EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the most recent developments.
A far-from-mundane exhibition season that has already seen such headline-stealing developments as Yoenis Cespedes’s motor pool and Goose Gossage’s tirades has gotten even weirder this week in the form of a controversy in White Sox camp involving Adam LaRoche. The 36-year-old first baseman announced his sudden retirement over the issue of the amount of time his 14-year-old son Drake is allowed to spend with the team. The curious timing of White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams’s sudden change of heart regarding how much time the younger LaRoche should spend in the clubhouse has shaken the team up to the point that ace Chris Sale verbally confronted Williams in a team meeting, and players considered boycotting Wednesday’s exhibition game, though they ultimately played against the Brewers.
[UPDATE #1: On Friday Sale, who had hung jerseys of Adam and Drake in his locker as a show of solidarity, spoke to the media about the situation and made clear that tensions were still running high within the White Sox's clubhouse. According to the Chicago Sun-Times's Chris LeDuca, Sale said of Williams, "We got bald-faced lied to by someone we were supposed to trust," later adding, "This isn't us rebelling against rules, it's us rebelling against BS."]
LaRoche, a 12-year-veteran, was due $13 million in the second year of a two-year, $25 million deal signed with the White Sox in November 2014. He hit just .207/.293/.340 with 12 home runs in 2015, one of the worst seasons of his career, but Chicago was heading into the season with plans for him to serve as the team's regular DH. Via Fox Sports's Ken Rosenthal, when Williams told LaRoche that he needed to “dial it back” on the amount of time Drake spent with the team, and that he didn’t believe he “should be here 100% of the time—and he has been here 100%, every day, in the clubhouse,” LaRoche chose to retire, deciding that spending time with his family was more important than the money, an admirable principle.
Around the majors, teams’ policies on children in the clubhouse vary as widely as their choices of uniforms, with some more welcoming than others. Famously, back in 1983, Ken Griffey Jr. and his brother Craig were frequently around the Yankees clubhouse while their father, Ken Sr., played for the team, until their rowdiness after a defeat rubbed manager Billy Martin the wrong way and he ordered them out. Griffey carried a grudge against New York throughout his Hall of Fame career, vowing to always play harder against the Yankees, and that may have contributed to the .315/.395/.615 line he produced against them, along with 41 homers in 599 plate appearances.
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LaRoche, the son of longtime major league reliever Dave LaRoche (whose last game, incidentally, was also with those ’83 Yankees) and the older brother of fringe major leaguer Andy LaRoche, spent considerable time in clubhouses himself while growing up, and he wanted his son to share that experience. When LaRoche re-signed with the Nationals following the 2012 season, after Drake and his sister Montana begged him to stay home, Adam and his wife, Jenn, instead made arrangements with the team and with Drake's school that allowed the teenager to join his dad at the ballpark. Drake kept busy by scrubbing players’ cleats, shagging fly balls, gathering baseballs and fetching water and sunflower seeds—all while also getting to hone his baseball skills under the eyes of major league players and coaches.
Via the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore, the Nats viewed Drake as their 26th man. “Nationals players adored Drake. He provided levity in a grinding season and failure-based game … One reason teammates didn’t mind having Drake around is because it was Adam LaRoche’s kid. There is probably not a more admired, more well-liked man among ballplayers than LaRoche.”
When LaRoche left the Nationals to sign with Chicago, one condition for doing so was that Drake be allowed in their clubhouse on a daily basis, according to CSN Chicago's Dave Kaplan. The team issued him a uniform and a locker stall in the White Sox clubhouse, and he was similarly well-received. Manager Robin Ventura told the Chicago Tribune's Colleen Kane, “I think you get a better feel of who somebody is when they’re around their kid, how they treat their kid … [Drake LaRoche] is pretty impressive when you’re around him, with manners and knowing where he’s at and understanding when he can move around and when it’s probably time to sit tight.”
As Kane described it, LaRoche’s wife coordinates a schedule that includes the kids’ schooling in Kansas, youth baseball in Kansas and Chicago, and the Sox travel schedule. The children take three weeks worth of homework with them on the road. That may not be every parent’s ideal of how to raise children, but in the LaRoches’ view, the benefits of keeping the family together via the unusual arrangement outweigh the costs.
While Williams wasn’t wrong when he asked rhetorically, “You tell me where in this country can you bring your child to work every day?” what makes very little sense at this juncture is why after calling Drake “a great young man,” he went back on his previous agreement with LaRoche, to the point that Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, is exploring the possibility of filing a grievance on the player’s behalf. A contract may have been violated; at the very least, the trust between Williams and LaRoche certainly was.
What’s more, it’s unclear why Williams has let this become an issue in mid-March instead of addressing it before the start of spring training. If nothing else, had LaRoche felt strongly enough about retiring at that juncture, the Sox might have used the $13 million savings to sign Dexter Fowler or Ian Desmond or another free agent who could have provided a more substantial upgrade than their recent low-cost additions of outfielder Austin Jackson and shortstop Jimmy Rollins.
Even more worrisome for Chicago, Williams now has a near-mutiny on his hands. According to Rosenthal, neither general manager Rick Hahn nor Ventura agreed with the VP’s approach. Teammates past and present such as Adam Eaton and Blaine Boyer spoke up on behalf of LaRoche and his son, with Eaton telling CSN Chicago's Dan Hayes, “We wanted Drake in the clubhouse, and we were backing Adam in every aspect.” An anonymous teammate told Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan, “Drake LaRoche was the best kid ever in the clubhouse. He actually did work.”
Tensions have since increased. When Williams met with the team, Sale “absolutely lit up” the exec, according to Passan, who added in subsequent tweets that “F-bombs aplenty flew,” that “the main thrust of Chris Sale’s anger with Kenny Williams was that he’s not around enough to understand the dynamics of White Sox clubhouse,” and that it was Williams’s unilateral overruling of Hahn and Ventura in such a context that set players off. ESPN's Karl Ravech reported that players considered a boycott, but Ventura intervened and the game took place as scheduled.
[UPDATE #2: Sale charged Williams with lying to the team, telling reporters that he contradicted himself when he met with the players. Via the Sun-Times's DeLuca, "Sale says Williams told the players that coaches were complaining about Drake's presence. Then went to coaches and said players were complaining. Then held a clubhouse meeting and said chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was complaining."
Furthermore, Sale suggested that Ventura should have been able to address the matter, saying, "He's the top, he's the leader in the clubhouse. If something needs to be said in here, he can say it and it's taken with respect because he's fighting with us and quite honestly he's taken heat for us that he didn't deserve. We trust him."
According to the Sun-Times's Daryl Van Schouwen, Sale said that the players want to hear directly from Reinsdorf.]
Williams attempted to make lemonade out of lemons by telling Hayes, “[T]he way that they banded together to try to protect this young man and their teammate and everything—I told them, it’s admirable, and I love the bond that’s been created.” He also left the door open for LaRoche to reconsider, as the White Sox have not yet sent his retirement paperwork to the league office.
Even so, this conflagration reflects a failure of leadership on his part. On the heels of three straight losing seasons, one can understand why he wanted to make changes to ensure that the team is better focused on the task at hand. If he wants to address and adjust the team’s policy regarding children in the clubhouse in general and with Drake’s presence in particular, it’s his prerogative as the head of baseball operations, but confronting LaRoche about the situation midway through spring training clearly required more finesse than he was able to muster.
Still, this bizarre clash doesn’t appear to be a battle where one side is clearly right and the other wrong. Williams wanted to revisit the team’s policy and minimize something that he was worried could be a distraction; for all the vocal support that LaRoche and son received, perhaps there were some players who were uncomfortable with the situation and chose to address the matter discreetly. LaRoche wanted to maximize the amount of time he spent with his family, stood by that principle at the expense of his lucrative salary, and—in a rather unique way—ended his career on his own terms. Every player should be so lucky.