It shouldn’t be lost on Ken Williams why a father-son bond is vital in a professional sports setting. His son, Kyle, was the punt returner who coughed away two fatal fumbles in the 2012 NFC championship game, costing the 49ers a Super Bowl berth. During team activities in subsequent months, coach Jim Harbaugh welcomed Ken to visit Kyle any time he pleased.
A concerned father, knowing his son was being ravaged by threats from Niners fans, gratefully accepted the offer.
So why in the name of corporate-office amnesia would Williams, the top baseball executive of the Chicago White Sox, be reckless enough this week to stoke a nationwide firestorm about family values amid a workplace culture? Not acting with the expected finesse of a Stanford man, Williams rashly determined that 14-year-old Drake LaRoche, son of White Sox first baseman Adam LaRoche, was hanging around the team a bit too much in spring training. Never mind that the young teen was a well-liked, hard-working, roundly accepted part of the ballclub’s fabric. Never mind that his father had it written into his contract that his son could be around the team in uniform — just as Drake had been around the team when his dad played for Matt Williams in Washington, just as Adam had been around his father (Dave LaRoche) when he pitched in the major leagues, just as sons have been around fathers in baseball for as long as I can remember, sometimes even wandering out to home plate in the middle of a World Series game at AT&T Park.
Oh, and never mind that we’re still in the dead of Cactus League play, more than two weeks from the regular season.
Williams and the team’s notoriously cold owner, a hapless and disconnected lout named Jerry Reinsdorf, once again have decided that they can’t possibly be the reasons the Sox have achieved little since a 2005 World Series title. As is the Reinsdorf Way, it never can be his fault — even though he’s gone 1 for 35 (years) as a baseball owner, 0 for 17 since prematurely dismantling the Jordan dynasty as owner of the NBA Bulls, and has done more over the last quarter-century to damage Major League Baseball’s relationship with fans, as instigator of a 1994 labor impasse that wiped out a World Series and one of the powerful ringleaders who ignored the PED scandal, than anyone else in the sport. Usually, Reinsforf and his team henchmen decide that a media member is to blame. Or a sports agent. Or a union leader.
This time, it’s a 14-year-old kid.
And White Sox players, tired of the Reinsdorfian b.s., are fighting back, on the verge of mutiny after LaRoche turned in his uniform the other day and abandoned the $13 million he was owed this season. In what stands as the most bizarre retirement in recent memory, a father and son went home because they couldn’t be together. The players are livid at team management, with All-Star pitcher Chris Sale assailing Williams’ integrity in saying he was told three different stories by the executive: first that players complained about Drake being around too much, then that coaches actually issued the complaints, and finally that an edict actually had come down from ownership. As I can speak from 17 years of experience in an incestuous Chicago cesspool, the call came from ownership. Williams is in place to carry out Reinsdorf’s whims, so that the owner doesn’t have to take the public heat.
“We got bald-faced lied to by someone that we trust,” Sale said. “This isn’t us rebelling against rules; this is us rebelling against b.s.
“Somebody walked out of those doors the other day, and it was the wrong guy.”
Friday, LaRoche surfaced to issue a statement also suggesting that Williams was double-talking. Williams claims that he asked LaRoche only to “scale back” his son’s time around the team.
“Later, I was told not to bring him to the ballpark at all,” LaRoche said. “Obviously, I expressed my displeasure toward this decision to alter the agreement we’d reached before I signed with the White Sox. Upon doing so, I had to make a decision. Do I choose my teammates and my career? Or do I choose my family?”
He chose family, which is easy for someone who has made multi-millions throughout his career. LaRoche says he’s not coming back, though manager Robin Ventura and the players hope he’ll reconsider. Meanwhile, he leaves behind wreckage: ex-teammate Adam Eaton may file a grievance with the players’ association; Ventura, whose job is on the line as it is, is bucking management and taking LaRoche’s side on the furor; and the White Sox, always an afterthought in the Chicago baseball consciousness, now could drift further into irrelevance as the Cubs finally threaten to win a World Series.
Such strife is particularly endemic within Reinsdorf operations. He allowed discord to fester — Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen vs. management — during the Bulls’ championship runs. He broke up that juggernaut, with two or three potential titles left, to save money and build his own dynasty (how did that go?). He allowed a filthy-mouthed manager, Ozzie Guillen, to utter homophobic, sexist and racial slurs. He got rid of a fine basketball coach, Tom Thibodeau, to the detriment of the Bulls, who have regressed since.
Now, his organization somehow has allowed a 14-year-old — so unfairly — to become the focus of an intensely debated crossover issue in America.
Drake LaRoche is much better off learning life’s lessons away from these people.
Far, far away.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.