Yesterday, the Chicago Cubs recalled infielder/utility man Tommy La Stella from Triple-A Iowa, and immediately thrust him into the starting lineup against the Pirates.
It was, of course, La Stella’s first appearance in a game at the Major League level since the end of July, after the second baseman refused to accept an assignment in the Minors (or anywhere that wasn’t with the Chicago Cubs).
We’ve discussed the circumstances around his absence and his return a lot around these parts, so when his surprising return was announced solely with his name on the lineup card, we were a bit taken aback. But, having been at the game yesterday, I can confirm that La Stella was indeed present and fielding grounders at second base, ready for this to all blow over.
And we will all let it blow over (there are bigger and better things out there), just as soon as we round up some thoughts on his return. Both before and after the game, La Stella, his teammates, his manager, and Theo Epstein addressed the media in a number of articles (here, here, here, here, here, and here). You can find those comments below, along with some thoughts of my own.
- First and foremost, I should say, the severity of “his crime,” seems to be wholly disproportionate among the Cubs fan base. While there are certainly fans (like you!) who pay attention to every single detail surrounding the Cubs and their clubhouse, I get the sense that many (or most) were completely unaware that there was a situation at all:
Here at Wrigley, Tommy La Stella's return/first at bat was met with RAGING … indifference.
— Michael Cerami (@Michael_Cerami) September 1, 2016
- I know there were reports that there were a mix of boos and cheers, but from what I can tell there was mostly just fans going about their business. This story may have been right in our faces, but it certainly didn’t outrage the casual fan, or apparently his teammates and manager.
- “He’s back,” Maddon said, “he talked to the boys, he’s done everything properly and he’s ready to participate for the rest of the season.” There had been some indications from the front office and a few stray players that they’d like to hear just what happened from La Stella himself, and it sounds like he stepped up and explained himself … to his teammates.
- Because it doesn’t sound like we’ll get much of an explanation, other than what we already know. La Stella felt it was important for his teammates to have all of the information that steered his decisions, but is not interested in making anybody else (media, fans) see anything or explain anything. He did intimate that there are “things out there that are personal” to him and that he did share those with “the guys,” but he’s not comfortable sharing those bits with everyone else. Frankly, that’s pretty understandable. While we, as fans, might like to think La Stella owes us something, he really owes only the Cubs and his teammates an answer. If they’re satisfied and happy to have him back, then that’s that.
- Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein also had some interesting bits to share, including his concealed, but disappointed initial reaction to La Stella’s assignment refusal. According to Carrie Muskat, Epstein’s first idea was to punish and possibly release La Stella – I think that was a common initial response – but he took his time, thought about it and decided to talk to him directly. “After having those conversations, while I felt like he wasn’t handling it the way I would’ve liked, and he may have been making a mistake, I felt like it was the type of mistake we could work with him to grow from and it wasn’t a mistake that we wanted to punish him for,” Epstein said.
- Brett’s tweet speaks to this stuff:
Say what you will about the La Stella situation – and you will – but this is what it looks like when thoughtful people run an organization.
— Brett Taylor (@BleacherNation) August 31, 2016
- Epstein continued by suggesting that those without direct knowledge of the situation might never understand La Stella’s decisions, but he remains content with the way the Cubs handled the situation as an organization. Which is fair. This entire occurrence had ugly and potentially roster damaging implications, but instead, everything is back to normal. Of course, Epstein made sure to add that this is not how they (the Cubs) will handle this type of situation every time, but for now, it was for the best.
- So what about his teammates? According to Epstein, most of his teammates were already 100% ready to accept him back, while a few others wanted to learn more, and even some others were a bit skeptical. Even still, the way that he handled his return face-to-face with all of them – “in an open and transparent way” – really helped his cause with his teammates.
- “I would have been surprised if he had not been accepted,” said manager Joe Maddon. “I love the way the whole moment worked because it truly indicated everything we attempted to put together this year is real. They are a group, they are one, they are a team.” You never want to search out conflict, of course, but it can be a quick way of testing the strength and unity of a team. The Cubs, it seems, have passed their test, and who knows, maybe they’ll be stronger for it in the future – Maddon has suggested that La Stella’s return could be a “galvanizing moment,” for the Cubs, and I think he might be right.
- Shifting back to La Stella for a moment (no we’re not done yet), he did mention that his reaction and decision had nothing at all to do with the fact that he was performing admirably and didn’t deserve to be sent to Iowa. He fully respects Epstein’s decision and embraces the fact that he was doing what was best for the team as a whole. That might not sound too important at first, but to me that’s a pretty important distinction. If you believe La Stella, like I do, those comments help confirm that this was truly a personal, human-level decision that was not based on ego or jealously.
- Jake Arrieta can relate. At CSN Chicago, Patrick Mooney discusses Arrieta’s near retirement from baseball (during his days in Baltimore) and how those decisions can sometimes be fueled by things entirely unrelated to the game itself. “I know that there were things that he was going through and dealing with (that) we may not agree with and understand … But we don’t have to,” Arrieta said. “There are certain things that he’s needed to deal with — and he’s at the point now where he’s willing and able to convey the message to the guys in this clubhouse.” Mooney indicates that Arrieta remained in frequent contact with La Stella throughout this ordeal, and that he cared deeply about him as a teammate/friend. In the end, Arrieta was thrilled to have La Stella back, because “he can help us win games, so he’s a guy that we definitely need in this clubhouse.”
- And that’s true. After last night, La Stella returns to a .290/.382/.449 slash line with an 11.3% walk rate, a 17.7% strikeout rate and an excellent lefty bat off the bench. The Cubs do need La Stella and they always have. I’m glad this front office and team is thoughtful enough to see the big picture and work with La Stella as he works through issues of his own.
- Ultimately, La Stella puts it best: “That group of guys in there is an unbelievably special group. And if there was one team that would welcome something like this back, it’s those guys. I’m very lucky.”