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ADAM LaROCHE SPEAKS with the kind of certainty that makes doubt seem like a disease. He can make his argument, and he can make yours too, talking his way through every side of a story like a guy working a piece of furniture down a tight stairwell: slowly, carefully, occasionally taking a step back to assess his progress.
He's sitting in a house outside Phoenix, his body across the couch like a flung coat. His wife, Jenn, and 12-year-old daughter, Montana, are out shopping; his 14-year-old son, Drake, is a nearly spectral presence: in the back by the pool, at the kitchen table, upstairs. Adam's red beard is 3 inches shorter than it was before he retired from baseball nine days earlier. The trim makes him look slightly -- only slightly -- less like a Civil War cavalryman. He's a Kansan who speaks with an unhurried drawl that seems to have arrived from points south.
In a few days, he will depart this nice house, with its gourmet kitchen and custom pool on a Stepford-like street of beige stucco, and head out with his family in an RV. They will hit the mountains of Big Bear and then head west and north to the California Redwoods, then Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. He's thinking about Alaska too. Six weeks? Two months? "We don't plan anything," he says. "Heck, we might be gone four months."
He will not watch baseball or pay attention to the standings. Over his 36 years, he has not rooted for any team in any sport he did not play for. If the fish aren't biting, he might check in on friends he made through his 12-year big league career. But that's about it.
So here's the deal: You need to forget everything you think you know about professional athletes. Adam LaRoche is different. He walked into the clubhouse for the first time every spring and greeted new teammates by saying, "Oh, hey, I didn't know we signed you." During spring training in 2010, with the Diamondbacks, he and his family pulled a trailer to Tucson, and he rode a bicycle from the campground to the ballpark every day. He's one of the stars of the reality TV show Buck Commander, in which he bow-hunts with a couple of ex-ballplayers, two country music singers and one member of the unapologetically redneck Robertson family, they of the Duck Dynasty dynasty. He also owns E3 Meat Co., which is run out of the Kansas ranch that's been in his wife's family for six generations.
Then there's this: LaRoche, along with Brewers pitcher Blaine Boyer, spent 10 days in November in Southeast Asian brothels, wearing a hidden camera and doing undercover work to help rescue underage sex slaves. All of which raises a question: After 12 years in the big leagues, the endless days and nights in dugouts and clubhouses, how did LaRoche's nearly cinematic level of nonconformity escape detection?
The relative anonymity ended on March 15, at roughly 9:30 a.m., when White Sox manager Robin Ventura finished his daily spring training meeting in the team's clubhouse in Glendale and LaRoche asked if he could have the floor. The veteran first baseman had edged toward this moment for more than a week, since White Sox VP Kenny Williams told him to "dial back," then eliminate altogether, the time his teenage son spent at the field and in the clubhouse.
For several nights thereafter, LaRoche had walked two doors down from his house -- passing one beige stucco to stop at the next -- to talk to Boyer, his longtime friend. With the help of a bottle of Crown Royal, LaRoche made the case for retirement while Boyer cross-examined. "We hammered every situation to make sure he didn't have any regrets," Boyer says. There was the money -- LaRoche, who earned roughly $70 million in his career, stood to make $13 million more this season. There was the idea that Drake would carry the weight of the decision. And, finally, there was public perception, a laughable concern for a man of such abject certainty. Some nights their wives, both named Jenn, joined them. Jenn LaRoche kept asking, "Are you sure? Are you sure?" And one night Jenn Boyer, perhaps sensing what would happen when the story got carried by the wind, began crying. "She knew he was going to do it," Blaine says.
After Ventura yielded the floor that morning, LaRoche stood before his teammates. "I am choosing my son over you guys," he said. "I cannot tell you how much I hate that I'm even having to make this decision, and how much it crushes me to feel like I could be leaving you guys hanging."
His teammates stayed for nearly two hours after his announcement, debating whether to take the field. LaRoche says some urged him to change his mind -- a compliment that didn't shake his resolve. He walked out, and in that moment, with the immediacy possible only in our accelerated age, he became an emblem of some weird scission nobody knew existed. The molecules traveled their viral tributaries, and the story -- his story -- stopped being about him.
Adam LaRoche was now a conduit for opinions on education and money and privilege and kids in the workplace. Hashtags reigned. He was either an idiot or a saint. But that night, after he walked away from baseball and became the author of one of America's oddest retirement stories, LaRoche put his head on his pillow and slept the sleep of the dead. Certainty had won again.
HE REPEATS THE same three words -- I get it -- so often it becomes a mantra. Until now, he hasn't spoken publicly about any of it. But over a nearly four-hour conversation, this is his message: He gets it, even if nobody else thinks he does.
"I never took it for granted," he says. "One, I get to play a game. Two, I get paid an absurd amount of money to play a game. Three, I can have my son with me while I'm doing it. I was pinching myself all the time, wondering, 'What did I do to deserve this?' And I always knew it could get shut down at any point. You could have a manager who just flat doesn't like it. You can have players complain -- Hey, we're tired of having a kid around. There's a chance we could have other guys see Drake and think, 'I'll bring my kid too.' Obviously we can't turn this into a day care. I get it."
But Drake was different, he says: "the exception to the rule." He began to accompany his father to the field at the start of spring training in 2011, LaRoche's first year with the Nationals. By the second day, LaRoche says, 9-year-old Drake was shining shoes and picking up baseballs after drills and feeding tees. LaRoche says it got to the point where teammates would wonder what happened when Drake wasn't there.
"I would go to those managers every year," he says. "I would tell them, 'Listen, if there's ever an issue, specifically if a player comes up to you, you've got to let me know.'"
Some reports indicated that White Sox players voiced concerns, prompting Williams to act. During a session with reporters, Williams asked, "You tell me: Where in this country can you bring your child to work every day?"
"I'm not saying this is the way everybody should raise their kid," LaRoche says. "I'm saying I was given the privilege to raise my kid this way by some awesome teams and managers and GMs. Can every parent do it? No. But can we spend more time with our kids? Sure. I feel like I've spent as much time with Drake as you can, and if he were to die tomorrow, I guarantee you I'd be looking back and saying I wish I spent more time with him."
Still, a clubhouse? That fortress of testosterone-laced stupidity? The only time LaRoche -- intensely religious and openly conservative -- sounds wistful is when he says, "There's no other workplace where you walk in and guys are slapping each other in the nuts and saying the stuff they do." So that place?
"You can say, 'That's no place for a kid to be,'" LaRoche says. "The way I see it, he's going to be around that regardless, unless you home-school and raise them in a bubble. I can't think of a better place for him to be when he gets a taste of that than with me."
Can you hear the certainty, flat and straight as a Kansas highway? Do you get it?
Does Drake? "Honestly, I think he sees it as more time to hunt and fish," Adam says. It will be tough, sure, because the clubhouse was good for Drake, and Adam says Drake was good for the clubhouse. In 2012, Nationals utilityman Mark DeRosa cut a deal with Drake: I'll pay you every time you catch me swearing.
"D-Ro's a smart guy," LaRoche says now from his couch, "but that was one of his dumber decisions. Drake was his shadow, just couldn't wait for him to say a cuss word." LaRoche calls to Drake, who's working on a laptop in the upstairs loft: "Hey, Drake, how much did D-Ro give you if you caught him cussing?"
Drake opens a panel of louvered blinds and peers down. "He gave me 250 bucks," he says, his voice a pubescent Hollywood Western version of his dad's. "Ten bucks a word."
SO MUCH OF LaRoche's life has been a series of random, serendipitous events. As a rookie with the Braves in 2004, he lost his favorite Duck Commander cap, so he called to order another one. The number went to the home of Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family. Jase Robertson, Phil's son, asked LaRoche what he did for a living.
"I play for the Braves," he said.
"Really? What level?"
"I'm in the big leagues."
It was poker night at the Robertson house, and after Jase canvassed the room, he said, "Man, we've never heard of you."
"Well," LaRoche said, "I'm a rookie."
Three weeks later, a bunch of Robertsons -- all Braves fans -- drove from Monroe, Louisiana, to stay with Adam and Jenn. And a year after that, LaRoche was a co-owner and star of Buck Commander, along with country music stars Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan.
The E3 Ranch -- he's a first baseman, get it? -- started as a source of meat for the LaRoche family, then Adam started giving it out to teammates. Word spread, and now E3 Meat Co. has two restaurants in Colorado and ships all-natural Black Angus across the country.
He throws his hands up. Don't you get it? Some things can't be explained.
EVERYONE LOVES TO cite a solitary motivation. Condensing a story into a premasticated headline ("Childish Millionaire Quits Over Kid") removes the need for complex thought. LaRoche wonders whether the decision to banish Drake was based on his diminished numbers. "I sucked last year, and the team sucked," he says of his below-replacement-level .207 batting average with 12 homers. "But I actually felt pretty good this spring. I thought I might actually be good this year, and then I go and quit."
He laughs about what might have been. But what if the origin of LaRoche's decision can be found in early November, in -- of all places -- the red-light districts of Southeast Asia?
Working through a nonprofit called the Exodus Road, LaRoche and Boyer conducted surveillance in brothels and tried to determine the age of the girls -- known only by numbers pinned to bikinis -- and identify their bosses.
"Something huge happened there for us," Boyer says. "You can't explain it. Can't put your finger on it. If you make a wrong move, you're getting tossed off a building. We were in deep, man, but that's the way it needed to be done. Adam and I truly believe God brought us there and said, 'This is what I have for you boys.'"
When it came time to board a flight back home, LaRoche hesitated. "I was sick," he says. "I was thinking about my kids and then thinking about the hundreds of thousands of parents who are searching for their 12-year-old daughters."
As they waited for their plane, LaRoche asked Boyer, "What are we doing? We're going back to play a game for the next eight months?"
They wielded their emotions like crude homemade weapons. Every crazed thought ran through their minds. Quit the game. Sell the house and move here. Give up everything and fight the fight full time.
LaRoche couldn't talk about it for two weeks. It's going on tonight, he thought as he tried to sleep. And here I am, in paradise at the ranch with my kids, where everything's safe.
CERTAINTY ALWAYS ENGENDERS outrage. After LaRoche retired, a comment he made three years ago about education -- "We're not big on school" -- was exhumed. In the binary world, it became an emblem of his independence or a sign of his remove.
"I said, 'I'm not big on school,' and I will back that up," he says. "Obviously, you have to go to school. It's not like it was 100 years ago -- even though I wish it was -- when you literally followed your dad around. I'm from the Midwest, so typically it was out farming or ranching. If you're old enough to walk, you're going to be out working. I think school is a great way to get knowledge, but I don't know how much wisdom you get. That's what you pick up in real life."
Drake and Montana attend a public school in Fort Scott, Kansas, that allows them to do their work electronically. They spend a couple of hours a day at a Sylvan Learning Center wherever the family is. Next fall, though, Drake will start high school, with mandatory attendance and baseball practices. "I had an idea this might be my last year," LaRoche says. "I knew this was probably our last opportunity to share time together at the field and do what we've always done."
Six months. The clock ticked. The father felt it. Do you?
Adam remembers going to a parent-teacher conference back in Fort Scott. Jenn was out of town. He had no choice. He walked in and sat at a table with two teachers and two stacks of paper.
"Who do you want to start with?" one asked.
"I don't care," Adam said. "Let's start with Montana."
Montana's teacher began to tell Adam about grades and test scores, how Montana was faring statewide. Adam interrupted.
"Listen, no disrespect at all, but I honestly don't care about their grades or how they're scoring," he said. "All I care about is two questions: How are they treating their classmates, and how are they treating you?"
"Oh, she's been great," the teacher replied.
With that, Adam moved on to Drake's teacher.
"How's he behaving?" he asked.
Adam stood, thanked them for their time and said, "OK. You guys have a good day."
That night, a teacher called Jenn. "Do you know what your husband did today?" she asked.
Adam laughs and quiets his voice so Drake can't hear. "I heard about that one. Thankfully, my wife cares about things like grades. The good thing is, I never got asked to go to another one."
HE NEVER LIVED and died with the game, but you probably get that by now. He grew up like Drake, hanging out at the ballpark while his father -- former big league pitcher Dave LaRoche -- worked as a coach for the White Sox and Mets. His brother, Andy, spent six years in the big leagues, including a special one in Pittsburgh with Adam. "I tell everybody we weren't smart enough for anything else," Adam says. "For the LaRoches, it was baseball or nothin'."
Here's another part you need to get: The more he became immersed in the game, the less of a hold it had on him. "A lot of times I've wanted to say, 'Honestly, baseball is not that important to me,'" he says. "And I could never figure out a way that didn't sound like I took it for granted or didn't want to be there. But if I had blown out a couple of years ago, or got released, I think I would have gotten over it really quick. I love it. It's a passion. But I think every one of us is put here for a bigger purpose."
I ask whether he'll file a grievance to recoup his $13 million 2016 salary, and the look he gives me -- a mixture of patience and pity -- is one I imagine he reserves for a slow child. "No," he says. "I did it. I made the final decision. And I can understand how people look at the $13 million. One, how stupid does somebody have to be? Or how selfish? Suck it up for six months, right?"
He lets the question drift. Your answer is your answer. His is something entirely different: He doesn't need any of it -- the money, the attention, the camaraderie -- enough to play by someone else's rules.
Afternoon has become early evening, and here comes Drake, bounding down the stairs, headed for the kitchen. Even as he flashes past, it's clear there's something funky going on with his hair. When I ask, Drake just smiles while Adam explains that White Sox pitcher John Danks gave the haircut at the beginning of spring training. Drake, the great deal maker, was promised an iPad if he kept the hairstyle through camp. Adam points to a new iPad on the kitchen table -- Drake was credited for time served, apparently -- and asks his son to turn around. There it is, peeking through the thicket: 50, Danks' number, shaved into the back of Drake's head. New growth is closing in, but it's still visible, just barely. In another week, maybe less, time will erase all signs of it.