Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche has become 'more aware' since having ADD diagnosed
Monday, February 28, 2011
IN VIERA, FLA. On May 14, 2006, Adam LaRoche stood on the Turner Field infield, playing first base for the Atlanta Braves, when a swinging bunt off Nick Johnson's bat rolled toward him. It was an easy third out, just another groundball in just another game. And then, LaRoche recalled, "I just kind of unlocked for the play."
For years, LaRoche would often lose himself in such mundane moments. In the batter's box, he glanced at the scoreboard so he would not forget the count. Teammates instinctively reminded him how many outs there were. LaRoche could not pay attention for three hours of baseball.
By this winter, when the Washington Nationals handed LaRoche a two-year, $15 million contract, he had long conquered the culprit he discovered during his third major league season. He overlooked the problem as long as he could, until an innocuous groundball trickled his way and forced him to confront his attention deficit disorder.
LaRoche, 31, has taken Ritalin to control ADD since 2006, making his past battles with lack of focus a moot point for the Nationals this offseason. They chose him to replace Adam Dunn because of a bat that hit 25 home runs and had 100 RBI, and because of a first baseman's mitt that is "probably worth five wins by itself," said center fielder Nyjer Morgan, who played alongside LaRoche with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Teammates marvel at LaRoche's talent, in baseball and his other pursuits, and the ease with which he displays it. He lives on a 4,000-acre ranch that spreads across the Kansas-Missouri border, a location chosen, in part, for the quality of the whitetail deer on the property. He is skilled enough with a bow that Buck Commander, a company that makes hunting videos, chose him as a featured hunter.
"One of the smoothest swings in baseball," said Nationals reliever Sean Burnett, LaRoche's teammate in Pittsburgh. "He's a jack of all trades. He can hunt all offseason, show up here in spring training and shoot 74 [on the golf course]. It's like, 'God, what can't he do?' "
Signs of a problem
LaRoche's ADD, though, once threatened to obscure his ability. Growing up, LaRoche told his parents something felt off, that maybe he should see a doctor. But there were few outward signs. Sometimes during baseball games, he would make foolish base running mistakes. But his grades in school were not alarming, and LaRoche's parents guessed he simply wanted an excuse to not do his homework.
"His nature was so laid back," said Dave LaRoche, Adam's father. "You didn't know if he was daydreaming or thinking or just being stubborn."
Once he reached the majors with the Braves in 2004, the holes in his concentration began showing. LaRoche asked teammates how many outs there were so often that his second baseman, Marcus Giles, began updating him without prompting. He dropped a sacrifice bunt and ran straight into the dugout. Once, both a hunk of broken bat and a fair ball dribbled toward him. LaRoche reached for the bat.
LaRoche had played with ADD for so long both he and coaches brushed the lapses and forgetfulness off as a peculiar slice of LaRoche's personality. "It was just kind of me - I had spaced out again," LaRoche said. "There was nothing I could do about it."
Until something forced him to. When Johnson's grounder in 2006 rolled toward him, LaRoche scooped the ball and ambled to first. He did not notice Johnson catching up to him - then passing him - on his lazy stroll to the base. Johnson, inexplicably, beat him to the base. The Nationals would score four runs in the inning as boos cascaded on LaRoche.
In the clubhouse the next day, Braves bench coach Pat Corrales approached LaRoche. He was not mad, just concerned. "Hey," Corrales asked him, "you ever think about getting checked out?"