When the Chicago White Sox told first baseman Adam LaRoche not to bring his son into the clubhouse as often as in the past, team management set off a firestorm in the business world as well as the baseball world. Why would a sports team restrict a 14-year-old boy who is popular among the players? And why would LaRoche quit baseball over the issue, apparently forfeiting his $13 million salary for the year?
The answers to both questions will probably not become clear anytime soon. We don’t know all the details. What is clear is that the situation presents a lesson in the importance of employer brand.
Limiting young Drake LaRoche’s time in the clubhouse could have been based on a complaint from another ballplayer—though teammates have supported Adam and his son publicly since the issue blew up. Clubhouses are sanctuaries where athletes need to feel free to curse and walk around half-clothed, though many other kids--including Ken Griffey Jr.--have spent their formative years hanging around ballparks with their dads. The general manager of the White Sox described the issue as “an internal matter” and a “misunderstanding,” but he refuses to comment any more on it, texting: “I’m done with this.”
When I think of Adam LaRoche, I recall a quiet man who played with grace and loved hunting and spending time with his family. I can still see him blasting a long home run in a crucial playoff game for the Washington Nationals. I remember seeing him and his son on the field or in the dugout before games, with never any obvious misbehavior by the lad. In the last couple of years, however, Adam LaRoche’s career has been in decline. His back spasms were acting up again this spring. He might have felt like his play was not up to his standards. So the edict on Drake probably was not the only factor that led to his retirement.
It’s hard to know whether his departure will cost the White Sox any victories. Certainly, the team can find many ways to use the money they will save on LaRoche’s salary—unless a grievance dings them. However, it’s not hard to guess how the controversy will affect their employer brand.
Barring a change in heart and more information from management, the team will appear to be “anti-kid.” Maybe even heartless. It might affect the morale and performance of the other players. Already, their star pitcher reportedly got in a shouting match with the general manager.
The issue might impact the team’s ability to attract and sign talented free-agent players as well. And it very likely will affect its ability to sell ticket to families. That will impact the bottom line—where it hurts most.
Any business must consider its employer brand in this age of social media. A very public business such as a baseball team must be even more aware of that brand than most. There’s still time for the Chicago White Sox to repair theirs. At the moment, their batting average is a big fat zero.
Steve Bates is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.