People are feeling all kinds of things about Tommy La Stella—anger, contempt, sympathy—but the writers so far who have best approximated my own feelings are the ones who get at how murky and elusive the story is. Here at Wrigleyville, Ken Schultz rejected the simple narrative—spoiled young player needs to toughen up and do what he’s told—and pointed out that “there is quite a bit more going on underneath the surface of this story,” namely, La Stella’s existential crisis regarding his identity in and out of baseball. Over at SB Nation, Grant Brisbee wrote a piece describing the case as “the perfect example of just how weird baseball players have it.” What Grant describes as “weird” is the systematic element here, the element of player serfdom: “In baseball”—unlike almost any other profession—you have to go where they tell you, or you can’t work in your chosen industry anymore.”
That’s absolutely important, and “weird” is the right word, but the story strikes me as weird in another sense: it’s a weird story in that it’s unsatisfying, that the pieces don’t seem to add up into a meaningful whole. As Grant writes, “This isn’t a moment of truth for La Stella. He doesn’t have to confront his demons or his fears of failure, not yet. He’s caught in the gears of bureaucracy, and he’s understandably ticked off.” It’s not like the Yasiel Puig situation, where we feel like we have a good handle on the narrative: a talented young man who is struggling with his demons, or with narrow-minded cultural expectations, or both.
No, La Stella is something else: someone who may be choosing to walk away from an extraordinary career for what seem to be ordinary reasons. We can understand that decision, and even feel that some of us would do the same, but that doesn’t change our feeling that this is not how baseball stories go. Grant again: “The reason this doesn’t happen more often is because there just aren’t that many people willing to give it all up. The rewards are still there — the money, the promise of a better situation — and that’s one reason why.” Ken identifies another, less tangible reason: to make the majors, many players lose their identities in baseball, making quitting unthinkable. “For most players at this level,” he writes, “their relationship with the game is enough to keep them going day after day.”
So no, we don’t see this happen much at the major league level—but how uncommon is it across all levels of pro baseball? La Stella’s story reminds me of a baseball movie about a player who (spoiler alert) does give it all up—Sugar, which came out in 2009. Sugar and the La Stella situation each help me understand the other, and more generally how much we as fans expect athletes’ stories to fit into neat narratives that rarely apply in real life.
The film is about Miguel Santos (nickname: Azúcar, or Sugar), a young pitcher from San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic, who dreams of playing in the majors and gets his chance when Kansas City signs him. He goes to the rookie league team in Iowa, moves in with an elderly host couple, and struggles to adjust, both to America and to the higher level of competition. Frustrations, personal and professional, mount, until finally he leaves the team in New York to take up a new life outside of baseball.
Sugar was embraced by critics—it got an 82 on Metacritic—who seemed to see it as the thoughtful indie movie that baseball had long been waiting for. When I finally saw it, though, I found it seriously underwhelming. Sure, it was beautifully shot, and the script was … fine, despite a few clunkers (the most egregious being a sub-Garden State moment in which Miguel’s teammate out of Stanford puts headphones on him and tries to get him into the indie band TV on the Radio). What sank the movie for me was its structure, which I found unsatisfying because of the lack of conflict, a problem that sports movies, which after all are about conflict by definition, rarely face.
The most straightforward way to create conflict is to match the protagonist with an antagonist, a person or group or system that the protagonist has to strive against. This provides the engine for plenty of sports films: comedies like Major League, uplifting films like 42, and tragic ones like Eight Men Out. In Sugar, Miguel could have found himself in conflict with any number of different antagonists, from the most simplistic (an evil rival team or player) to the most sophisticated (baseball’s system of exploiting young, foreign-born players).
Or, maybe Miguel’s conflict could have been with himself: he could have been given some kind of personal flaw or weakness—an addiction, a bad temperament, whatever—that threatened to derail his career. In a crisis, he would be forced to confront this flaw, and either realize his potential or squander it. The former has been the basic structure of comedies like Bull Durham and Little Big League; it was also the plot of Grover Alexander’s life, and that was made into a movie, too. Or the conflict could have been with cruel fate, perhaps in the form of an injury that proved the folly of our hopes and our striving, like the one that ends Booby Miles’s career in the Friday Night Lights film.
Sugar doesn’t go in either of these directions. Yes, Miguel faces some conflict from without (among other things, he faces racism from some of the locals in his minor-league Iowa town) and within (he features the arrogance of youth at the beginning of the film, and difficulty controlling his emotions when things start going badly), but neither of these contributes much to his leaving the team. The antagonists you’d expect—a team that heartlessly uses him up and spits him out, maybe a manager who doesn’t like him—never manifest. Like all the other Caribbean minor leaguers, he’s being exploited, but the film gives no sense that a more equitable treatment from pro baseball would have given him a more successful career in it. Miguel’s Dominican friend on his team, Jorge, really is used up and then cast aside once he gets injured, but the setbacks the team deals Miguel are totally understandable responses to his own failings (he breaks up a water cooler and gets fined; he pitches poorly for a stretch and loses his rotation spot; etc.).
On the other hand, his failings themselves are also perfectly understandable, not a sign of any raging internal conflicts. Miguel isn’t brought low by outside forces, or cruel fate, or his own demons. What drives Miguel out of pro ball is simply that he realizes he’s probably not good enough to make it any farther: the odds are too long, and the rewards in the meantime too paltry, to justify the pain and frustration involved in persevering. It’s a simple, totally justifiable calculation that he should stop trying and devote his life to something else. That’s it.
As I alluded to earlier, this lack of a make-or-break conflict made the film deeply unsatisfying for me when I watched it. I certainly wasn’t looking for some fairy tale about overcoming adversity, but a sense of what he was striving against, or that he was committed to striving at all, seemed like a bare minimum for a compelling story. Watching a player walk away with something left in the tank just felt paltry and anticlimactic. Furthermore, the rote responses to Miguel’s struggles from everyone around him—his managers and coaches, his American host family—make it plain that there’s nothing unusual about him or what he’s going through. That’s unsatisfying too, because as audiences we want to believe that what happens to people, and what they achieve, has some connection to who they are. Why else does the narrative paint us a picture of this specific person, if what they’re like doesn’t matter to the plot?
But it finally occurred to me, reading about Tommy La Stella, that what makes the film unsatisfying for me also makes it a more honest treatment of pro baseball as it’s experienced by the vast majority of players. Yes, I want to know what sets Miguel apart from the other Caribbean hopefuls, but Miguel’s arm doesn’t care what kind of person he is; neither do the umpires or the opposing batters. The final moments of the film, in which Miguel’s fellow Latin American amateur players say their former team affiliations into the camera (“Alfredo Ruiz, Seattle,” “Wilton Gonzalez, Dodgers”), emphasize the interchangeability of these stories. The essential fact of a marginal career in baseball is that you’re not unique and irreplaceable, that someone just like you, only a few months younger, is breathing down your neck. As Ken writes, “This is an instance where the term ‘Replacement Player’ is cruelly apt.”
A lot of Miguel’s story, of course, doesn’t map onto Tommy La Stella. La Stella’s already made it to the majors; he’s even proven that he can perform at that level. But the two players are analogous in that La Stella may be making the same decision Miguel makes: faced with an unappealing choice, they refuse, Bartleby-like, to go on. They answer what Ken identifies the fundamental question of a player on the bubble—”How badly do you want to keep doing this?”—with, “Not badly enough.” It’s not a popular answer, because it’s not what is supposed to happen according to the rules of narrative. La Stella has angry fans and journalists chastising him for not playing along; Miguel has his mother and his agent. Both players are told that they are obligated to pursue their dreams to the ends of the earth, or fail gloriously. Both deny the obligation.
We’re hearing a lot about Tommy La Stella now because his story is unusual on the major-league level. But I would guess a lot of baseball careers end something like this, not with a bang but with a whimper—not a career-ending injury or ultimatum, but a player simply deciding not to do what he would have to do to keep the dream alive. We don’t hear about it that much, not only because it doesn’t happen much at the major league level, but also because it’s not a satisfying story, so who’s going to write it up? I don’t want the next sports movie I see to be like Sugar; nothing can cure me of my preference for compelling narrative. But it’s important to be reminded that life’s dramas sometimes lack good plotting. That’s as true in sports as anywhere else, even if one reason we turn to sports is to pretend it isn’t so.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.