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KKK Investments. Good morning. Can I interest you in fifty shares of Stars and Bars Flag and Pennant? No? Then how about Foreigner Detection Systems? If your mailman has relatives in Peru, or that fat monkey of a woman sitting next to you on the bus is from the former Yugoslavia, this new technology will let you know about it quicker'n I used to get my heater to the plate. Still not interested? Lemme tell you about this IPO for a personal aeresol repellent. It's called Gay-Away, and...
John Rocker, the Atlanta Braves' star relief pitcher and designated pain in the ass, told the world last week that he doesn't need baseball anymore. He would just as soon take a new job -- as, say, a stockbroker -- as put up with the ration of unfair bleeding-heart crap that's come his way in the last six months. Quoth the Rockhead: "There's something to be said for a job that's not just a complete headache."
Well, exactly. The fact of the matter is that Rocker's current job has become a complete headache -- not just for him, but for his beleaguered Braves teammates, for half the population of Atlanta and for baseball fans everywhere who don't care to see the game besmirched by a 25-year-old who makes Ty Cobb sound like the head of the NAACP. This lunkhead's had his shot in baseball. And blown his chances for redemption. Now it's time for him to do something else for a living -- if not selling stocks, then maybe beating up inmates at the state pen, or working in sheets and hoods at the local department store. Even teammate Brian Jordan, who held his tongue and his temper for six months after Rocker let fly with his infamous Sports Illustrated diatribe ripping foreigners, gays and minorities, has finally had his fill of the loudmouthed left-hander. "You've got one guy being a cancer time and time again," Jordan said. "Eventually, it's going to have an effect on the team."
The last straw came on June 4, when the testy 6-4, 225-pound pitcher happened upon Jeff Pearlman, the SI reporter he blames for all of his woes. Instead of ignoring him, Rocker got in the writer's face. "This is not over between us," he shouted. "Do you have any idea what I can do to you?"
The better question might have been what Rocker was doing to himself. And to the Braves. One day after that outburst, Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz fined the pitcher $5,000 and demoted him to Richmond, the club's Triple-A farm club, so that he could work on his "control." That, too, has a brilliant exactitude. This year, the guy whom taunters call the Ku Klux Kloser has ten saves in eleven chances and a respectable 3.93 ERA, but he's given up 25 walks in only 18 innings of work. Still, his real control problem is with his mouth. And his mind. Even those First Amendment champs who staunchly defend Rocker's right to rant on about New York teenage mothers, Russians, prison convicts, minorities and kids with purple hair or to call a black teammate "a fat monkey" cannot defend his physical threats to the reporter. Or the damage he is doing to the winningest team in baseball.
When Rocker was sent down to Richmond, reporters asked MVP third baseman Chipper Jones if he'd said anything to the pitcher before he left. "I didn't talk to him when he was here," Jones scoffed. "Why should I talk to him when he leaves?" Mild-mannered Tom Glavine, a stalwart of the Braves' peerless pitching staff, said: "Sooner or later, he's got to look in the mirror and take responsibility for his actions. Everything that's happened has been a direct result of something he's said or done."
For his part, Rocker had nothing upbeat to say about his trip to the minors: "I got a pretty raw deal of raw deals this time." Stockbroker? Maybe. English teacher? Unlikely.
By league rule, the pitcher must spend at least ten days at Richmond working on his "control," but some Atlanta teammates believe he'll be gone much longer. Certainly, it's unlikely that the team cancer will be back by June 29, when the Braves begin a four-game set at New York's Shea Stadium, where Rocker ignited a running feud with Mets fans during last October's playoff series. Some boisterous New Yorkers had threatened to make Rocker's return a living hell, and neither team was looking forward to that. The Braves would probably like to tomahawk-chop him right out of the organization, but no other club seems interested in a trade.
Meanwhile, everyone knows who's league leader in ERA -- Egregious Redneck Appeal. After the SI story ran, baseball officials fined Rocker $20,000 (later reduced to $500), suspended him for 28 days (later reduced to fourteen) and ordered him to undergo psychological testing and sensitivity training. Everyone from Braves executive Henry Aaron to presidential candidates Al Gore and Bill Bradley criticized him. Even the rock band Twisted Sister took a shot, asking the Braves to stop playing their song "I Wanna Rock" when Rocker came into games.
But the big guy's supporters continue to have their say, too. At spring training in Florida and at Turner Field home games, he got standing ovations from Braves fans (thank God Jane Fonda wasn't still in the $40 seats), and a Web site called rockersucks.com has become the forum for a superheated virtual debate between supporters and detractors. Rocker told Pearlman he'd never play in New York because he might have to ride a subway train "next to some queer with AIDS," but some of the Internet exchanges are scarcely more enlightened. As for the troubled pitcher, he not only remains combative, but seems genuinely baffled by all the fuss. "I never really thought somebody would take a backwoods ballplayer from South Georgia so seriously," he declared in the midst of his halfhearted apology in January.
Signs are also evident that the pitcher is wound tighter than the game's new home-run ball. "I don't think I can keep up this frantic pace," Rocker said a few months ago. "Hopefully I won't be living this way in my late twenties, or I'll be a wreck. If I don't calm down, I'll probably die young. Which might not be a bad thing."
But first, that job search. Maybe Bobby Knight is looking for an assistant.
Much of the time, a top shuffleboard player's toughest opponents are booze and sleeplessness. This demanding and beautiful late-night game, in which players hand-slide chrome weights along a length of polished wood sprinkled with slick dust, has inhabited smoky barrooms from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma to Oregon since the 1930s. But it has never quite gotten its due. Certainly, pool outranks it in the popular imagination, thanks to movie heroes like Fast Eddie Felsen and Minnesota Fats. But for pure renegade energy and outlaw defiance, shuffleboard players are hard to beat. Like cowboys, bikers and bank robbers, they go their own way. Always have. Always will.
George Ostrum has played shuffleboard at the highest level -- which is to say, on the hustle and for tournament stakes -- for more than two decades. What's more, he has inspired in scores of new players an appreciation and a love for a game that has always lived in the shadows. So on Saturday, when Ostrum ("Gentleman George" to his friends) became the second player inducted into the Colorado chapter of the Shuffleboard Hall of Fame, the tribe was uncommonly happy. The scene was Arvada's Balloon Inn, a local shuffleboard mecca, on night two of the second annual Bill English Memorial Open Doubles Tournament. The ceremony was a surprise, attended by top U.S. players from ten states.
"I had no idea," said the slim, silver-haired former basketball player. "It meant a helluva lot to me. Mostly, it meant I had the respect of my peers. I've played this game for forty years, and I can still play with anybody. But this is the greatest moment of my life."
At age sixty, Ostrum is grateful to have a life. He has spent much of the last three years in hospitals and on crutches, and for a spell he vanished into Denver's mean streets. It was a steep fall for a guy who had played on Colorado State's NIT-invited basketball teams of 1960 and 1961 and who was once -- for a couple of weeks, anyway -- a member of the Denver Rockets of the old American Basketball Association. Luckily, loyal friends in the shuffleboard fraternity pulled Gentleman George back from the brink. His life and his game are now on the mend.
"He taught me how to play and how to win," said his current doubles partner, a world-class daredevil named Rick Boyer. "I been winnin' ever since." But that first lesson was expensive. The night in 1978 when Boyer met first met and played against Ostrum, in Denver's Candlelight Lounge, Gentleman George took him for a cool $260.
The day will come, said Shuffleboard Hall of Fame founder Glen Davidson, when Ostrum will join legendary road hustlers like Bob Miles, Porter White and Granville Humphrey in the national chapter: "He was a trailblazer, a pioneer. George is still a great player. Even though he likes to party. Like the rest of us. In bars."
After three nights and two days at the Balloon Inn, a shuffleboard marathon awash in beer and whiskey and interrupted only by catnaps, cigarettes and the occasional slice of cold pizza, Ostrum and Boyer finished third among the tournament's sixteen teams. "I love George," one opponent allowed, "but I still wanna kick his ass every night of the week."
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