By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; D03
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?"
In the middle of 2006, LaRoche started taking Ritalin. Corrales often had to remind him. Sometimes, on the road, LaRoche left his medication at the team hotel, and Corrales would send a clubhouse attendant to retrieve it.
"We're beyond that now," said Corrales, now a Nationals front office assistant. LaRoche remains on medication, and he feels no effect, positive or negative, aside from enhanced concentration. He knows where he needs to be during spring training drills. He remembers positioning for bunt plays. He no longer asks the second baseman how many outs there are.
"It's not going to make you smarter," LaRoche said. "It does help you stay a little more aware of your surroundings."'He's not lazy'
LaRoche's lapses remain in the past, but the reputation it helped create - one teammates say is inaccurate - can linger.
"He plays the game so smoothly, so chill, that at the time it may not look like 100 percent," Burnett said. "It's his way. He's not lazy. If you don't know him, it may come across that way."
LaRoche grew up in clubhouses around his father, Dave LaRoche, an all-star reliever in the '70s and a pitching coach for years. His years in baseball made Dave LaRoche believe in the importance of staying measured. His son grew to most respect the players who never wavered.
"A bad day, you can't let it bother you," Adam LaRoche heard his father tell his pitchers. "A good day, it's not going to help you tomorrow."
LaRoche carried the attitude with him. After strikeouts, he calmly walks back to the dugout. After home runs, he trots around the bases, no first pumps or fire. During slumps or losing streaks, some have interpreted his even keel as carelessness.
"There is people like that, there's always going to be, and I really don't care," LaRoche said. "There's nothing I can do about it. I'm not going to change the type of person I am to satisfy critics. . . . I can't stand striking out. I can't stand getting beat. I really don't show my emotions very often at all."
LaRoche used to let it bother him. He would fake anger and excitement, throw a bat or scream after a home run. He realized there was no need. "That's just the way I am," he said, and he knew there was nothing wrong with that.