On the surface, the recent Tommy La Stella drama sounds like a deal with the Devil, if the Devil was a terrible negotiator.
BEELZEBUB: Hey Tommy, want to be a big league ballplayer? Your salary will be 525 thousand dollars! And you’ll be on TV every day!
LA STELLA: Sweet! Where do I sign up?
BEELZEBUB: There’s just one catch…
LA STELLA: I have to sell my soul?
LA STELLA: I have to spend the night in a haunted house?
LA STELLA: Then what is it?!
BEELZEBUB: Three weeks in Des Moines.
LA STELLA: NOOOOOOOOOO!
(Cut to the next day at La Stella’s home)
NEIGHBOR: Tommy, what are you doing back in Jersey?
LA STELLA: It was the only place where Satan wouldn’t follow me.
After it was made public that La Stella had chosen to go back home rather than accept his demotion to Triple-A, Paul Sullivan spoke for many with an opinion piece essentially telling La Stella to “suck it up for three weeks” or quit baseball immediately, adding helpfully that “life’s not always fair.”
The only phrase missing was “Long time listener, first time caller.”
Sullivan (as well as many in #CubsTwitter) made the assumption that the La Stella situation was a simple one. In this scenario, the Cubs told La Stella they were sending him to Iowa, he threw a fit, took his ball, and went home. Where presumably he spends all day giving hearts to every negative Tweet about Chris Coghlan.
However, La Stella’s comments to ESPN Chicago’s Jesse Rogers give an indication that there is quite a bit more going on underneath the surface of this story. This wasn’t the impulsive reaction of an egotistical prima donna who was unaware that his career slugging percentage led to the invention of the word “Dascenzoesque.” And we could see that in La Stella’s description of how baseball fits into his life:
“I’m a baseball player by profession. My identity is not tied up in that…That’s not who I am as a person. I don’t need to make every life move centered around my profession, because that’s not who I am. I kind of disassociated with that identity. It felt a lot better to me going out there playing because that’s what I felt in me, not because I felt obligated to do it. It was a lot more enjoyable this year.”
It’s rare to hear any professional athlete say something like that. Probably because it contains perspective.
Based on that quote alone, it’s fair to surmise that there was a point last year where La Stella went through some serious soul searching in an attempt to come to grips with who he was as a player and—more importantly—as a person. And what he settled on was a refusal to let his job define him–even a job as impressive as “Major Leaguer.”
Even though he’s been in the game for three years and has begun to carve a niche as a “good contact utility man,” La Stella’s career has always been a tenuous one at best. Despite the good money he makes, his skillset relegates him to a position at the bottom of the Major League totem pole. And because of this, he’s in danger of losing his job at any moment—especially if he accrues enough service time to make him arbitration eligible.
Every player at La Stella’s level is aware of this. They know that any day, somebody else could come along and put up 0.1 WARP for the Major League minimum. This is an instance where the term “Replacement Player” is cruelly apt. And because organized baseball isn’t going to give them anything more reassuring than a job that could disappear at any moment, all players like La Stella have to go on is their ability to compete and to answer one question:
“How badly do you want to keep doing this?”
This simple but vitally important query hangs over a fringe player’s head every day of his professional existence. For most athletes—because baseball is all they know and all they are—the answer is an easy “They’ll have to tear the uniform off my back.” Even an iconoclast like Jim Bouton famously wrote “You spend your life gripping a baseball and it turns out that it was the other way around all along.”
For most players at this level, their relationship with the game is enough to keep them going day after day. But here’s where La Stella’s comment about “disassociating” with his ballplayer identity comes into play. Based on his comments to Rogers, it appears that he went into this season determined to separate his real life priorities from his baseball career and was able to function well with this in mind for the first part of the year.
As La Stella elaborated, “Going into this season, it was a shift in how I looked at [baseball]. I said if I’m going to do this I’m going to do it the right way. I’m going to be here because I want to be here.”
But when the Cubs called him in with the news that he was being sent to Iowa purely because he was the loser in a numbers game, it immediately forced him to confront that “How badly do you want to keep doing this” question once again. And since baseball was no longer the be-all end-all of his existence, his actions since that day indicated that his answer is “I don’t know.”
For any baseball player—or any performer or artist—that realization is downright frightening. And more than anything else, it explains why Tommy La Stella hasn’t reported to Iowa. It’s not an extended fit of petulance. It sounds like he’s confronting the mental demons that have arisen when he realized a goal to which he’d dedicated decades of his life suddenly didn’t mean nearly as much as he thought it did.
Furthermore, this could also explain why the Cubs have given him as much leeway as they have. Even though they have every right to be angry about how this situation has gone down, they’ve chosen not to punish La Stella but instead have given him time to figure out if he can find an answer to the question about his professional future that will get him back on the field.
That’s why Joe Maddon has been as understanding as possible in his public comments, offering sympathetic thoughts like “It’s just at that point he doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do. We all have a different lens on how we view the world. I know when I went through my Kurt Vonnegut stage I was kind of screwed up when I was 21.”
It would be wonderful if La Stella was actually going through a Vonnegut phase and he was missing only because he’d become unstuck in time to go back and teach Leon Durham to place his glove one inch lower on grounders to first. But while it’s easy to say “cut him loose if he doesn’t want to play,” there’s a chance that the Cubs could benefit from La Stella’s return if they wait him out and he finds a reason to come back.
And they’re willing to take the chance that he’ll eventually find that reason to keep playing baseball despite the cruelties of the business. So it goes.
Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.