John Rocker returns to Braves after suspension

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The reliever for US major league baseball's Atlanta Braves, suspended the first two weeks of the season for offending foreigners, minorities and gays, rejoins the roster on Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Rocker drew mostly cheers when he pitched at Turner Field in an exhibition game April 1, two days before opening day. No organised protests were scheduled in conjunction with his return, although a civil rights official once again called on the Braves to trade Rocker.

"It's still a blemish on the Braves organisation ... and, to a certain degree, a shame for the city," said Michael Bond, deputy director of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

After his exhibition appearance in Atlanta, Rocker returned to Florida for extended spring training. He was back with the Braves in Milwaukee last weekend, working out during the games and doing everything else like a regular team member.

"I don't think it will be a problem when we're in Atlanta," manager Bobby Cox said. "John still has many fans in Atlanta. I'm not worried about it."

The Braves, who were off today, split their first 12 games without Rocker. Their next nine games are in Atlanta, easing the transition for the controversial closer who saved 38 games last season but made infuriating comments in a December issue of Sports Illustrated.

Rocker was banned from baseball until May 1 by commissioner Bud Selig, who also imposed a $20,000 fine. But arbitrator Shyam Das reduced the suspension to the first two weeks of the season, cut the fine to $500 and allowed Rocker to report to spring training on March 2.

The pitcher apologised to his teammates in a private clubhouse meeting and issued a statement expressing remorse for his statements. But he has refused to discuss the issue since that day.

The Braves' next road trip begins April 28 in laid-back San Diego. But Rocker figures to receive his harshest reaction in places like Philadelphia (May 12-14), Chicago (May 29-31) and definitely New York, where Atlanta meets the Mets in a four-game series beginning June 29.

Already, photocopied flyers have been passed out at Shea Stadium advertising "John Rocker Battery Day" for Atlanta's first series in New York, where fans are still outraged by the pitcher's infamous interview.

"Imagine having to take the 7 train to (Shea Stadium) looking like you're (in) Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids," Rocker told the magazine.

He also said, "The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners. I'm not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. ... How the hell did they get into this country?"

The Braves are hoping that Rocker will handle the wrath of the fans differently than he did during last year's playoffs, when he engaged in a verbal war with New Yorkers even before his magazine interview.

"They'll support him in Atlanta, but it won't be the same when we hit the road," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "People are going to be rough on him, and he understands that."

While no protests were planned on Tuesday, Bond said the issue would likely be brought up again about the time of the All-Star game if Rocker is still with the team. The midsummer classic will be held at Turner Field on July 11.

"As long as that type of attitude prevails in society, we have to combat it," Bond said. "He could say he was sorry, but once the cat is out the bag you can't retract that kind of hateful statement."