People who are off their rocker because of ignorance, arrogance or prejudice--or, in the case of John Rocker, all three at once--don't usually deserve much attention. Kill 'em with indifference is good advice. After all, tossing another log on the eternally smoldering fires of hate is a rotten way to spend Christmas Eve.

Still, in a bizarre way, the Braves' relief pitcher, who has caused a national furor by disparaging homosexuals, AIDS patients, foreigners, minorities and single mothers--all in a single magazine interview--has given us a present that is actually in the spirit of the season.

The best in us is often brought forth when we come face-to-face with the worst in others. Sometimes, our most fundamental values are based not only on what we believe, but on what we oppose. Even if we aren't always wise enough to know the truth, we often know what's dead wrong.

Rocker's quotes in Sports Illustrated won't be repeated here in their entirety. We need to know the catch-phrases of prejudice, the buzzwords used by bigots. But there's no reason to repeat them unnecessarily. They are meant to hurt.

"Imagine taking the [No.] 7 train to [Shea Stadium in New York]," Rocker said. Then, he imagined it. Every kind of people he was willing to disrespect--and, thus, dehumanize--were on that train. Foreigners from poor, war-torn countries. Teenagers with wild hair styles. Homosexuals with AIDS. "Dudes" who, in Rocker's mind, just got out of jail. Unwed mothers and their children.

"The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners," said Rocker, who then listed Asians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, Russians and Spanish people. "How the hell did they get in this country?"

John, they probably "got in the country" the same way every other American, except Native Americans, managed it. By coming from someplace.

Nothing in the substance of Rocker's words is worth comment. But other issues are. First, to act so self-destructively, Rocker may have large personal issues to face. Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone, the one person on earth who, in theory, is hired to protect Rocker, has not only disowned him but, basically, put a baseball curse on him. "Something's going to go wrong now with his career," Mazzone said. "You watch it, it'll end up going straight down the tubes."

Rocker may hate a lot of people. He's lapped Reggie White. But the person he's hurt most is himself. So, who does Rocker hate most? My vote: John Rocker. That, however, is his problem, not ours. He's last on my New Year's list for sympathy.

Rocker's response to the storm he created is far more interesting than his original words. Rocker apologized, emphasizing that he went "way too far."

When I read that, I thought I'd been slapped. The implication is that being 10 percent a racist or 20 percent a xenophobe or 30 percent a misogynist or 40 percent a homophobe or 50 percent just a rockhead who feels free to disrespect anybody who's not just like him is pretty much okay. It's only when you are 100 percent despicable and 100 percent exposed in public that you have gone "way too far."

Rocker's rationalization for his quotes is stunning, too. In what, exactly, does Rocker think he's "gone way too far?" He says, "In my competitive zeal."

See, there's Rocker's real problem, at least in his own mind. It's too much virtue, too much competitive grit, too much Hate-The-Mets team spirit, that got him in trouble. Like some pro wrestler, he spewed hate and thought it would sell.

When young athletes are told, "Get an education," they often ask, "Why?" Isn't money enough? If you can buy anything you want, what more could you need?

Sometime soon, baseball and the Braves will have to figure out what, if anything, to do about Rocker. That's a subject for another day. For now, perhaps the Braves and MLB could collaborate on one of those public service posters. Print a million of them. Post them in every big league city. The caption would read: A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste. The picture would be a head shot of Rocker.

Rocker maintains that he is not a racist, although he "let my emotions get the better of my judgment and have said things which . . . are unacceptable to me and to my country." He may not know how precisely accurate those words actually are.

Last month, President Clinton spoke to U.S. forces in Kosovo. He told the troops that, although they might not know it, they were helping to solve the biggest problem in the world today. The problem? Hatred among races, religions, nationalities and political systems. People fear what is different from them. Fear leads to dislike. Dislike is just a step from hate. After you've decided that you hate somebody, you dehumanize them. They aren't really people at all. Once you've done all that, then one day you figure it is all right to kill them.

The American troops "just by being yourselves" and "working together" were addressing the problem, setting an example of diversity and mutual tolerance for the whole world to see. The soldiers seemed to get it. They cheered a lot. But then, maybe John Rocker wouldn't like to ride the 7 Train with them, either.