Tuesday, May 10, 2005

So much for a relaxing night at the ballpark

As seems to be the case a lot lately in Central Islip, there was an unusual buzz in the air Tuesday night. It was about a lot more than just a rematch of last year's Atlantic League World Series against the Camden Riversharks.

It was about a man. A man who has become the object of such intense scrutiny and curiosity that it belies his otherwise modest and friendly surroundings. You know who I'm talking about -- you're probably sick of reading his name. It's John Rocker.

Sitting in the press box at Citibank Park, I saw Rocker's impact on the team from a unique perspective.

First and most obvious, there was the media presence. Newsday sent two reporters and a photographer. The Daily News sent a photographer and a reporter. Even the Newark (N.J.) Star Ledger sent a reporter. Had it been a normal May 10 ballgame, I may have been the only writer in the ballpark. But it's hard to feel normal when John Rocker's in town.

During the pre-game chatter that usually fills the press box with light banter and talk of the local Major League teams, one cameraman detailed his efforts to photograph Rocker during pre-game warm-ups:

"He came out of the bullpen and I stood on the first baseline. When he saw me, he kind of turned his back to me and walked like, sidesaddle, towards the dugout."

Someone cracked, "Did he do the Moonwalk?" That was the kind of night it was.

A palpable feeling of tense anticipation permeated the press box, and indeed the entire ballpark, until Rocker entered the game in the 7th inning. At that point, the media contingent let out a collective sigh of relief -- they had not made the trip for nothing -- and the fans rained down their emotions -- some cheers, some jeers -- with passion uncommon in the normally casual Citibank Park atmosphere.

After the game, too, Rocker's presence was felt. When the Ducks' public relations staff informed us that "John Rocker will not be available for comment tonight," my first reaction was not to feel surprised, even though we'd been told Rocker would talk if he pitched in last night's game. After all, this is a man who's had so much trouble dealing with the media, he hired his own publicist -- and even that hasn't keep him out of trouble.

I even felt a little sorry for the PR staff, which is proud of the affable environment they've constructed and must feel a strain from dealing with a headache the size of the state of Georgia.

"He's a very positive influence around here," Ducks skipper Don McCormack told us after the game (a noble effort from a manager who's just trying to help his pitcher win games and get back to the majors).

But hasn't Rocker's presence made things a little more tense these days?

"Not for those other guys," McCormack said, referring to Rocker's teammates.

They must be the only people who haven't noticed.