I am not saying that he hasn’t been a quality player (255 career homers), but the retirement of 12-year veteran first baseman/designated hitter Adam LaRoche on Tuesday sent the kind of buzz through the world of baseball usually reserved for future first-ballot Hall of Famers. LaRoche, who signed a two-year, $25 million contract last year with the Chicago White Sox, claimed that he retired abruptly after the team’s vice president Kenny Williams informed him that he must scale back the time his 14 year-old son Drake spent with the team in the clubhouse, and LaRoche claims that he was told “not to bring him to the ballpark at all.” The 36 year-old LaRoche is the son of former Major League pitcher and 14-year veteran Dave LaRoche, and he comes from a large fraternity of “clubhouse kids,” sons of professional baseball players who essentially grew up with their fathers in a Major League environment. LaRoche claims that one of the verbal stipulations to his coming to the White Sox from the Washington Nationals last year was that Drake was permitted to be present in the clubhouse on a regular basis.
The disagreement not only spurred LaRoche’s abrupt departure from the sport (as well as forfeiting $13 million for the 2016 MLB season), but it caused a near boycott of both Wednesday’s game against the Brewers and Friday’s preseason game against the Cubs. According to ESPN’s Ken Rosenthal, the incident also led to an angry confrontation between Williams and star pitcher Chris Sale, which included multiple profanities and with Sale ultimately kicking the executive out of the clubhouse. Sale told reporters following the confrontation, “This isn’t us rebelling against rules — it’s us rebelling against BS.’’ While that kind of tirade is usually enough to get a player traded the next day, Sale’s stellar career and howitzer arm likely means that he is the only player on the team with enough latitude to voice what initially appeared to be a unanimous sentiment around the clubhouse. Sale has accused Williams of lying to the team, and telling them three different stories, saying that “He (Williams) came to the players and said it was the coaches. He went to the coaches and said it was the players. Then he came in here and said it was the owner.”
By all accounts, including Williams’, Drake LaRoche is a “great young man” and the unofficial team mascot, as he was with the Nationals during his father’s tenure from 2011-2014. For his part, Williams claims that he merely told LaRoche to “dial it back,” as Drake was a clubhouse presence nearly every day last year. In his defense, Williams asked reporters, “You tell me, where in this country can you bring your child to work every day?” This statement has resonated among common people and even former clubhouse kid-turned major leaguer Aaron Boone, who said, “I feel that, first and foremost, the club has the right to impose policy on kids in the clubhouse.” Seattle Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyer Jr., who grew up alongside his famous father, also defended the White Sox, saying that baseball’s environment has become more businesslike due to “The pressure of winning, of getting the players ready — there are so many more different distractions in trying to get your guys ready. I get it.” Rick Telander of the Chicago Sun-Times notes, “It’s not like the boy, who is home-schooled, was around the team just occasionally. He’s there like a tick on a hound, home and road.”
The near-revolt, however, might be more of a Ken Williams problem than it is about this single confrontation and policy change. Telander believes that the rift between Williams and the White Sox clubhouse runs deep, noting that he has been involved in public disputes with personnel since his first year as GM in 2001. That year, his handling of a contract dispute between the team and Hall of Famer Frank Thomas led to longstanding hostilities between the two, famously leading up to a 2007 press conference in which Williams called Thomas an “idiot.” Also, despite winning the World Series in 2005, Williams’ public feud with manager Ozzie Guillen ultimately led to Guillen’s unceremonious departure in 2011. These past incidents make Williams an easy target to side against, but many pundits, including Deadspin’s Samer Kalaf wonders if the support for Drake wasn’t as “unanimous” as has been perceived, and instead wonders if Williams is covering for players who have complained about the amount of time the team spends with the team in private discussions with upper-management. In fact, according to the Sporting News, “multiple baseball officials” told USA Today that several players and staff members complained to Williams about Drake’s constant presence.
Historically, clubhouse kids have been a major part of the game and widely accepted throughout baseball’s long history, although to varying degrees. Former catcher Eduardo Perez, son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez recalls growing up in Cincinnati during the days of the Big Red Machine. The younger Perez recalls several instances in which legends like Pete Rose and his famous father allowed him in the clubhouse, however, only if he studied the game and knew when to make himself disappear. Perez fondly reflects on his time growing up with the team, telling ESPN, “If you took away me being on the field and being away from my dad. I wouldn’t have known what to do.” Perez added, “I wouldn’t have been a major leaguer. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.” Two of the greatest hitters in baseball history were clubhouse kids, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds (steroids or no steroids), and many other examples follow including Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, son of Tito. Francona allows players in the Indians clubhouse, but only if they say hi to him first in order to establish a relationship. Still, while it’s common for children to be present in the clubhouse, Drake may be an extreme case. He attended roughly 120 of the team’s 162 games last season, and some have questioned if the true issue is moderation versus the extreme.
When Francona’s father played for the Indians in the fifties and sixties, kids were not allowed in the Indians clubhouse, but he was able to watch the games from the stands. As a manger, he understands the balance between the high stakes of professional baseball and a player’s desire to share the big league experience with his kid, saying, “I think it’s really nice that their kids can come to the ballpark with them.” Francona added however; “But I’ve always also put in the rules that our clubhouse guys aren’t babysitters. They don’t run a childcare. But I fall on the side that I like to have the kids coming around.” For Texas Ranger veteran third baseman Adrian Beltre, the issue is personal, as his nine-year old son Adrian Jr. (A.J.), is often seen with his dad at the ballpark. Beltre, like many current and former players acknowledges that the team is the ultimate arbiter of the rules involving clubhouse kids. Beltre told Yahoo Sports that “We have rules internally, so I know what the rules are. As a team here, we try to keep it acceptable for everybody. Yes, we love to have our kids around, but we know we have to follow some rules.” Griffey acknowledged similar sentiment reacting to the firestorm by saying, “That’s just the way things go,” he said.”Different places have different rules and you have to accept it and move on. Personally, I think the timing (this late in spring training) is crazy for this. But the organization has the right to do what they want to do and need to do. And (LaRoche) has the right to walk away. There is no right or wrong on this.”
According to reports, LaRoche’s former teammate Adam Eaton contacted the Players Association over the incident. Although union president Tony Clark acknowledged that he has been in contact with LeRoche over the incident, he was unsure if an official grievance would be filed. Clark said Saturday that he was “monitoring the situation,” he did not confirm if he was aware of the details regarding the verbal agreement LaRoche made with the team upon signing his two-year deal. Instead Clark said about the details, “We are interested in those, particularly when we find out about them, and we’re always concerned about any individual agreement violates the collective bargaining agreement as a whole. That’s where we end up engaging in conversations where we may not otherwise, when it has the potential to affect a much larger group.” On Sunday, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said that he met with LaRoche and that he considers the saga to be over. Whether or not LaRoche ultimately decides to play in 2016, his abrupt retirement has spawned unusual debate to kick off the baseball season. As the debate continues, it will be interesting to see if concrete policies are implemented league-wide, or if it will remain up to the discretion of individual teams.