Tracy Rocker had the grill sizzling. As juices dripped onto the charcoal, the aroma of his “Rock-burgers” filled the concourse on this steamy spring night in 2018 at North Oconee High School’s baseball compound in Bogart, Ga.
Rocker, the Eagles’ defensive line coach, would fill in sparingly as grill master at his son’s baseball games whenever his schedule permitted. The longtime college assistant and former Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award winner at Auburn, coached at Georgia for three seasons, which overlapped with Kumar Rocker’s high school years.
While Tracy built up his coaching portfolio, Kumar – who also played football for two seasons – developed into a highly touted pitching prospect.
On most nights, Kumar was the buzz across town. Except for when Tracy was working the grill.
“We sold the most hamburgers in program history that night,” North Oconee baseball coach Jay Lasley said in a phone interview Sunday afternoon. “Before the game started, I went on the PA system and told everyone coach Rocker was on the grill.
“At the end of the night, the lady who runs our concession stand told me, ‘We sold out every hamburger.’
“I said, ‘Even the ones in the freezer?’
“ ‘Gone,’ she replied. “Coach Rock burgers were a freaking hit.”
As the elder Rocker begins his first season with the Eagles under new coach Nick Sirianni, he’s hoping his son also becomes a hit at the next level. Kumar’s professional career officially began Sunday evening, when he was selected No. 10 by the New York Mets in the first round of the 2021 Major League Baseball draft.
“I’m more of a dad,” Tracy Rocker said in June. “[Baseball] is what he does, and I’m proud of him. I’m supportive of him. ...
“I thought he was a very good football player. I wish he would have played for me. But he chose the right sport for him, and I’m proud of him.”
At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Kumar Rocker carries an intimidating presence on the mound.
He was drafted out of high school in the 38th round of the 2018 draft by the Rockies, but he opted to head to Vanderbilt, where Rocker quickly developed into the team’s ace. He had 19 strikeouts in a no-hitter vs. Duke in the 2019 postseason ... as a 19-year-old freshman.
“Rocker is big and physical,” one American League scouting director said. “It’s easy to see when he takes the mound. The heater peaks at 99 mph and he tends to throw it high. But it’s his breaking stuff outside the zone that attracts eyes. He’s got a tremendous frame.”
Rocker concluded his three-year college career with a 2.89 ERA over 47 games (39 starts) with 321 strikeouts across 236⅔ innings. His arsenal includes a fastball and a curveball that he pairs with a slider/cutter.
Following Vanderbilt’s recent loss to Mississippi State in the College World Series, coach Tim Corbin gushed while he bid farewell to Rocker.
“He’s just a one-in-a-million kid,” Corbin said. “His fibers are so real and so pure. He just loves the team. He connected to competition. He’s connected to his teammates in such a way that he’s just the ultimate college pitcher, ultimate college teammate, ultimate college baseball player.
“He’ll go down as one of the very best we’ve had at Vanderbilt. My gosh, this kid – he’s meant so much to our program. He’s meant a lot to college baseball.
“He’s the best reflection of his parents. That’s high praise. He’s just done everything right. I love that young man.”
Said Rocker: “[College] was the biggest growth period of my life so far. And I dedicate all that to coach Corbin and the Vanderbilt family. It’s emotional. I’ve came a long way.”
Rocker has always featured a dominant fastball. But it wasn’t until the summer before his senior season in high school, when he played with Team USA’s U-18 team, that he developed a true slider to complement his fastball/curveball mix.
“He’s never relied on just raw talent,” Lasley said. “Even when he was 17 years old, he was always tinkering slightly with mechanics and trying to get better. We joke that during PFP’s [pitcher fielding practice], he was not good at that in high school. He’s been really good at that in Vanderbilt. He wants to be a complete pitcher.
“That one thing about Rock is you never had to tell Rock to work. He’d get the keys to the field or the weight room on Saturday and Sunday when the team’s off. He never stops working.”
Ahead of the draft, Rocker was ranked No. 5 in Baseball America’s prospect rankings, No. 6 in MLB Pipeline and No. 5 by The Athletic.
After being selected with the No. 10 pick, Rocker carries a slot value of $4,739,900. He’s represented by MLB superagent Scott Boras and will likely earn the full slot amount that comes with being such a highly sought-after player.
Over the next several weeks, Kumar will report to the Mets’ training facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla. He’ll be hundreds of miles away from his father, but Kumar will have full support from Tracy in Philadelphia.
“My biggest thing is, ‘How consistent are you as a person and your approach to business every day?’ ” the elder Rocker said. “That’s my selling point as a father and as a coach to anyone in sports: ‘What’s your approach every day? On both the good and bad days, how are you going to approach today?’ ...
“I’m just trying to be a dang good dad and guide him in the right way.”