For Adam LaRoche, Nationals spring training is take-your-son-to-work day every day

VIERA, FLA. — Two weeks ago, Adam LaRoche arrived at spring training with an equipment bag slung over his shoulder and the luckiest 11-year-old in America walking close behind — his shadow, son and best buddy. A few players inside the Washington Nationals clubhouse rushed over to hug Drake LaRoche and say hello. He pulled off his cap to reveal a buzzed scalp, except for the long hair dangling from the back of his head.

“Who cut your hair?” someone asked.

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“Jason,” Drake replied.

“Who’s Jason?”

“Jason Aldean.”

The LaRoches had stopped in Nashville on their drive from their Kansas ranch to Viera. They spent the night at the home of Aldean, just another of Drake’s grown-up friends. The famous country singer had pranked him in the middle of the night.

“Oh, no big deal,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We always joke about how Drake’s life is cooler than ours.”

You watch Drake LaRoche scamper around the outfield, raising both arms in celebration when another big league flyball lands in his black glove, and you wonder if he realizes how lucky he is. He is only 11, and at that age the only life you can fathom having is your own.

Since LaRoche signed with the Nationals in 2010, Drake has grown into part of the team’s fabric. He refers to Nationals players like pals from recess: Desi, Zim, Bryce, T-Mo. He shines shoes, shags batting practice, runs errands and generally hangs out. He was fitted this spring for two uniforms, one for practice and one for games. “The 26th man,” bench coach Randy Knorr said.

When the Nationals re-signed LaRoche this winter to a two-year, $24 million contract, it meant they brought back Drake, too. He will spend the entire spring with his dad, and tag along for most of the season at Nationals Park. For the past three years, since Drake became old enough to safely join him at the field, LaRoche has made his son part of his career.

“It’s kind of hard to explain that as a parent,” LaRoche said. “It’s like having your son and your best friend alongside you all day long, at work, which never gets to happen. I don’t know many jobs where you can bring your kid and not have to put him in day care somewhere. It’s been awesome.”

A baseball lifer

LaRoche himself grew up in big league clubhouses. His father, Dave LaRoche, pitched in the majors until LaRoche was 4, then became a coach with the Chicago White Sox. LaRoche and his brother, Andy, would play handball in the clubhouse with the starting pitcher, once he had been removed from the game, or a player on the disabled list. In spring training, they ran around the outfield with shortstop Ozzie Guillen’s sons, or played home run derby on a back field with Ken Griffey Jr., then a teenager tagging along with his dad.

Drake was born when LaRoche was 22, still a prospect in the Atlanta Braves’ minor league system. LaRoche reached the majors at 24, intent on making Drake part of his career.

“I just remember saying I’m going to take him every chance I can,” LaRoche said. “Because some of my best memories came with my dad taking us to the park, whether it was spring training or during the season. It’s stuff I’ll never forget.”

LaRoche’s teams never had a problem with him bringing Drake to the park, so long as he stayed out of the way. LaRoche’s teammates adore him. Last week, pinch hitter Chad Tracy walked by Drake. “You get any push-ups in today?” he asked. “Every day, you got to do 50.” Drake dropped to the floor and started doing push-ups.

On the day last year that the Nationals clinched the National League East title, most of the Nationals guzzled Korbel and Miller Lite. Drake hung with the other underage kid in the clubhouse: In the corner, he and Bryce Harper sipped sparkling apple cider.

One day this spring, as the Nationals stretched before a practice, hitting coach Rick Eckstein fed balls into a pitching machine that spit high in the air so Drake could practice catching pop flies. At the end of the workout, the Nationals lined up to run sprints around the bases. The first three players sprinted to first . . . and then came Drake, chugging along in front of LaRoche.

“It makes all of us who don’t have kids that age yet kind of jealous,” Zimmerman said. “That’s kind of the ultimate dream: to have your son in the clubhouse with you, let him interact.”

Drake likes shagging flies best. He keeps track in his head of his daily records. On his best day, he caught a dozen balls in the air. He usually snags somewhere between six and 10. He fields grounders and takes batting practice. He’ll jump a level in Little League this year. He wants to play in the big leagues someday. Well, maybe.

“Yeah, I’m thinking about it,” Drake said. “I got two options: Baseball and trapping.”

Activities abound

In the spring, LaRoche cannot pick the part of the day he likes best. His wife and daughter will join them later in spring, but for now it’s just the boys. He and Drake play baseball in the morning. If he’s not playing in the game, they either go fishing or play golf. At night, they play Ping-Pong at their rental home.

“And, if we got time,” LaRoche said, “do some homework.”

Long ago, LaRoche prioritized bringing Drake with him over traditional schooling. He goes to class in winter. In Viera, he brings schoolwork with him and sees a private tutor at a Sylvan Learning Center. They live in a small Kansas town, and LaRoche arranged Drake’s education with the public school. LaRoche said Drake’s school is fine so long as Drake passes standardized tests.

“We’re not big on school,” LaRoche said. “I told my wife, ‘He’s going to learn a lot more useful information in the clubhouse than he will in the classroom, as far as life lessons.’ ”

The memories have piled too high for LaRoche to pick a favorite. One night at Nationals Park, he socked a home run and circled the bases. After LaRoche high-fived teammates, he found Drake waiting for him, having run down the tunnel from the clubhouse to surprise him with a hug. LaRoche cherishes some of the pictures he’s seen of him and Drake together, stretching or in the outfield before a game, mementos they’ll dig through 20 years from now.

“I’m just trying to do everything I can do to enjoy it, because I know how fast it goes,” LaRoche said last week. “I know how fast he’s going to be grown up and have different priorities other just hanging out with Dad all day.”

Sitting in the clubhouse, LaRoche glanced at Drake, plopped on the couch across from his, leaning back in his full practice uniform. Infield dirt still clung to his socks, and his cleats dangled off the edge of the seat.

A few days later, in foul ground at Space Coast Stadium, LaRoche played catch with his best friend under the bright, morning sun. A pack of teammates behind him readied for practice. You watch the 33-year-old veteran make one last left-handed toss, see the way he smiles when he walks away, and you realize who the lucky one really is.

 
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