m not thinking about all that stuff that happened over the winter,″ Brogna said. ``He’s a very good pitcher. He adds another dimension to their team. He makes it that much more difficult for us.″

Some Atlanta-area civil rights groups protested at Turner Field during the offseason and urged the Braves to trade Rocker. But they decided not to picket Tuesday, saying they will probably raise the issue again when the Braves play host to the All-Star game on July 11.

General manager John Schuerholz admitted having ``serious″ trade talks concerning Rocker before the season but said those discussions ``died down.″

``I’m past all my dreaded days,″ Schuerholz said. ``It’s a baseball game. He’s a baseball player who made inappropriate, insensitive comments four months ago. Most adults are willing to let it go.″ The Braves were beginning a nine-game homestand, easing the transition for Rocker. The team’s next road trip begins April 28 in San Diego.

The harshest reactions are most likely to come in New York, where Atlanta meets the Mets in a four-game series beginning June 29.

Already, photocopied fliers have been passed out at Shea Stadium advertising ``John Rocker Battery Day″ for Atlanta’s first series in New York, where fans are still outraged by the pitcher’s infamous interview.

``Imagine having to take the 7 train to (Shea Stadium) looking like you’re (in) Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids,″ Rocker told the magazine.

He also said, ``The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. I’m not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. .... How the hell did they get into this country?″