LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- John Rocker invited Randall Simon to lunch Thursday. Call it a symbolic gesture in what will be an ongoing healing process for Rocker and his Atlanta Braves, a process that began with a 40-minute clubhouse meeting during which most of his teammates concluded that Rocker showed sincerity, humility and remorse for the problems he had created with his derogatory comments about gays, foreigners and minorities in Sports Illustrated.
For the time being, the Atlanta players seem willing to offer a helping hand rather than a clenched fist. Simon, who was the object of Rocker's ''fat monkey'' reference in SI, even said he was willing to pick up the lunch tab ''to show him he's my friend'' after Rocker's first act Thursday was to extend a man-to-man apology.
This was the conciliatory mood as the suddenly renowned -- infamous? -- relief pitcher reported for spring training after arbitrator Shyam Das on Wednesday virtually threw out Commissioner Bud Selig's 73-day suspension and reduced it to the first 14 days of the season.
Rocker played catch, threw in the bullpen and signed autographs for fans who seemed to harbor no animosity, but he would not take questions during a news conference in which he read the apologetic statement he wrote for Thursday's editions of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Ultimately, he permitted a pool reporter, Joel Sherman of the New York Post, to join an Associated Press reporter and two reporters who cover the Braves regularly for what he announced would be a 10-minute interview that he would end if there were ''too many unfair and ridiculous questions, so use your discretion.''
Having set the ground rules, Rocker said he was excited and happy to be in camp. He said he has been throwing off a mound every other day but was ''getting itchy and frustrated'' not being with the team and was ''trying not to watch TV, listen to the radio or read the newspaper.''
He said in his three years with the Braves he has had a good relationship ''with 95 percent of the guys'' and was confident that will continue.
He pointed out that newspaper and other polls in the Atlanta area consistently come up ''70 to 80 percent in my favor'' and that when he is out in public ''people from all walks of life want my picture and autograph. A black guy at a construction site near my complex stopped me the other day and wanted to talk. I signed maybe 20 or 30 hats there and 12 or 13 of those guys were black. It's been like that every single day. I've had a lot of support.''
If that comment walks a racial tightrope of the type Rocker would seemingly have learned to avoid, he acknowledged that he still has some ''growing up to do,'' that he needs to mature and ''learn how to deal with frustration.''
He apologized and tried to explain all of that in the Braves' closed-door meeting, after which shortstop Ozzie Guillen said, ''It's over. We had our meeting and received him as our teammate. To us, it's over. I know John personally and he's a great guy. He may be immature, stupid, ignorant, whatever you want to call him, but he's still a great kid.''
Over? Not likely in one day or a 40-minute meeting.
Wary teammates want to see if Rocker's actions speak louder than his apologetic words.
Weary management, still besieged by those in the Atlanta community insisting Rocker be released or traded despite the polls, could yet deal the 38-save closer -- maybe to the Cleveland Indians or Montreal Expos.
Outfielder Brian Jordan, a team leader, shook his head and said to trade Rocker ''would be a cowardly act. He's a valuable player, our closer. You want to help a guy like that.''
Nevertheless, Jordan said, Rocker's derogatory comments, including critical remarks about the Braves and how they go about their business, left wounds that remain open.
''It's not over,'' Jordan said, disagreeing with Guillen. ''Believe me, John has a lot of issues to deal with with a lot of guys, including me, but we'll talk and lay it on the line. I'd like to think he's started to understand the magnitude of what he's done and that it's something he'll have to deal with all his life. I told him he's got to live up to it, he can't run from it, that the longer he runs from it, the longer it will stay with him.
''I mean, this is just the beginning, and I almost feel sorry for him thinking about what he's going to have to go through this season, but it's a lesson he has to learn. All we can do is try to help him through it. Right now he's under a microscope -- not just with his teammates but with fans and media. He has to walk very softly.''
Walking softly isn't what Rocker has generally been about, but what he was about and what he felt on his first day in camp wasn't easily discernible to about 100 reporters attracted by the arrival of a 26-year-old southpaw who created a public and internal furor.
''Answering questions is what started all this mess,'' pitcher Tom Glavine said when informed of Rocker's news conference blackout. ''It's not exactly his long suit. I just think he was more concerned today dealing with us, not the media.''
Glavine described the club's closed-door meeting as ''calm and professional'' and a ''great first step toward clearing the air and putting this behind us.'' He felt that Rocker was contrite and humble but that all of the scars weren't going to go away in one day.
''Our clubhouse is a cross-section of society,'' Glavine said. ''John raised some hot issues. Some guys were offended more than others. He faces a long road -- both in here and in public. There's going to be different reactions in different cities. He has to be prepared to be patient. As I've said before, his actions will be more important than his words.''
(Optional add end)
Glavine, Jordan and Simon were among eight Braves who spoke and questioned Rocker once Manager Bobby Cox, one of the eight, threw open the meeting after Rocker's introductory statements.
The others were coach Ned Yost (who called Rocker's SI remarks an ''embarrassment to a great organization''), pitchers John Smoltz and Terry Mulholland, and new outfielder Reggie Sanders, who said he wanted to be sure Rocker understood the gravity of his comments, was properly remorseful and that ''as a team and family we can get through this and move on.'' Sanders said he was satisfied on all three counts.
Time will tell, of course, how Rocker and the Braves respond, providing Rocker stays. For the time being, Thursday's meeting produced a sense of healing, although Cox, proud of his players for the way they handled it, suspects some will carry an antipathy toward Rocker ''forever.''
''I'll tell you this,'' he added, ''I'm sick of it, and I think most everyone is sick of it.''
Was that an amen?
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