If you’ve read any of my columns thus far, you probably could see this one coming. Tommy La Stella, erstwhile OBP machine second-base fantasy sleeper for the Atlanta Braves and current Iowa Cub, has been one of the most fascinating baseball stories this year—well, at least for someone like me who likes to think about labor and contracts and the ugly side of baseball.
The short version is that La Stella, despite putting together a pretty solid year as a utility/spot start guy, got sent down to the minors after the Cubs acquired Once, Future, Past, and Present Cub Chris Coghlan. Understandably frustrated, La Stella made the unexpected move to, well, not report. He did not show up in Des Moines and held out in his home of New Jersey. Held out might be the wrong word here, as La Stella does not have the leverage that an NFL player like Joey Bosa does in his current holdout or like a young top draft pick like Jacob Groome did in this year’s Rule 4 draft. La Stella didn’t make any dramatic demands or pleas of unfairness; he just decided to take some time to think about what he wanted from his future.
Unsurprisingly, the minds at Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville have had some wonderful takes on the situation. Twitter pal and good writer Tom Hitchner produced a piece near and dear to my heart that tied film analysis to the La Stella situation in an effort to talk about anticlimax in baseball. And Ken Schultz put together a lovely piece explaining the ways in which La Stella’s holdout was not what it might seem, and that a young player might actually deserve time to get his head together.
And it’s times like this that I’m grateful to my colleagues for being such good people. Baseball Prospectus, despite its beep bop boop computers reputation, gets that people, who are sometimes flawed and complex, play the game. In the mainstream press, La Stella has not fared so well. Most notorious is the piece that Schultz critiques in his BP Wrigleyville essay, a fairly brutal polemic against La Stella by Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune.
I don’t want to give my editors conniptions by spending an entire article getting furious at another reporter, so let me give the very quick blow-by-blow of what I find problematic about Sullivan’s piece. First he opens with a fairly hamfisted Carlos Zambrano comparison that smacks of typical Anti-Latino sentiment in major-league baseball writing. Second, the piece refuses to believe La Stella’s own explanation of his behavior, casting not-so-subtle aspersions on his claim that his refusal to report to Iowa was not about being demoted. But third, and worst of all to this leftist’s mind, he sides with management. A longish quote:
When your boss tells you to do something, generally speaking, you do it or find another job. Instead of calling La Stella's bluff, however, the Cubs are giving him ‘space’ to ‘clear his head’ at home, while also paying him a minor-league salary.
Don't you wish you had a job that paid you to sit?
To be sure, Sullivan has not read my work on minor-league salaries. But that notwithstanding, this analysis is deeply flawed, not only because it assumes that the Cubs could not possibly have any need of La Stella, who is a competent bench piece who would get snatched up instantly by a team if released. No, the real issue here is that Sullivan belittles the mental nature of the game and, even more, takes a pre-lapsarian view of mental health that I find troubling. Nowhere in this analysis do we see room for a management style that views the risk of giving someone a few days off worth the reward of a refreshed and mentally balanced employee. Nor do we see acknowledgment of the actual situation on the ground, which is that La Stella’s manager and teammates want him to be happy on or off the field. No, we see the old blue collar ideology of “just be happy you have a job, junior.”
And if it were just Sullivan, that would be fine. But this line of thinking about taking one for the team permeates through baseball. The comments that followed the demotion of Blue Jays ace Aaron Sanchez to the minor leagues were uniformly glowing, because he took his lumps. See: Buster Olney, who rightly notes that Sanchez deserves a ton of credit for his willingness to take things in stride, but who also has no tweets championing La Stella’s right to take care of himself. A guy like Sanchez is going to be seen as tough, and a guy like La Stella is going to be seen as a prima donna, and the incidental reporting that follows their decisions determines that just as much as anything else.
And that’s galling when both La Stella and Sanchez are just finding their own ways of dealing with an inherently unfair system. Both are losing more money than you or I would be particularly happy about losing (to put it lightly), and both are essentially dealing with the message from their teams that “Look, we can screw you because you’re still a rookie.” Let’s not mention that implicit in Sanchez’ demotion is a start in a week or so and the promise of a wildly profitable payday if he keeps pitching the way he has. For La Stella, this demotion could mean a recall when rosters expand, or it could mean missing out on a World Series run he has helped author. You can see why they might choose different reactions.
But the really, really galling thing about Sullivan’s response and the implicit responses in tweets like Olney’s is that the Cubs, particularly at the clubhouse level, are beyond supportive of their teammate. Joe Maddon has likened La Stella’s disappearance to his soul-searching “Vonnegut days,” and Jake Arrieta has said that the entire clubhouse plans to let La Stella explain himself and then to “make him as comfortable as possible” when he comes back. So while Sullivan cannot believe that the Cubs gave La Stella the space to get better, the people he works with on a daily basis seem to be able to dig up some empathy for him.
Results aren’t everything, and La Stella’s return to Iowa to play out his demotion doesn’t mean that the Cubs’ understanding approach was the right one. What does indicate that they had the right response is that they were willing to value and understand one of their players—even the 25th man on the 25-man roster—as a human being instead of a well-paid piece of a monolithic competitive entity. One can only hope we can grow as fans to do the same.
Thank you for reading
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The Cubs know they can force La Stella to do what they tell him to do, but what is there to gain by forcing him to do it while in a bad state of mind. The damage he could do to minor league clubhouses in an angry state of mind certainly outweighs giving him the time and space he asks for to come to a decision. Kudos to the Cubs organization and players for being more enlightened than most baseball front offices are perceived these days.
Luckily, Cubs management does not have this 19th Century view of employee relations, and his fellow workers actually like him and want what's best for him.
Maybe that's why they win?