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December 06, 2001

Fresh start for Rocker
By Dan Patrick

Forget the controversy. I like the John Rocker trade. There, I said it.

Rocker goes to Cleveland, a city that accepted Albert Belle. Robby Alomar was the most hated man in the game when he spat on umpire John Hirschbeck, but Indians fans forgave him.

John Rocker
John Rocker doesn't have many fans in New York ... or anywhere else.

Now they have Rocker, a left-handed closer with a 95 mph fastball who can also gain acceptance in Cleveland if he only makes headlines that read, "Rocker gets the save," like he did Sunday against Kansas City.

Will it be a fresh start for Rocker? It's up to him. If he packed his baggage in the overhead bin on his flight to join the Indians, then the trade will not be the end. It will only be another chapter in Rocker's book of misadventures.

It was no secret the Braves didn't like Rocker. They only tolerated him. He became too much of a high-wire act every time he entered a game. Then there was the bench-clearing incident in Toronto, when Raul Mondesi wanted a piece of him. Although he came to the defense of Tom Glavine, Rocker ended up being the fire-starter. No matter what Rocker did in Atlanta, it never seemed to be the right move. He was never going to be forgiven.

The Braves needed to remove the weight of dealing with Rocker. As one Brave told me, "We don't know what's going to happen next with him. But we know there will be a 'next.' It's just a question of when." Rocker is no longer the Braves' worry. Atlanta is back to being a quiet clubhouse, one where few headlines or quotes were rarely generated before Rocker's arrival.

Without Rocker, the Braves will go to a bullpen by committee, using newly required Steve Karsay and Kerry Ligtenberg as closers. Karsay pitched two scoreless innings in his Atlanta debut on Sunday, but he has been injury prone and never adjusted to the closer role in Cleveland; he blew nine of 29 save opportunities a year ago. Karsay, with a 1.25 ERA, is much better in a setup role, where Steve Reed will also be used.

Atlanta may be questioning the sanity of Indians GM John Hart for taking Rocker, but the deal to get the controversial closer was in the works last year. For Hart, who has announced this will be his final season, the deal could end up as his albatross. But it could also turn the Indians from contenders into champions.

The Indians already have one of baseball's best lineups. With the addition of Rocker, Hart is trying to give his team and manager Charlie Manuel every opportunity to win a World Series. The move may be risky, but sometimes a GM has to be bold and take a chance.

Rocker could provide the Indians with both short-term and long-term gains. In the short term, the Indians could win a championship. In the long term, Rocker is under contract for three years, whereas Karsay and Reed are both free agents after the season.

If Rocker keeps to himself, does his job and doesn't become a centrifugal force, then Cleveland will get the better end of the deal.

Rocker has been effective this season and was second in the NL in saves before the trade. But the Indians didn't get Rocker for the regular season. They made the deal for the same reason they signed Chuck Finley in December of 1999 -- to acquire a left-hander in case they cross paths with the Yankees in the playoffs. Look at Rocker's numbers against the Yankees: 0.00 ERA in nine appearances with eight strikeouts in eight innings.

Hart and Braves GM John Schuerholz are saying the trade may be one of the best they have ever made. It will be a wash for Atlanta if Rocker implodes. But there are few closers who can be consistent from day to day and year to year. So if Rocker keeps to himself, does his job and doesn't become a centrifugal force, then Cleveland will get the better end of the deal.

Rocker may send Cleveland fans on an emotional roller-coaster and be a pitcher who is far more work than necessary. Another left-handed closer, Mitch Williams, was like that as a pitcher, not as a person. The key for Rocker is letting the Cleveland fans like him. He is not the first player who has been booed on the road, as he was Sunday in Kansas City. He must realize the people of Cleveland are in his corner. He should open up and let Cleveland embrace him.

Cleveland has had little to celebrate. The Indians lost the World Series in 1997, when a Tony Fernandez error paved the way for the Florida Marlins. The Browns left for Baltimore, where they became the Ravens and won a Super Bowl. The Cavaliers always had Michael Jordan sticking a dagger in them in the playoffs.

Rocker's past troubles will matter little if he can bring Cleveland a championship. Then, the town will roll out the welcome mat. Acceptance comes with winning. Rocker may never be loved in Cleveland. He may never make dinner reservations with his new teammates. But they'd be more than happy to share a bottle of champagne with him in October.

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Rocker says the basics won't change with the Indians

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John Rocker speaks with the media after joining the Indians in Kansas City (Courtesy: WUAB).
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John Rocker takes the mound for the first time as an Indian and gets the save (Courtesy:
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