ABOARD THE NO. 7 TRAIN. - My assignment was to ride the No. 7 train to Shea Stadium, made famous by Atlanta Braves dummy John Rocker, who arrives today in New York for a four-game series against the Mets. Rocker made the No. 7 the best-known subway line in America with his comments in a Sports Illustrated article last December in which he disparaged riders thusly: "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 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing."
Now Rocker will return for the first time since he made those comments, and the city is primed and pumped. Anti-Rocker T-shirts and hats are for sale. Local television stations are urging fans to vent their anger in anti-Rocker chat rooms on the Internet. The sports store Modell's has taken out full-page newspaper ads asking fans to show compassion toward Rocker, describing him as a "troubled soul."
New York, New York, it's a hell of a town / John Rocker is up, put the batteries down.
Rocker already was disliked in New York for the confrontations he had with Mets fans during the NL playoffs last October, and the SI interview made him public enemy No. 1 in this city.
The Braves-Mets series is one of the National League's best rivalries, and Atlanta comes to town just two games ahead of red-hot New York in the NL East. Yet the entire focus of this series is Rocker. Will he ride the 7 train today to Shea as he pledged? Will the 700 police assigned for security at the ballpark be enough to keep order? Will fans bombard Rocker with batteries, as one flier passed out at Shea urged them to do, declaring tomorrow night "Battery Night" at the ballpark?
The irony of all this is that the player Mets fans love to hate is also coming back to Shea, and no one may notice. They may not even have an AAA battery left over for Bobby Bonilla.
Rocker may be the most clueless man in sports. He has only served this month to keep the flames of anger against him stoked, first by verbally attacking the SI reporter who wrote the story, then vowing he would ride the 7 train to Shea in an interview last week with USA Today Baseball Weekly.
It's as if they aren't digging the grave quickly enough for Rocker's career, so he keeps grabbing a shovel and saying, "Here, let me help."
He won't likely be on that train today, but I was yesterday, and throughout all the controversy that has ensued about Rocker, something never occurred to me until I had to write about the No. 7 train.
This is my train. I used to ride this train.
As an 11-year-old growing up in Brooklyn, I used to take the train to Shea Stadium with the milk-carton coupons I had saved to get a general admission ticket for a Mets game - not just with my father but with other kids as well.
It was a different time, when an 11-year-old boy could take off in the city on his own. How long ago was it? The color purple didn't even exist.
So the ride I took yesterday was like a step back in time. Of course, there wasn't as much urban art work painted on every building in view along the way. But it was hardly depressing.
I was greeted at the Grand Central Station platform by a young man playing the theme from "Deliverance" on the banjo. Now that would have made Rocker feel right at home.
And the half-hour ride has plenty of interesting sights to see. There is the legendary New York Taxi Academy, training ground for the finest cab drivers in the world. There is the New York Language Academy, the place where drivers from the Taxi Academy go to learn English.
Then there are the people.
There may be no more tougher place to walk up to people who don't know you and try to get them to talk to you than a New York City subway. You approach someone in a subway, they reach for something.
So I wasn't having much luck getting anyone to talk about John Rocker. Then I remember one rule about being in New York: everybody gets a buck. You come into this city, and somehow, some way, everyone gets a buck from you. So I started offering people a buck to talk to me about Rocker.
I gave a buck to Jose Hernandez and asked him about Rocker. "I hope he doesn't ride this train, because that will be bad," he said. "You can't talk that way about New Yorkers and get away with it."
I gave a buck to Butch Jackson and asked him about Rocker. "He's an idiot," he said. "And the Braves are idiots for keeping him on the team. There's going to be some trouble, I think."
I gave a buck to Miguel Perez and asked him about Rocker. "Que?" he asked.
He might have been the only friend John Rocker would have had on the 7 train - maybe the only person who didn't know who the enemy of the city was.