LaRoche still the same kid he was with the Pelicans

col-tbuzz-2The big news story in baseball this week was the sudden retirement of Chicago White Sox designated hitter Adam LaRoche over the team’s request that he not bring his 14-year-old son, Drake, to the ballpark so often. It was a big story to me for a different reason.

It was only 16 years ago that La Roche showed up as a fresh-faced rookie to the Class A Myrtle Beach Pelicans, and I was covering the second-year franchise. March was a magical time for the players and reporters as a new group of 25 hopefuls were assigned to Myrtle Beach. That meant at least 25 new stories for reporters, and maybe one or two future major leaguers.

It was clear from the start that LaRoche was going to be one of those players that made it to the big leagues. It wasn’t his funky lefthanded swing, which the Atlanta Braves tried to correct before telling him to return to his unorthodox but effective stroke. It certainly wasn’t his 29th-round draft status, which shows what scouts and teams thought about his odds. Instead, it was his passion on the diamond that was tempered by a calm demeanor off it – a key combination for rookies.

Although many misconstrued his ADHD diagnosis for him being slow and a bit off, LaRoche was smart beyond his years. One of the funniest things I saw every year was the disparity between the money paid to bonus-baby draft picks and longshot signees. The top picks drove brand new sports cars or Hummers, which were parked right beside the second-hand rides of other players. LaRoche used his money to buy a pickup truck, bass boat and a large lakefront lot of land in his hometown back in Kansas.

“If I get cut or blow out my arm tomorrow, I can always go back home and hunt and fish,” LaRoche said in a paraphrased conversation in the clubhouse. You could tell he meant it. Unlike many of the talented players around him that season, LaRoche didn’t seem to feel the same pressure as the others, or at least he didn’t show it. And the mental game is what cuts more careers short than the physical. A hitting slump could mentally bury a kid under an avalanche of batting tips and fears about the future.

Perhaps the reason LaRoche not only reached but lasted this long in the big leagues is because of his upbringing. His father, journeyman pitcher Bob LaRoche, used to take Adam with his to the ballpark every day. He grew up around some of the top players from the 1980s and ’90s, so making it to the majors wasn’t some abstract obstacle he had to climb. It was certainly a goal that seemed attainable to him, and one that he wanted to share with his son, Drake. What a wonderful childhood.

But the White Sox’s decision to tell LaRoche to cut back on Drake’s time with the team struck a nerve with LaRoche, and I can easily see him passing up the $13 million he was set to be paid this season to spend more time with his kid. And I don’t really blame the White Sox for trying to set some guidelines about how much time a player can bring their kids around the field and clubhouse. After all, it is a big business and not a day-care center, so they have a right to set some rules.

But it shows the way the game has changed over the past generation, and how players like LaRoche are a threatened species in the dugout. The dream childhood he got to experience as the son of a player no longer exists, lost to a changing culture in major league baseball that puts the bottom line above family ties. LaRoche was brave enough to walk away from millions to be a daddy instead of a DH, and it doesn’t surprise me that he would do it given his unique perspective on playing baseball.

It isn’t just a game anymore; it’s a business. It takes a special type of player to know the difference, and LaRoche qualifies given his principled stance to give up the game he loves. Despite his rapid rise through the baseball ranks to the big leagues, LaRoche is still the same good-natured kid who loved to go fishing and hunting when he was a nobody with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. I am honored I got the chance to know him, and hope to be the same kind of father and person.

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