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Jewish World Review May 9, 2000 / 4 Iyar, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The lesson that they always learn late -- HERE'S A PREDICTION about John Rocker, relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves:

In 10 or 11 years -- maybe sooner, if his arm gives out -- he will turn into the friendliest man you could ever imagine.

I bring this up because, when Rocker returned to active duty with the Braves the other week after his enforced leave of absence from major league baseball for crude comments he made in a magazine interview, his words to reporters after his first game were: "Beat it."

Not the warmest greeting to men and women who had come to the ballpark wishing to speak with him. But then, Rocker is 25 years old; he does not yet realize that the day will come when no one outside his own family cares about a word he says. He is a young man with the talent to throw a small ball speedily and accurately; he does not yet understand the almost comical aspect of the idea that, in our society, that fact -- that he throws a ball well -- is the sole reason anyone in the world is interested in his views on anything.

It happens every day and every night, in athletic arenas all over the United States: Reporters on assignment from their newspapers' or broadcast outlets' sports departments wait patiently for the opportunity to speak with young athletes, and to pass the received wisdom on to a waiting public. Often, the questions presented to the athletes do not end with a question mark -- an example being, "So, your fastball seemed to be working tonight" -- but the athletes, accustomed to this kind of attention from the time they were barely into their teens, accept it as their due. They go to work (and the work is almost always televised, live); then they are asked questions about how their day or night at work went.

"Beat it," Rocker said to the reporters who had been assigned to come to the game and talk to him; the next night, after the game, he waited in the Braves' clubhouse until security guards had allowed the reporters in, and then, as they caught sight of him, said: "Anyone want an interview? Nope? Missed your chance." And then dashed to the shower room, where the reporters are not allowed. A joke -- a 25-year-old's joke.

Which brings us back to the prediction with which today's column began. When Rocker is 35 or 36 years old -- sooner, if his body fails him -- you can put money on this: He will become so available, so friendly, so warm, that he will seem like a completely different person.

Why? It was explained to me at spring training one year by Alan Solomon of the Tribune's staff, who at that time was covering major league baseball. A ballplayer -- famous for his rudeness -- was all of a sudden the nicest man at spring training, seeming almost like an eager job applicant than a superstar. Why?

Solomon told me:

"When it's time to say goodbye, they say hello."

Meaning: They finally figure it out. The men who have been treated like pampered royalty since they were children figure out, as soon as their arms and legs age, as soon as their hand-eye coordination slips a notch, that they are about to become, in the sports culture that for so long embraced them, yesterday's garbage. A harsh term? Yes -- let's soften it. They are about to become totally expendable. Soon, no one will care.

And this is when they finally understand: No one will be coming around to speak with them anymore. No one will care what they say or what they think. If they haven't managed their money wisely, they will have to consider getting a job -- a conventional job, where no one waits breathlessly to ask their analysis of how they have performed on their latest work shift.

Some of them figure out that there is a way to ease the transition from being desired to being forgotten: television. Or radio. For athletes grown too old, it is the closest thing to avoiding expulsion. If you can get a job broadcasting the games, or at least commenting about them, you are permitted to stick around and be famous a little longer.

But surliness and refusal to speak civilly with people are not parts of that job description. Thus, many athletes who had no use for anyone outside their locker rooms find themselves in something close to low-grade panic when they are about to become the ones locked out of the locker rooms. When it's time to say goodbye, they say hello. When it's time to realize that, minus their athletic skill, no one has any interest in what they think or what they have to say, they approach the world with newfound courtesy, with sudden friendliness.

Much of the blame belongs to those of us in the news business -- we're the enablers, we're the ones who put the athletes' names in the papers and on the air day after day, while people doing fine and worthy things in other lines of work never are given a day in the sun -- in the paper, on the broadcasts.

For now, though, be assured that Mr. Rocker will eventually change his words from "Beat it" to some version of "Please let me in." No one is young, strong and insulated from real life forever.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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