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Indians Indians Archive Blast From The Past: John Rocker
Written by Greg Popelka

Greg Popelka


This ballgame in Arlington had begun well enough. Roberto Alomar took Texas Rangers starter Darren Oliver deep, in the first. In the fourth, Ellis Burks, Jim Thome, Marty Cordova, Travis Fryman and Einar Diaz went walk, single, single, single, single to put the Tribe ahead, 4-0. Charles Nagy’s outing was a strong one- he’d given up four hits through five innings. He got dinged in the sixth, a double play holding the damage to two runs. Danys Baez got the final out of that inning, and he set the Rangers down, 1-2-3 in the seventh. With the score still 4-2 Tribe in the eighth, the announcement came over the crowd of 43,000-plus: “Now pitching for Cleveland, number 49, John Rocker.”

August 11, 2001. Our Tribe was leading the American League Central Division, with a good chunk of their roster still in place from their “Era of Champions” (as it was known later; commonly viewed as 1995 - 1999). There were Kenny, Omar and Robbie. And Thome and Fryman. They’d added Juan Gonzalez and Ellis Burks. Russell Branyan (Yeah, yeah, I know- but a young slugger who wowed the fans with the ability to hit the ball a mile. Perhaps farther than Thome, only with sparsely intermittent frequency).

This was the season which saw the number 455 retired by the Indians franchise- that was the number of consecutive home sellouts by the Tribe. Manny and Sandy were gone, but the Indians could still hit; their year-end average of 5.54 runs/game proved to be second in the league, behind only the Seattle Mariners (the Mariners won a record 116 games that year. Although one notable loss was the August 5th game against this Cleveland team, in which the Tribe found itself down 14-2 in the sixth inning. They came back to defeat the Mariners, 15-14 in 11 innings, to complete the greatest comeback in major league history). Robbie, Juan Gone, Thome and Burks all dotted the Top Ten in the major American League batting categories in 2001.

The team still had a solid bullpen, as well. Danys Baez, Ricardo Rincon, Paul Shuey and Bob Wickman each had ERAs in the twos. Wickman began the season as the closer, and had converted 15 of 16 saves up until the June trade for the new Indians closer, lefty John Rocker.


John Rocker’s on the mound, and the crowd is alive. It seems clear that many people have showed up just to razz him. This crazy atmosphere occurs every time he enters a road game. He’s all pumped up, throwing his last warmup pitches in an exaggeratedly vigorous manner. People are just scu-reeming at him. Working in the eighth inning with a two run lead, Rocker promptly walks the leadoff batter, Chad Curtis, on a 3-1 pitch.

 While the bullpen had performed well, it was overworked. Manager Charlie Manuel’s mantra was that the starting pitching only needed to give the team six innings- the bullpen and the bats could carry the team. Trouble was, the starters were at the bottom of the league in innings pitched. In June, General Manager John Hart had traded for Rocker, a hard-throwing lefty closer who was having a fine season for Atlanta: at the time of the trade, he’d saved 19 of 23 and boasted a 3.09 ERA. Obviously, he was available due to his being the pop-culture pariah of the moment in American society. In 1999, Rocker had inflamed the hatred of New Yorkers by publicly stating his disdain for the gays, minorities, foreigners, and unwed mothers one would be forced to deal with while walking in Times Square or riding on the subway. He was a jerk. Unconfirmed reports attributed the exaggerated nature of Rocker‘s personality to “roid rage“. He wasn’t alleged to have beaten up women (like other athletes) - or anyone. He committed the unpardonable sin of our current times: he hurt people's feelings. And his scowl and generally foul mood made him a lightning rod for taunting fans in every city in which he performed. 


He’s not even looking at home plate when he’s releasing the ball, for crying out loud.

After walking Curtis, John Rocker also walks Randy Velarde. With two on and nobody out, the go-ahead run comes to the plate in the form of Alex Rodriguez. Rocker pitches A-Rod to a full count, and on the 3-2 pitch… he hits him. Crap. The crowd finds a new decibel level as its baseline. Now what do you do, Charlie? You’ve got Bob Wickman warming up in the bully… but even when he’s going good, you gotta let him start off with the bases empty, don’t you? Wickman needs all the open bases he can get. Rocker stays in and faces Rafael Palmeiro. On the 1-0 pitch, Rocker balks. 4-3 Tribe.

In acquiring Rocker, Hart had dealt dependable relievers Steve Karsay and Steve Reed. After the season, GM-in-waiting Mark Shapiro commented that he’d opposed the deal before it was made. Not because of Rocker’s baggage, but because he felt trading off Karsay and Reed weakened one of the strengths of the team.


Palmeiro laces a double to right field. Two more runs score. Rocker has coughed up the lead, and he still has not gotten anybody out. It‘s like watching a train wreck- you know what‘s going to happen, and it’s going to be bad, and you can‘t stop it. It’s been happening a lot lately. And now, John Rocker is livid. So are we, John, so are we. Wickman comes in to clean up the mess. Rocker leaves the field to howls and jeers from the partisan crowd. After recording a couple of outs, a passed ball, and a single to Ricky Ledee, Wickman mercifully induces Gabe Kapler into grounding out to third. After eight innings, the Cleveland Indians are down, 6-4. This being these Indians, they won’t go away quietly; in the ninth, Jim Thome clobbers a home run off of Rangers closer Jeff Zimmerman. But that’s all the Tribe can muster, and they lose, 6-5, after the final, mighty, futile swing of Russell Branyan striking out.


John_Rocker_dejectedThe Great John Rocker Experiment of 2001 did not work out the way John Hart had envisioned. The team was still fatally flawed due to its lack of starting pitching. Chuck Finley was the ace of this offensive dynamo, finishing at 8-7 with a 5.54 ERA. Nagy finished with a 6.40. Dave Burba, 6.21. The bright spot was rookie CC Sabathia (many then pronounced it “Sabaythia”), on whose behalf Charlie Manual had lobbied hard to stick with his club out of spring training and who finished at 17-5 with a 4.39.

The Tribe won their division, before losing to the Mariners in the ALDS, 3 games to 2.

The 2001 season represented the last sniff of contention for the Indians of that era. During the offseason, Finley, Robbie Alomar and Gonzalez were gone; the next season, Bartolo Colon would be traded in the deal which landed Grady Sizemore, and Manuel would be gone by mid-season. John Hart would move from the front office of the Cleveland Indians to that of the Texas Rangers.

In December, Hart made one of his first deals for the Rangers- acquiring a hard-throwing lefty closer from the Cleveland Indians: John Rocker.

Thank you for reading. Next week: Blast From The Past: Ernie Camacho.


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