VIERA, Fla. — As baseball fans across the globe watched and celebrated their countries’ successes and failures in the World Baseball Classic, Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche had a passing notion: Could he have played for Team Mexico in the international tournament?
While LaRoche likely wouldn’t qualify to play for Mexico, his half-joke isn’t actually a harebrained idea. LaRoche’s father, Dave, is of Mexican heritage. Since his parents divorced when he was young, Dave LaRoche has used his mother’s surname, even during his 14 years in the major leagues. Legally, though, it is Garcia. The name LaRoche stuck, and Adam LaRoche and his brothers naturally took it, too.
In the Nationals’ clubhouse, LaRoche isn’t the only player with a blend of cultures, heritages and ethnicities. And as international competitions arise, those players are sometimes forced to choose which country to represent and which to root for.
Gio Gonzalez, of Cuban descent, will climb onto the mound on Tuesday night at Marlins Park in Miami and start for the United States in the opening game of the double-elimination round against Puerto Rico.
Christian Garcia, another Miami native with Cuban roots, turned down an invitation to pitch for Spain’s national team. Danny Espinosa, who twice played for U.S. national baseball teams while in high school and college, was on Mexico’s preliminary roster, hoping to represent his father’s heritage for the first time before withdrawing because he wanted to rehab his left shoulder.
“It was ingrained in me at a young age: ‘Don’t forget who you are,’ ” Espinosa said. “There’s a pride in being Mexican.”
When Team USA Manager Joe Torre called to extend an invitation to Gonzalez a month ago, the left-handed starter jumped at the idea. He was born and raised in Hialeah, a city in the Miami suburbs, in a Cuban American and bilingual household. But even Gonzalez knows some may see him as only Cuban. “Now people will know I’m actually from here,” he said, jokingly, to reporters when talking about accepting the invitation to wear the U.S. uniform.
Gonzalez played with LaRoche’s brother, Andy, on the Oakland Athletics in 2011 and knew that the family’s last name was Garcia.
“It’s pretty cool, man,” Gonzalez said. “To see him, he’s a big hunter, too, so it doesn’t kinda add up. Then you see it, it’s awesome. He’s Latino.”
Espinosa also knew of LaRoche’s Mexican roots, but most of his Nationals teammates don’t. Asked if he knew he could share the same last name as LaRoche, Garcia was at first confused: “Who is? Garcia is Adam’s? I didn’t know that. Is it really?”
Like other Cuban American baseball players, Garcia can trace his Cuban heritage through Spain as well, and would have done so through his great-grandparents if he had accepted the invitation to play. If the political climate in Cuba were different, Garcia said he would have considered playing for Cuba.
Espinosa, a Southern California native, accepted Team Mexico’s invitation to play but later withdrew because he wanted to fully focus on strengthening the muscles around his torn rotator cuff. But he was initially excited to represent Mexico.
“I get a lot of grief because people say I’m so white, I’m so American,” he said. “ ‘You don’t even look Mexican. You don’t speak Spanish.’ I do take a lot of pride in being Mexican. I was brought up that way by dad and my uncle.”
Espinosa was born and raised in Santa Ana, a predominately Mexican community in Orange County. He traces his Mexican heritage through his father, Dan Espinosa, who is from Coolidge, Ariz.
“My dad always told me, ‘Don’t forget where you come from. Don’t forget what got you here. Don’t forget your background,’” Espinosa said.
As a youngster, Dave LaRoche remembers visiting his paternal grandmother and hearing her speak Spanish. He was nearly four years old when his parents divorced and has few memories of his father. He kept Garcia as his last name for a few years until he was in the fourth grade and his mother, Mary LaRoche, had remarried.
“I got tired answering my mom was LaRoche and I was Garcia, so I told my teacher one day I was going to be LaRoche,” he said.
When he applied for his first passport in the early 1970s to play winter baseball outside the country, he was Dave Garcia, the name on his birth certificate. “I tell [my wife] Patty every once in a while, we may not legally be married,” he said, laughing.
Even when he pitched for the California Angels, Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees, all cities with large Latino populations, he was known as Dave LaRoche and wasn’t seen as Mexican by Latin players. He doesn’t identify himself as a Mexican American, and never passed along any customs or traditions to his children.
Adam LaRoche has told his son, Drake, and daughter, Montana, about their Mexican heritage, but he considers himself a Kansan. That’s where he graduated from high school and attended one year of community college. LaRoche owns a ranch in Kansas, loves hunting and hangs out with country music stars.
“I don’t think I fit in real good,” he said. “It doesn’t add up — and my last name LaRoche.”
Dave LaRoche and his wife, who is of Irish and Italian heritage, spent winters in Mazatlan, Mexico. Over the years, he said he has been inspired to learn more about his Mexican roots.
“We’re spending more and more time down here and people are always asking me,” he said. “I may take a visit if I can find out where family is, if there is any family down here.”