Image via ibtimes.com.
Image via ibtimes.com.
John Rocker probably doesn't think of himself as Octomom. Which is reasonable, to a point, because she is a baroquely plastic-surgerized misery cartoon doing ghoulish stunt-porn to stay out of foreclosure, and John Rocker is a former Major League Baseball player and, at least according to the bio that accompanies his column at the bile-brained right-wing web nightmare WorldNetDaily, someone with "a successful career in real estate development." John Rocker didn't chase and catch the spotlight with Octomom's sad, moth-brained ardor; the December 1999 Sports Illustrated profile that began Rocker's slide towards the present had been assigned, quite reasonably, because he had been arguably the best relief pitcher in baseball the previous season. Octomom, a damaged and kind of dim-seeming lady, dearly wanted something that she should've known was fake and poisonous, and cruel people are going to ensure that she suffer for that in public. John Rocker, a crazyfaced bumpkin with a big fastball, struck out 104 in 72.1 innings and put up a 181 ERA+ in 1999. They're different.
But the two have ended up in the same bleak place—fame's seething, swampy sub-basement, a place haunted by the meth-pocked shade of Tom Sizemore and patrolled by a concerned-looking Dr. Drew and coke-cynical porn producers—for some of the same reasons. Both want to be something they're not, and both insist that the world know about it. Because the fame economy is terrible and cruel, and because there is money to be made in snatching at the bills trailing in the wake of a plummeting Q-rating, they are both falling apart in public, long after anyone wished to witness that disintegration. Rocker once had a talent; his cohorts in the fame-basement for the most part didn't. Their cravenness and hunger, though, have made them equals. It's not a good thing.
If Octomom, bless her heart, just wanted to be an Us Magazine photo of Angelina Jolie—beatific and child-surrounded, untouchably wealthy and absolutely unreal—Rocker has always seemed to want to be something more complicated. Rocker's persona—basically a WWF heel with a high school bully angle, generously slicked in greenie-sweat—was sui generis and strange and political from the jump. He was a combat-ready culture warrior claiming redneck status with jaw-jut defiance back when Larry the Cable Guy was still bombing in clubs under his government name.
He was also pretty fun to watch, as pitchers go. There are some gesticulative closers out there—air-humping Jose Valverde, pop-eyed goofus Jonathan Papelbon; emotive meatball specialist Heath Bell—but none of them go for, let alone pull off, the overstatement that Rocker made his trademark. When Rocker popped off and said a bunch of racist and otherwise appallingly hoary and ignorant shit to Jeff Pearlman, on the record, for that career-killing SI piece, Rocker could at the very least have made some Eminem-ian claim to being in character as the Savage Bumpkin Bully he played on the field.
He didn't, which is maybe to his credit and maybe not. Instead, Rocker maintained, hilariously if also a little pathetically, that all of his vilenesses were taken out of context; "As if," as Classical buddy Matthew Callan wrote at Vice, "a full transcript of their conversation could lend clarifying nuance to calling a black teammate 'a fat monkey.'" In the years since, Rocker has portrayed Pearlman's article as, in the words of his recent biography's promotional copy, "a well-planned character assassination." By the time he started making that case with any force, he was already well out of baseball and beginning his transition into his current iteration as a utility-grade cable-conservative beefsteak and full-time grievance-farmer.
Which, honestly, is a living—Chuck Norris has never been good at anything but roundhouse kicks and beard maintenance, but has at least kept his name in circulation by appending that name (the same proud one that appeared above the title on The Hero and The Terror) to creepo homophobic web-editorials penned by his creepo homophobic pastor. So it is maybe to Rocker's credit that he's at least doing his own writing, and wronging, and mongering of racist garments, although the links on his website to "Rocker Gear," including the Speak English t-shirt above, are presently dead.
But that's probably as much credit as we should give to someone who has refused to take any blame for his own relentless self-injury. Some people, or at least people who remember Rocker's career, may look at Rocker's career and see a player who paid for saying terrible things into a tape recorder on purpose, which in turn brought a ton of pressure upon himself under which he rather swiftly buckled; who then injured his shoulder and stopped throwing strikes (or vice versa), and who was the worst pitcher on a 67-73 Long Island Ducks team by 2005, at which point he was still just 30.
But John Rocker can see how and why that explanation is false, too easy. He sees the wheels within wheels—that liberal reporter, that liberal media, that liberal...baseball establishment?—where others might see spiraling control problems in both the baseball and non-baseball senses. Rocker, in short, is wise enough to see that his time in baseball is not the story it appears to be—Mark Wohlers, If Mark Wohlers Was A Fucking Asshole, basically—and is in fact something different, darker. Most importantly, Rocker knows that he deserves several more minutes on stage, a chance to tell and re-tell his sad tale—a simple man, beset on all sides by a biased media's insistence on reporting his own words and actions—and maybe also sneak in some predictably Rockerish/backwards thoughts on immigration and "political correctness" if there's time. Bearing all that in mind, WorldNetDaily is as good a place for Rocker to make his stand as any.
The most important thing to know about WorldNetDaily, and really probably the only thing worth knowing about it, is that it is the worst. Which maybe seems like a catch-all, or a reflection of my own biases. And which actually is insofar as WorldNetDaily has been proud and unembarrassed in its past publication of frank lies of every baroquely intolerant kind, and insofar as I think all that's terrible, especially because the whole site seems like an unseemly, cynical merch-hustle . It's a pretty terrible website, in short, one full of untruth and incharity and soul-wrecked Drudge-bait; it publishes a zombie brigade of the conserative undead—their roster of commentators includes Ann Coulter and Chuck Norris, Pat Boone and John Stossel and Pamela Geller and Phyllis Schlafly and Herman Cain and obscure sketchwad white-identity types writing under names like Vox Day and Molotov Mitchell. John Rocker fits in quite well with this group, and not just because he seems like a pretty terrible, small-minded guy.
For the formerly famous who choose to hang on to their notoriety—who keep paying publicists instead of shrinking their lives back down to civilian size—there is a sad sort of attention-based welfare state, of which WorldNetDaily is a part just as surely as are the apolitical vampire chuckleheads at TMZ or the stunt-porn nightmare-makers drawing up the contracts for Octomom's bleak frig-vid. There will always be that sort of demeaning work for John Rocker, as long as he wants it—an opportunity to go on television and express his reasoned insistence that all these illegals should speak English for fuck's sake, or a profile in a place like WorldNetDaily. Rocker was profiled there back in May, and praised as a warrior-prophet of the movement against political correctness. Here is how WND's Michael Thompson describes Rocker's rapid fall out of the game after saying, on the record, the worst possible things about "queers with AIDS" and lazy blacks and disgusting immigrants: "Rocker was the first victim of many shots in the politically correct war waged against patriotic Americans."
And if that profile goes right, there will be a column to write for some horrific and debasing hate-rave of a website whose target audience audience appears to be elderly bigots who are able to use web-browsers. Both in the ugliness it offers readers and the destructive bump it offers the author, writing a column for WorldNetDaily is basically the equivalent of releasing a "stolen" sex tape. That's where Rocker is right now, and what he's doing.
This is not really fame, at least as John Rocker once experienced it and may yet yearn to experience it again, and it doesn't seem terribly remunerative. So maybe "welfare state" isn't the right metaphor, actually. Maybe it's methadone, something to cut the shakes and level things back up to the right side of zero. The notoriety, like a drug, keeps the addict upright while offering, softly at first and then insistently, opportunity after opportunity to descend lower for a few dollars or a few minutes or a few low-wattage media hits more.
Rocker's first WND column, it's worth mentioning, is kind of charming. He's not a polished writer and he's clearly not being edited much; at the end of the piece, the title of his book is rendered as "Scares and Strikes," instead of "Scars and Strikes." Much of the column, which is about the governmental overreach and waste of the Roger Clemens prosecution—which sounds about right to me—is given over to Rocker's chosen framing device, which is of a baseball game dragging painfully through extra innings. "As I sit in the dugout panting like a dog, our No. 3 hitter strides to the plate with two outs and no one on," Rocker writes. "At this point in the seemingly unending saga we find ourselves, belief has long since departed, but glimmers of hope still remain as we watch one of our top men dig in to do battle." This is not really good writing, but it's not exactly terrible, either—it's something a smart and engaged high school kid might write, and how that kid might write it. The vituperation and dishonesty of other WND pieces is not to be found here, and the more oof-y bits—wherever Rocker writes "government," the word "big" appears before it, as if a grandstanding Congressional investigation of baseball players were somehow an indictment of the Environmental Protection Agency or federal transportation funding—may actually be WND house style.
There is, in it, almost an intimation of another Rocker—a guy who isn't dumb, and who hates what he thinks is bullshit and loves baseball and apparently gets a charge out of writing. This isn't the only John Rocker, and it's not the one he has really worked to sell as a public-facing brand; we'd probably do well to take his repeated proclamations of brash ignorance and bigotry at face value, and assume that he believes them as much as he keeps saying he does, and there's no shame in chuckling at this bully's brittle self-pity when confronted with the consequences of his own awfulness. There's no reason to feel bad for this guy, and if Rocker keeps writing the column he will doubtless remind us of all the things we hated about him, back when he mattered.
But it's easy to feel some pity for him, too—Rocker has created a persona for himself that is ugly, retrograde and small, and he appears committed to selling it, hard, to what dwindling audience remains for a late-model late-inning reliever's take on food stamps or voter fraud or whatever. It doesn't sound like much fun, but that's his choice, and what's left for him on this stretch of road. Oscar Wilde famously described the British gentry on a fox hunt as "the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible." Rocker rode out in pursuit of a rather more dangerous predator, caught what he was chasing, and seems not to have noticed that it has utterly consumed him. From the belly of that rough beast, he cries out, he rages. It's hard to make out what he's saying. Something awful about minorities, sounds like. Eh, fuck him.