Sports fans were shocked when, earlier this week, Chicago White Sox’s first baseman Adam LaRoche abruptly announced that he was retiring from baseball, walking away from his 12-year career in Major League Baseball and the second half of the lucrative $25 million two-year contract he signed with the White Sox in 2014.
While many speculated whether LaRoche’s underwhelming first year at the White Sox could’ve inspired his decision, the actual answer turned out to be far more surprising than anyone could’ve expected — the reason was his son.
According to media reports, LaRoche decided to retire after White Sox President Ken Williams informed LaRoche that his 14-year-old son, Drake, had to begin limiting his time in the team clubhouse. The Chicago Tribune did a story on LaRoche and his son in June 2015, referring to Drake the team’s “26th man” and calling out how Drake was in the clubhouse every day that his father was there, both on the road and at home. The family has an arrangement with Drake’s school, so when they’re on the road, he takes weeks worth of homework with him.
While talking to Fox Sports, Williams was quoted as saying that he asked LaRoche to “dial back” how much time his son was present, noting that he felt Drake’s presence had impacted the team’s “focus.”
Williams went on to say, “I don’t think he should be here 100 percent of the time — and he has been here 100 percent, every day, in the clubhouse. I said that I don’t even think he should be here 50 percent of the time. Figure it out, somewhere in between.”
LaRoche, for his part, sent out this tweet:
So, who’s right? Isn’t that what we all do when we read stories like this — immediately try to figure out who’s the bad guy in the situation.
Is Major League Baseball at fault? Are they a family-unfriendly employer who are needlessly keeping a father from his son?
Or is LaRoche the bad guy? A spoiled baseball star who demands special treatment for his son and isn’t thinking about the other players on his team?
Per usual, the answer lies somewhere in between those extremes.
Is it unusual that LaRoche has his son in the clubhouse at every single White Sox game? Yes, it is.
LaRoche even admitted that in the Chicago Tribune article about his son, noting that he was “pretty lucky” that the White Sox allowed his son such unrestricted access. That same article even has quotes from other White Sox players, marveling at LaRoche’s arrangement. Second baseman Carlos Sanchez said, “I want to have my son be with me everywhere, too, like LaRoche’s son.” By all accounts, MLB and the White Sox has been extremely generous and accommodating when it came to LaRoche’s son.
But was having LaRoche’s son around a burden for the team? According to reports, LaRoche’s teammates did not have an issue with his son being in the clubhouse and openly told White Sox President Williams that in a heated team meeting.
So, if his co-workers didn’t care, what’s the problem?
The real problem is that Major League Baseball apparently knows how to manage their employees when they’re treating them as athletes, but they don’t know how to manage them as parents.
One of Williams’ most quoted statements about the LaRoche situation is, “You tell me where in this country can you bring your child to work every day?”
On the surface, that’s a hard point to argue. “I don’t get to bring my kid to work every day, so why does this millionaire baseball star get to do that?!”
The simple answer is — LaRoche got to do it because the White Sox let him.
As an employer, they let that happen. And, not only did they let it happen, they also allowed news outlets to write fawning stories all about what a great dad LaRoche was for spending so much time with his son. The White Sox knew what they were doing.
The issue is that, while they allowed LaRoche’s son all of this unprecedented access, they didn’t think about the consequences of their actions. What if another player complained? What if his son got hurt? What if every player wanted to start doing this with their kid?
It’s not LaRoche’s fault that he took advantage of a perk that his employer offered him. It’s the employer’s fault that they didn’t clearly define the perk.
In almost any other job, if you have a special arrangement with an employer, it has to be run through human resources and become extremely, obnoxiously defined for everyone’s protection. If you begin dating a co-worker or if you have a unique work-at-home agreement, the onus is on the employer to define that arrangement so everyone knows where the limits are.
From the beginning, once LaRoche started bringing his son to the clubhouse, MLB should’ve sat down with him and said, “OK, we need to talk about Drake’s presence, just to make sure everyone is covered here.” They should’ve had the hard discussions about how much is too much. They should’ve negotiated a policy that took both parties’ needs into account. And they should’ve set a limit, saying, “We’ve agreed to this policy for this year — this is when we’ll reassess and see if it needs to change.”
And, if LaRoche didn’t like the negotiated terms, he would’ve been free to walk away. But, instead, he was allowed to move forward with a vaguely defined agreement until the team president ended it, due to impossible-to-quantify reasons like “focus.”
In that Chicago Tribune article, while talking about LaRoche’s agreement, the reporter notes that, “A Sox representative says it’s typically up to a manager to set the team’s family policy.”
So, really, if there is any fault in this situation, it seems to fall on that manager and/or the team’s poorly-defined family policy.
Yes, having your kid there every day feels excessive — particularly since none of us non-super-rich-sports-stars get to do that. But, if Major League Baseball did a better job of acknowledging that their players are parents as well, they would’ve had HR policies in place to deal with this situation rather than running to the press to half-heartedly defend themselves.
And why did the team president decide to tell the press, “You tell me where in this country can you bring your child to work every day?” That’s an incredibly confrontational statement, which undoubtedly casts LaRoche — who is, by all account, a popular and well-liked member of the team — as an entitled, unreasonable employee.
That doesn’t offend me as a parent; it offends me as an employee. If my work tried to negotiate a parental leave or scheduling conflict by casting me publicly as a bad guy, well, if I had LaRoche’s 12 years’ worth of MLB paychecks, I might retire too.
Apparently, LaRoche is taking “a couple days” to decide whether or not to go through with his retirement. But, regardless of his decision, I hope that this conflict will cause Major League Baseball to start thinking more about their players as parents too.
In the past, the MLB has shown an impressive dedication to families — they’re one of the only sports with a paternity leave policy — but the LaRoche incident just highlights how the White Sox failed LaRoche as an employer and how they need to revamp their thinking about parental perks unless they want something like this to happen again.