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Rocker Ready for New York Fans

October 21, 1999

ATLANTA (AP) _ John Rocker got downright nasty with baseball fans in Queens. The Atlanta Braves closer sounds more conciliatory toward those in the Bronx.

Oh, it’s not like he’ll be exchanging pleasantries when the World Series shifts to Yankee Stadium next week. But he expects to resume more of a normal player-opposing fan relationship.

``Yankee fans, they’re original,″ Rocker said. ``I think the Mets fans pull a lot of their harassing ways from the Yankee fans.″

Rocker sparked a firestorm of controversy when he said Mets fans were ``stupid″ and ``a tired act″ prior to the NL Championship Series. He willingly engaged in vitriolic sparring when the series moved to New York, saying the fans were even worse than he expected.

The Braves defeated the Mets 4-2 in the best-of-7 series, clinching the pennant with a dramatic 10-9 victory in 11 innings Tuesday. Atlanta meets the AL champion Yankees in the World Series, which begins Saturday night at Turner Field.

In a backhanded sort of way, Rocker was complimentary of Yankee fans while still reveling in Atlanta’s victory over the Mets.

``I guess the Yankee fans are kind of the forerunners of heckling other teams’ players,″ he said. ``You can sit out in the bullpen or listen during batting practice and actually hear some pretty funny, original stuff. About as original as Mets fans get is, `Hey, you (stink).‴

Rocker, who saved 38 games in the regular season and two more in the NLCS, wasn’t around when Atlanta lost to the Yankees in its last Series appearance three years. Actually, a lot has changed for the Braves since 1996.

Mark Wohlers is gone. Ditto for Mark Lemke, Marquis Grisson, Fred McGriff, Denny Neagle and Steve Avery. These days, it’s guys like Rocker, Brian Jordan, Kevin Millwood and Gerald Williams playing key roles for Atlanta.

The Braves have been a work in process throughout their decade of excellence. Only pitchers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz have been part of every team during an unprecedented run of eight straight postseason appearances since 1991.

``People don’t realize how hard it is to get here year after year,″ general manager John Schuerholz said.

Rocker is the Braves’ third closer in three years. Wohlers, who surrendered a crucial homer to Jim Leyritz in the ’96 Series, forgot how to throw strikes and was replaced by ex-independent league pitcher Kerry Ligtenberg. But he suffered a season-ending elbow injury in spring training.

Jordan is two cleanup hitters removed from McGriff, who handled the role in ’96. Andres Galarraga replaced McGriff last season, but spent this year recovering from cancer.

Neagle was the Braves’ fourth starter in the last Series, a role now handled _ at least numerically _ by Millwood. Actually, the 24-year-old right-hander became Atlanta’s most consistent starter while the Cy Young triumvirate of Greg Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz went through assorted struggles.

The leadoff role has been passed from Grissom to Williams, who scored the series-winning run Tuesday night. Instead of Lemke, it’s Bret Boone who plays and bats second. Jordan is in right field, not Jermaine Dye. Walt Weiss succeeded Jeff Blauser at shortstop.

All season, change has been a theme for the Braves. Galarraga and Ligtenberg were out before the season began. All-Star catcher Javy Lopez, middle reliever Rudy Seanez and fifth starter Odalis Perez were sidelined with injuries.

``The character we have, the heart we have in this locker room,″ said Jordan, who’s been bothered by a sore hand since being hit by a pitch in late June. ``We’ve proved a lot of people wrong.″

The Braves have been helped along by fringe players like catcher Eddie Perez, forced into the lineup by Lopez’s injury. Perez was a unanimous choice as MVP of the NLCS after hitting .500 with two homers and five RBIs.

In Game 6 against the Mets, the Braves also got key hits from Brian Hunter _ signed in the spring after Galarraga’s illness was diagnosed _ and reserve shortstops Jose Hernandez and Ozzie Guillen. Russ Springer, moving into Seanez’s role, was the winning pitcher.

Manager Bobby Cox hasn’t announced his World Series rotation, though Maddux or Glavine is likely to pitch the opener. Maddux last pitched Sunday, working seven innings in Game 5 of the NLCS, while Glavine hasn’t pitched since Game 2 of that series Friday.

Jordan’s hand might be a concern. He was struck again Tuesday night by a pitch from Turk Wendell, putting Jordan in obvious pain though he remained in the game.

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