Tommy La Stella’s summer sabbatical has become a bizarre sidebar to the biggest story in baseball, a Cubs team bursting with talent and radiating feel-good energy since the beginning of spring training in Arizona.
La Stella’s me-first refusal to report to Triple-A Iowa isn’t connected to any health issue, personal emergency or family crisis, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Joe Maddon confirmed Tuesday, 11 days after the Cubs optioned out the bench player as a way to make room for outfielder Chris Coghlan and deal with the 25-man roster crunch.
La Stella told ESPN that he’s considering retirement if he can’t play for the big-league team. Earlier this season, La Stella explained to his hometown newspaper — The Record in Bergen County (N.J.) — how he temporarily quit baseball in high school and rediscovered the joy of the game with Maddon’s Cubs.
The Cubs recently placed La Stella on the temporarily inactive list, allowing him to work out in New Jersey, where he can get paid without earning major-league service time, a reality check for the starting third baseman in last year’s National League wild-card win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, someone who experienced the champagne-soaked celebration inside PNC Park’s visiting clubhouse.
“He’s not angry,” Maddon said before a 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels at Wrigley Field. “He’s not upset. He’s just at that point now where he doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do.
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“We all have a different lens (for) 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.”
Except La Stella is 27, a solid role player but not a star, someone who had to claw his way to The Show, transferring out of St. John’s University to Coastal Carolina University and developing into an eighth-round pick in the 2011 draft. There were 265 players selected before the Atlanta Braves grabbed La Stella, who has proven he’s an effective big-league hitter, posting an .846 OPS in 122 plate appearances this season.
“I think ‘disappointed’ would be the wrong word,” Hoyer said. “Given how much we’ve talked to him, trying to understand where he’s coming from, empathize with him and give him the space.”
When asked if the Cubs were approaching a frustration level where the organization would cut ties with La Stella, Hoyer said: “No, we’re not at that place at all.”
La Stella is usually quiet, friendly and professional within the clubhouse — certainly not a disruptive force — and had carved out a nice role on this team as a left-handed hitter/versatile infielder.
But compare this reaction to how Albert Almora, a former first-round pick and potential Opening Day center fielder in 2017, handled getting sent back to Iowa last month, the day after he got married, at a time when his wife’s expecting a baby boy in early September and his father’s battling prostate cancer back home in South Florida.
Besides teammates like Jason Heyward and Matt Szczur, Maddon said Dr. Ken Ravizza, the sports psychologist working within the organization’s mental-skills department, had also reached out to La Stella.
“Tommy hears his own beat,” Maddon said. “I love him for it. He’s a very interesting young man, and he’s also a very good baseball player. Hopefully, he’s going to get back here relatively soon.
“Like I’ve said before: He could get up at 3 o’clock in the morning, hit a line drive on a 1-2 count. That’s who he is. So I’d love to have him back.”
But is that how the rest of this team feels? At this point, assuming all sides make peace, La Stella will still need at least a significant amount of at-bats in the minors to get back in playing shape and get his timing down again.
“It just depends on how it’s done,” Maddon said, “how he goes about getting back into the clubhouse. Our guys are pretty astute, also. They know that he might get a big double in a playoff game, too. We’re all aware of his abilities. It’s just a matter of what’s right and what’s good for Tommy right now.”