You knew there was going to be some kind of sequel to the amazing story of Adam LaRoche and his decision to walk away from millions of dollars because Chicago White Sox leaders had second thoughts about allowing his son Drake to come to work with him day after day.
Sure enough, ESPN assigned reporter Tim Keown to do one of those ultra-personal feature stories -- built on a long, exclusive interview -- that come a week or two after a media firestorm that created way more heat than light.
So we get a deep feature piece, precisely the kind that makes me think there is some chance that ESPN will finally take seriously the religion angle of a major story. Take that headline for example: "Adam LaRoche goes deep on his decision to walk."
Now, this story does include all kinds of interesting details and colorful anecdotes, while answering a few obvious questions. Some LaRoche critics, for example, thought it was strange that this loving dad wanted his son to spend so much time around, well, baseball players. Aren't they known for being a bit, well, profane and crass?
Yes, LaRoche knew that Drake would be stretched a bit. Thus, I loved the evidence that some of the players actually tried to clean up their acts a bit. For example:
In 2012, Nationals utilityman Mark DeRosa cut a deal with Drake: I'll pay you every time you catch me swearing.
"Ten bucks a word."
So how much did the kid make? You can look it up.
Now, the whole idea is that LaRoche -- #duh -- has a different set of priorities than your average millionaire jock. Here is the long, but absolutely crucial, passage in this feature:
So here's the deal: You need to forget everything you think you know about professional athletes. Adam LaRoche is different. He walked into the clubhouse for the first time every spring and greeted new teammates by saying, "Oh, hey, I didn't know we signed you." During spring training in 2010, with the Diamondbacks, he and his family pulled a trailer to Tucson, and he rode a bicycle from the campground to the ballpark every day. He's one of the stars of the reality TV show Buck Commander, in which he bow-hunts with a couple of ex-ballplayers, two country music singers and one member of the unapologetically redneck Robertson family, they of the Duck Dynasty dynasty. He also owns E3 Meat Co., which is run out of the Kansas ranch that's been in his wife's family for six generations.
Then there's this: LaRoche, along with Brewers pitcher Blaine Boyer, spent 10 days in November in Southeast Asian brothels, wearing a hidden camera and doing undercover work to help rescue underage sex slaves. All of which raises a question: After 12 years in the big leagues, the endless days and nights in dugouts and clubhouses, how did LaRoche's nearly cinematic level of nonconformity escape detection?
The relative anonymity ended on March 15, at roughly 9:30 a.m., when White Sox manager Robin Ventura finished his daily spring training meeting in the team's clubhouse in Glendale and LaRoche asked if he could have the floor. The veteran first baseman had edged toward this moment for more than a week, since White Sox VP Kenny Williams told him to "dial back," then eliminate altogether, the time his teenage son spent at the field and in the clubhouse.
Now, might that daring trip to Southeast Asia have had something to do with what, in some parts of America, might be called a "mission," as in work related to a church or a parachurch ministry?
Just asking. Hold that thought.
The key is that LaRoche lives his life with what the ESPN team clearly sees as a bizarre sense of -- here's the key word -- "certainty." When LaRoche faces crucial decisions, readers learn, "certainty" keeps winning the day.
Ah, but what is the source of this certainty? Where does LaRoche and Co. get the unique convictions that guide their family?
As the story notes, LaRoche is, for many, clearly either "an idiot or a saint."
Let's return to an issue from earlier in the story -- the wisdom of taking one's son, day after day, into the presence of major-league baseball players.
That fortress of testosterone-laced stupidity? The only time LaRoche -- intensely religious and openly conservative -- sounds wistful is when he says, "There's no other workplace where you walk in and guys are slapping each other in the nuts and saying the stuff they do." So that place?
"You can say, 'That's no place for a kid to be,'" LaRoche says. "The way I see it, he's going to be around that regardless, unless you home-school and raise them in a bubble. I can't think of a better place for him to be when he gets a taste of that than with me."
Can you hear the certainty, flat and straight as a Kansas highway? Do you get it?
And that, sports fans, is all you are going to get. LaRoche is "intensely religious and openly conservative."
Well, not quite. There is that issue of the trip to Southeast Asia. Those who know a thing or two about the Bible may want to note the name of the ministry with which LaRoche was working.
The bottom line: In this context, it really does sound like there was a Certainty, with a large "C," pushing him toward the next stage of his life.
Working through a nonprofit called the Exodus Road, LaRoche and Boyer conducted surveillance in brothels and tried to determine the age of the girls -- known only by numbers pinned to bikinis -- and identify their bosses.
"Something huge happened there for us," Boyer says. "You can't explain it. Can't put your finger on it. If you make a wrong move, you're getting tossed off a building. We were in deep, man, but that's the way it needed to be done. Adam and I truly believe God brought us there and said, 'This is what I have for you boys.'"
When it came time to board a flight back home, LaRoche hesitated. "I was sick," he says. "I was thinking about my kids and then thinking about the hundreds of thousands of parents who are searching for their 12-year-old daughters."
As they waited for their plane, LaRoche asked Boyer, "What are we doing? We're going back to play a game for the next eight months?"
In the end, the ESPN team decides that LaRoach walked away because he had decided that he didn't want to "play by someone else's rules."
Really now? Or is there a chance that he wanted to play by someone else's rules, maybe even a Someone with a large "S," and that these rules conflicted with those of major-league baseball?
Readers continue to send me notes asking if I think that ESPN has a newsroom policy -- literally at the level of a stylebook -- that requires reporters to avoid explicit references to religion, no major how large a role faith plays in a story. I'll admit that this story made me wonder a bit.
Exodus Road? Surely the ESPN team knew that LaRoche's faith was at the heart of this story. You think?