Baseball 2007: The fire within
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- To a stranger, Adam LaRoche must seem a great contradiction.
He can appear lackadaisical, outright lifeless at times. And yet, at age 27, the Pirates' prized new first baseman has achieved so much in baseball and beyond, even as he displays a burning desire to push it all further.
His best buddy, Charlie Madison, figured it out a long time ago.
It was 1996, and LaRoche was quite the big man on campus at Fort Scott High School in Kansas, a three-sport standout and son of an All-Star pitcher in Major League Baseball. Madison was a rodeo competitor and the son of a prominent ranch owner in town.
One day in the schoolyard, LaRoche made Madison a bet.
More of a promise, really.
"I told Charlie, 'Listen, I'm going to make it to the big leagues one day. And you? You're going to come and run my ranch for me,' " LaRoche recalled, grinning through his deliberate midwestern drawl. "He just said, 'OK, sounds good.' I'm sure he was thinking I'm nuts."
Madison was taken aback.
"With how Adam is, always looking like he's just letting life go by ... well, he wasn't the type to brag," Madison said. "But maybe that's why I took him seriously, because it seemed like it was coming from the heart. ... I didn't have any doubt he'd make it."
LaRoche has, without question, gone well past the kindling point in the majors.
He hit 65 home runs in his first three seasons with Atlanta and, for most of a breakout 2006, was the most productive player in a dominating lineup. His first at-bat on opening day he produced a three-run shot to the Dodger Stadium bleachers, and he wound up with 32 home runs, 90 RBIs and a .285 average, all intertwined with near-flawless defense.
His .655 slugging percentage after the All-Star break ranked second only to National League MVP Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies.
And now, with the Pirates having acquired LaRoche in January in their most momentous trade in a decade or more, he can elevate his game -- perhaps even his profile -- in a way that might not have been possible in Atlanta: He will be the cleanup hitter, the heartbeat of the offense, the linchpin of hopes to end 14 years of franchise failure.
He could be, as some new teammates teasingly call him, "The Savior."
His destiny was fulfilled, too.
Holding an agriculture degree from Northwestern Oklahoma State University, he returned last summer to Fort Scott, where -- cue orchestra here -- LaRoche hired him to live on and care for his 2,000-acre ranch.
"Funny how that worked out," Madison said. "And the best part is we're both having the time of our lives."
Life by campfire
'So at peace when he's outside'
Jenn LaRoche is not one of those athletes' wives who covers her eyes when her husband is in a trying situation on the field.
"Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, I want Adam to be up," she said. "I know I couldn't do it if that was me, but I know my husband loves it."
Why is that?
"He's just the calmest, most patient person. That's where his success comes from."
Told of that, Adam LaRoche smiled and offered as a comparable his preferred method of deer hunting ...
He will remain perched for hours in a stand in woods near his ranch. He will watch and listen, careful not to make any sound louder than a soft exhale, while awaiting the slightest sign of a whitetail. Wait long enough, and a big buck could wind up 15 feet away.
When using a bow and arrow, as LaRoche does, it is almost essential that the deer gets that close.
"People talk about pressure in baseball," he said, shaking his head. "Just try this. Wait there all day, and you get one shot ... and it had better be perfect."
How might that differ from baseball?
"In terms of success, it's no different. If you can keep your mind clear of everything that doesn't have to do with your pitch or your shot of whatever, your chances go through the roof."
To label LaRoche an avid outdoorsman is inadequate.
He is proficient with the bow, owns several rifles and engages in all forms of fishing. He is a heavy hitter in golf, too, though his skills are limited because, as in baseball, he sprays to all fields.
And the latest entry: He took lessons from Madison on cattle roping this past winter.
"Picked it up right away," Madison said.
Even LaRoche's home life is built on the outdoors. His ranch is expanding annually -- a quarter of it was purchased last year -- with a goal toward raising cattle. At the moment, as he will sheepishly confess, there is but one horse, 11 goats and a few smaller animals.
In this realm, too, LaRoche finds a connection with his day job.
"I do enjoy the quiet, but that's not all it is to me," he said. "I love the challenge that comes with the ranch and the hunting and fishing and everything outdoors."
Dave LaRoche, his father and former relief pitcher for five teams from 1970 to 1983, said Adam's sedate exterior is unlike that of his other sons -- Andy, a third base prospect with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Jeff, a policeman in Colorado -- who can be emotional and demonstrative.
"But in the competitive sense? He's no different at all," Dave LaRoche said.
There is an easily apparent connection, too, between Adam LaRoche's personality and those of his daughter Montana, 3, and son Drake, 5.
"Mo loves the baseball and big cities and big stadiums," his wife said. "But Drake ... he feels like baseball just takes Adam away from him and the ranch, and he'd rather have Adam stay here all the time."
Which one is Adam?
"Little bit of both."
The fire alarm
'I'd be out there and forget things'
On May 14, 2006, LaRoche's life was altered by a routine grounder up the first-base line.
The ball crawled off the bat of Washington's Nick Johnson, LaRoche scooped it up, and it should have brought the final out of the fifth inning and kept the Braves within one run. LaRoche thought to tag Johnson, then decided instead to turn and step on the bag. But he did so inexplicably casually, and Johnson -- going full bore out of the box -- beat him by a hair.
As the cruel baseball gods would have it, the Nationals would score four runs that inning and win, all while the Turner Field crowd booed LaRoche incessantly, prompting LaRoche to turn to an umpire and say, "I feel naked out here."
But, as LaRoche still acknowledges, "The play looked bad. Real bad."
He tried to make immediate amends, going first to starting pitcher John Thomson's stall to apologize, then into Atlanta manager Bobby Cox's office.
"I knew right after it happened that I made a mistake, and that's what I told Bobby. That's the part that's hard for people to understand, unless they know you really well. And that's what kind of scared me. I could imagine people saying, 'Well, he just didn't care.' I was explaining to Bobby that there wasn't even a thought process. The ball came to me and ... it was just another play."
Driving off the stadium lot that night, he made up his mind.
"I knew I needed to see if I can get some help. I needed to find a way to focus."
It was no secret to LaRoche what he would learn. He had been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a sophomore in high school and was painfully aware that it had not gone away.
He often needed to be awakened from naps shortly before games.
Or to get nudged in the dugout when he should have been in the on-deck circle.
Or to glance up at the scoreboard for the count.
He would even drift off with thoughts of hunting while playing first base.
"I just learned to play with it for so long," LaRoche said. "I'd be out there and forget things ... and I'd just get used to it."
LaRoche was benched by Cox the night after his lapse, adding to the embarrassment as Atlanta television and ESPN's "SportsCenter" replayed his mistake again and again.
"Adam doesn't show much emotion, but stuff does bother him," Braves outfielder Jeff Francouer said. "And that bothered him."
It was not new. Through his years in the minors, LaRoche's love of the game and work ethic often were questioned by managers, coaches, even teammates. Some, as LaRoche recalled, used to tell him "at least fake some excitement."
Tired of "slipping his way through life," as his wife described it, LaRoche set an appointment the next morning to meet with an ADD specialist. Worried about Jenn's reaction, he did so without telling her, but he relented before leaving the house and the two had an open -- and animated -- conversation about it.
"My first reaction was, 'No, no, no! I like you just the way you are right now!' " Jenn LaRoche said. "I told him that, if I saw any changes I didn't like, I would never let him take that medicine."
The concern had merit. LaRoche had tried Ritalin, the medicine he knew would be prescribed, two years earlier while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, and it made him nervous and jittery. He stopped taking it after a month.
This time, perhaps because of increased tolerance, that did not occur. And the result was as clear as his new focus.
"I felt like I could concentrate, like things were so much easier," LaRoche said.
Studies show that roughly two-thirds of children diagnosed with ADD get help, but that most of those stop taking medication as adults, said Dr. Oscar Bukstein, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Classically, people with ADD don't have the greatest insights into their deficits," Bukstein said. "We're trying to change that, and we've seen some progress in this decade."
It is impossible to know how much Ritalin helped LaRoche's performance last season, if only because he began taking it at the same time Cox made him an everyday fixture in the lineup. Either way, it did not hurt: Through June 23, LaRoche was batting .239 with 11 home runs and 38 RBIs. After June 24, he batted .323 with 21 home runs and 53 RBIs in 79 games.
"Honestly, I can't say what the medication meant to my numbers, but I do know that it was easier to keep into everything going on in the game," LaRoche said. "All I know is that, in hindsight, I'm really glad that Washington game happened. I don't know if I ever would have gone to get help."
Major League Baseball has made a special exception for LaRoche and others diagnosed with ADD -- his application had to be accepted anew after his trade to the Pirates -- even though Ritalin is on the sport's list of banned amphetamines.
There is a reason it is banned, Bukstein said.
"It can definitely enhance your performance, being a stimulant," he said. "But, for someone like Adam, the medication just levels the playing field. The kind of lapses you have can be a killer in a sport like baseball where there's so much down time. It can be debilitating."
LaRoche does not take the Ritalin year-round, as his wife can attest.
"He started a bunch of projects on the ranch this winter but never finished them," she said. "There have been a couple times where I've looked at him and said, 'You'd better take that medicine or I'm going to kill you.' "
The torrid bat
'It wasn't any accident what he did'
It is from this package that the Pirates hope they have found the player who, of all ironies, can give them the spark they have lacked, who can be, as shortstop Jack Wilson put it, "a team-changing player."
The primary reason for such confidence, beyond a doubt, is that swing.
LaRoche was 10 years old when his father Dave, now minor-league pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays, offered perhaps the finest instruction of his career: He noticed that Adam was too crouched in his stance, too tightly wound -- picture Jeff Bagwell -- so he suggested that Adam "stay back and stand upright, almost nonchalant, to try to relax him."
The hits resumed immediately.
When Dave LaRoche later told his son he could revert back, the reply was firm: "No, I like this."
Dull and dormant on its surface, spirited and successful in its execution, LaRoche's swing is a reflection of himself in every way. And it remains unchanged to this day, as can be heard in Pirates manager Jim Tracy's description: "Back in the box, upright, kind of relaxed."
Long swings are common with big men -- LaRoche is 6 feet 3, 205 pounds, though not especially muscular -- and tend to be all-or-nothing, as such hitters commit too soon and fail to adjust. Not so with LaRoche, said hitting coach Jeff Manto.
"The pretty part is that it stays on the plane you want all through the hitting zone, and that lets him hit the pitch the way he wants to hit it," Manto said. "And, because of his stance, there's a lot of momentum coming through there."
While the technique never varied, the results did.
LaRoche was drafted out of high school in the 18th round by Florida. The Marlins loved his bloodlines -- and 90-mph fastball -- and viewed him as a pitcher. He rejected the Marlins then and again the next year when they drafted him in the 42nd round.
He wanted to hit. So, when Atlanta took him in the 29th round in 2000 with the pledge of making him a position player, he signed.
But that did not go smoothly, either. It took him nearly four years to reach Class AAA Richmond, and he never topped 13 home runs in a season to that point. The problem: All he did was pull the ball, and all pitchers did was pound him inside for easy outs.
Now, he is known for hitting all pitches to all fields, including his long balls.
"That was the big change for him," a National League West Division scout said. "He always had that swing. He just needed to use it to full potential."
What LaRoche and his swing can bring to the Pirates remains to be seen, of course, but the prospects seem promising that they have their best pure power-hitter since Brian Giles.
LaRoche he will play half his games at PNC Park, where the 21-foot high Clemente Wall is 20 feet closer at the foul pole than the right-field fence is at Turner Field and 15 feet closer in the power alley.
Or that he will have his first full season as an everyday player.
Or that power-hitters historically tend to post their highest home run totals beginning at his age, 27.
"There's no telling what he can do up there if he doesn't get too pull-happy or start thinking about that river out there," said Francouer, his old Atlanta teammate. "This is someone who came into his own last year. It wasn't any accident what he did. Y'all are going to see."
LaRoche's greatest challenge likely will be adjusting to the cleanup spot. He usually batted seventh for Atlanta, well out of the pressure positions. And, although he is adamant that he relishes RBI opportunities, his .254 average with runners in scoring position shows that still must be proven.
Andruw Jones, the Braves' cleanup man, shrugged off that number and predicted LaRoche will achieve 110 RBIs or more.
"Don't you worry about where Adam's hitting," Jones said, smiling. "He'll do just fine."
LaRoche did not flinch when asked if he expects, after his 2006 performance, to become an elite hitter in the game.
"Absolutely," he said. "After hitting like that, after feeling that confident ... how can you not expect to be in the top categories every year? I'm not going to bring it up because I'm not into that kind of thing. But inside, yeah, I believe it."
'What's the number 82 mean?'
LaRoche did not take the news of the trade well, and not just because he was leaving behind good friends in Atlanta.
He was, after all, coming to the Pirates. He knew they had a few good players and an established manager, but he also knew they had not won in forever and that they perennially are among the majors' most frugal outfits.
Then, just days after the deal, came the worst: He heard fans at PirateFest speaking wistfully of winning 82 games, one above .500.
He phoned his wife.
"Adam's telling me, 'You wouldn't believe this. All they want to do is not lose,' " she recalled.
LaRoche offers no apologies.
"My first reaction was ... I didn't even know what people were talking about. What's the number 82 mean? Were they serious?" he said. "I mean, look, I haven't been here. I don't know how hard it's been for the people up there, or for the players. At the same time, I don't feel bad saying this: If that's anyone's goal in Pittsburgh, it just shouldn't be."
LaRoche took some initiative to get answers. Shortly after arriving at spring training, he met privately with Tracy -- at the player's request -- to discuss the Pirates' goals. A week later, when new principal owner Bob Nutting visited camp, he raised the subject with him, too.
He sounded satisfied with what he has heard so far.
"All I can go with is what I see and ... I'm sorry, but I don't see this losing attitude. I don't see it with anybody, from ownership on down. I don't know if it's everybody's true feelings, but it sounds to me right now like these people are expecting to win a lot more ball games than they have in the past."
If that happens, be sure LaRoche will receive a large chunk of the credit, 40 home runs or not, judging by the effect he appears to have had in the clubhouse.
Outfielder Jason Bay, one of the Pirates' leaders, is predicting LaRoche will join him and others in that role.
"We've never really had, since I've been here, guys like Andruw and Chipper Jones and John Smoltz, guys who have won 10 years in a row," Bay said. "Granted, Adam's not going to stand up and preach. That's just not him. But it means a lot to us that he's been there. No matter how much talent you have, you can't have a bunch of guys looking at each other and thinking, 'How are we going to do this?' "
Again, there is the contradiction: The allegedly laid back LaRoche cast into a leadership role, and embracing it.
"Three years ago, I wouldn't have wanted this responsibility," he said. "I felt fortunate just to have a chance to play in those guys' shadows, behind Chipper and Andruw. But I learned from them. I saw how, when we had a bad game, they were the ones front and center. You've got to be like a coach. You've got to make sure players are on board."
He gave a purposeful nod.
"I'll do that here. The more I know about this challenge, for myself and for the team, the more I like it."
Such an attitude shift probably will not surprise his father.
"Adam's always loved to win, but he's always kept it inside," Dave LaRoche said. "I don't know. Maybe that will have to change in Pittsburgh. I could see that situation really bringing out the best in him."
Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.
The First Pitch
Adam LaRoche and son Drake, 5, get in a rare evening of fishing near their spring training home last month in Bradenton, Fla. He makes his living out of doors, but he finds his solace and himself in all the outdoors.
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Adam LaRoche's career numbers in three seasons with the Atlanta Braves before being traded to the Pirates for reliever Mike Gonzalez and minor-league shortstop Brent Lillibridge:CategoryNo.Games played400At-bats1,267Runs scored187Hits347Doubles93Triples2Home runs65Runs batted in213Walks121Strikeouts293Batting average.274On-base percentage.337Slugging percentage.504 Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
LaRoche proved to be a quick favorite of Pirates fans when it came time for autographs around camp this spring.
Click photo for larger image.Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
The addition of Adam LaRoche will not only bolster the middle of the lineup, but the infield defense.
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First Published April 1, 2007 12:00 am