By Barry Svrluga
Before this week, Adam LaRoche was known to baseball fans as so many things: first baseman and designated hitter, more than occasional slugger of home runs, a well-traveled veteran with stops in six major league cities over 12 seasons, including four as a Washington National.
But LaRoche’s retirement this week from the Chicago White Sox assured he will be remembered for one role over all others: father.
LaRoche’s abrupt decision to leave behind his baseball career because his employer wanted to limit the time his 14-year-old son could spend at the ballpark has reverberated well beyond the White Sox’s spring training headquarters in Glendale, Ariz. LaRoche’s conclusion, that he would rather abandon his $13 million salary than go through a year without his son by his side, has been featured on TV’s morning talk shows and been the subject of debate and discussion in baseball clubhouses and corporate board rooms, not to mention across social media: About children in the workplace. The demands of modern-day parenting. The value of formal education vs. time together as a family.
And, in LaRoche’s unique case, the wisdom of having his child with him for almost every one of 162 regular season games, not to mention the entirety of spring training.
With the baseball season just more than three weeks off, it also has caused a rift within the White Sox organization, with some players furious at management, which they believe changed the clubhouse rules midstream.
LaRoche and Drake walk to the White Sox clubhouse before a spring training workout. (John Locher/AP)On Friday, LaRoche revealed in a lengthy statement — his first public words since he left White Sox camp Tuesday — that while his decision might be up for debate nationally, it was hardly a debate personally.
“I had to make a decision,” LaRoche wrote in the statement, released through his Twitter account. “Do I choose my teammates and my career? Or do I choose my family? The decision was easy.”
The case of Drake LaRoche, who followed his father to work nearly every day of the season since Adam’s time with the Nationals from 2011 to 2014, has long been anything but typical, even in the world of baseball, where fathers frequently bring sons into the clubhouse long before games begin or after victories are over. Drake LaRoche was a constant presence at Adam’s side, shagging fly balls during batting practice, remaining in the clubhouse during games, helping the attendants with odd jobs all the while.
LaRoche and his wife, Jennifer, always have removed their two children from school in their home state of Kansas and received educational help from a tutoring service to keep the family together during the baseball season. LaRoche not only believed having Drake with him at the ballpark didn’t hinder his son’s education, he felt it enhanced it.
“As fathers, we have an opportunity to help mold our kids into men and women of character, with morals and values that can’t be shaken by the world around them,” LaRoche wrote in his statement. “Of one thing I am certain: we will regret NOT spending enough time with our kids, not the other way around.”
When Ken Williams, the White Sox executive vice president, met with LaRoche to encourage him to limit Drake’s clubhouse appearances, LaRoche said in his statement that he was disappointed in Williams’s “decision to alter the agreement” he had made with the club before signing with it before the 2015 season. Then he expressed to the White Sox the importance of having Drake with him, as he had been for much of his time in Washington. In 2015, the White Sox complied. Williams, though, told LaRoche this spring that he wanted to “dial back” Drake’s time in the clubhouse, where father and son had adjacent lockers.
Twelve-year-old Drake LaRoche might not have an actual contract with the Washington Nationals, but the team has considered him one of their own ever since he started showing up at spring training with his father Adam LaRoche six years ago. (Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)When LaRoche left the team’s facility Tuesday, he couldn’t have known the ripples his personal choice would make.
“It’s sending shock waves through not only the sports world but so many different media channels,” White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton told reporters. “I think a lot of people have stepped back and said, ‘If a man can step away from $13 million for his family and his son, what does it take for me to spend a little more time with my kid or take a little more responsibility for my family situation?’ ”
Thus, the lines were drawn both within the confines of the Chicago clubhouse and nationally, where discussion focused on the appropriateness of having kids in the workplace.
“There are benefits for families as well as businesses,” said Carla Moquin of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, a Utah organization that provides resources to help companies implement formal plans to allow kids at work. “The parent doesn’t have to feel like they’re choosing between a paycheck and their profession, and they can help their child learn from Day One, in a baby’s case, about work environments and social conventions.
“In this case, the teenager can see what his father did, all the day-to-day workings of the business, and that’s hugely positive for children.”
White Sox players who spoke publicly about Williams’s decision sided completely with their former teammate. Ace pitcher Chris Sale was particularly pointed in his criticism, saying Williams told different stories to different factions of the organization about his decision. Sale hung a pair of No. 25 jerseys, one for Adam and one for Drake, at his locker Friday.
“We got bold-faced lied to by someone we’re supposed to be able to trust,” Sale told reporters Friday. “You can’t come tell the players it was the coaches and tell the coaches it’s the players and then come in and say something completely different. . . . We’re not rebelling against the rules. It has nothing to do with the rules. It’s a much deeper issue.”
Williams, through the team, issued a statement following Sales’s remarks: “While I disagree with Chris’s assertions today, I certainly have always appreciated his passion.” White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said in a statement that the club would have no further comment this week, and he had instructed members of the organization to cease talking about the situation.
LaRoche is the son of a former major league pitcher and coach who grew up with regular trips to major league ballparks. Though Drake was around more than most kids dating from his father’s days in Washington, baseball has long had a tradition of fathers and sons spending time together at the ballpark. Ken Griffey Jr., who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer, first gained exposure to big leaguers through his father, longtime outfielder Ken Griffey Sr. Current Nationals Manager Dusty Baker brought his son, Darren, to the park at an early age, and the image of San Francisco Giant J.T. Snow scooping up a 3-year-old Darren as he crossed home plate in the 2002 World Series remains an indelible moment — one that prompted Major League Baseball to institute rules for how old kids must be before they can be on the field.
“You can’t judge from afar,” Baker said this week. “All I can do is answer what we’re going to do here. Personally here, I’m going to do what I’ve always done: invite kids in.”
Even in the generally tight-knit culture of baseball, in which former teammates frequently keep in touch with colleagues after they move on, LaRoche is particularly well liked. This week, those he knows across the game expressed sympathy for his situation.
“Hopefully one day I have kids [and] I can share that with my kid and bring him in the clubhouse and really enjoy my career with me,” said Nationals star Bryce Harper, who played on two division champions with LaRoche. “We’re gone so long from their lives — for eight months of the year — that some guys miss the first steps of their kid. It’s tough. You want to enjoy this as long as you can and do this with them as well. I try to enjoy that with my family. It’s definitely a tough situation.”
LaRoche, 36, was coming off a disappointing season in which he had just a .207 batting average and hit 12 home runs, the lowest marks of his career for a season in which he didn’t miss significant time because of injury. But he had long said that he would walk away from the game before it spit him out. He owns a ranch in Kansas, is pals with Jason Aldean and other prominent country musicians and runs a meat company. In some ways, he could see the end of his career long before this week. He just couldn’t have predicted the ultimate reason.
“In each and every instance, baseball has given me some of my life’s greatest memories,” he wrote. “This was likely to be the last year of my career, and there’s no way I was going to spend it without my son. . . . Do we act based on consequences, or do we act on what we know and believe in our hearts to be right? I chose the latter.”
James Wagner in Viera, Fla., contributed to this report.