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Tommy La Stella is AWOL, and it's a great time to remember how strange baseball is

Tommy La Stella was hitting well, and now he's not going where the Cubs want him to. It's time for a reminder of just how different a ballplayer's life really is.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The odds are at least decent that you don’t remember Ian Stewart. That’s fine. He was baseball news three years ago, and that’s an eternity in baseball time. Three years ago, the Braves won 96 games. That’s almost 500 games ago at three hours a pop, with long winters in between. We all tend to forget things.

But it was three years ago that Ian Stewart really wanted to play with the Cubs, but the team had other plans. He was a disgruntled utility player who had been assigned to the minor leagues, and he was extremely unhappy with the situation. I wrote a defense of his displeasure, even as the Cubs were doing absolutely nothing wrong. The basic points:

  • Every baseball player in Major League Baseball was one of the best players on his team since the time he was five

  • There will come a time when all of them won’t even be good enough to stay on a team

  • Seems like that’ll mess a person up

It was while I was regurgitating these same points about Tommy La Stella that I remembered that I had written them before. La Stella is the current news, the disgruntled utility player who has been assigned to the minor leagues and is extremely unhappy with the situation. Except even though both situations involve the Cubs and an unhappy utility player, there are some major differences. The main one is that Stewart wasn’t hitting in Triple-A at the time, whereas La Stella was hitting well in the majors this year. Really, really well. It’s easier to empathize with the player getting booted because he’s caught in a roster crunch.

Another difference is that Stewart only tweeted his displeasure. La Stella didn’t show up to his minor league assignment. Now he’s contemplating retirement, which isn’t something you would expect from a 27-year-old having his best season in pro ball. And his comments reinforce that there’s something deeper than "former top prospect struggles to accept reality" going on.

"It had nothing to do with trying to leverage anything. It was just where I was in my life and my career. It was an obvious decision for me. There was no other consideration."

La Stella even said he would rather "step away" from the game then play for another team meaning a trade was out of the question. He doesn't want to go anywhere.

And now we’re on a completely different path. This is someone performing at a very high level, someone who has reached one of the top rungs of his profession, and he’s been told he needs to go away. 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.

As you would imagine, La Stella isn’t getting a lot of sympathy around the ol’ internet. Let’s see if we can check the boxes off. Getting played millions to play a kid’s game ... check. Distracting the team ... check. Being selfish and not a team player ... oh, you’d better believe that’s a check. It’s all so predictable. If you think teams can be callous with how they treat their players as commodities rather than human beings, they’re nothing compared to fans.

I’m not going to tell La Stella or the Cubs what to do. I don’t have any answers, and this isn’t a place for ingenious solutions to a problem that’s far more complicated than we can possibly understand from the outside.


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But I will point out that this is the perfect example of just how weird baseball players have it. How the job isn’t analogous to any other profession outside of professional sports. Try it with any other job.

You are a software engineer. Not the greatest in the world, but certainly one of the 500 best. You’re one of 25 main contributors to an amazing new project, something that has the whole industry buzzing. That’s when your boss comes down and says, "Sorry, we’re going to move you into a different department. You’re doing great! But you’ll have to move to Iowa and work on our new M.U.S.C.L.E.™ app."

In this scenario, you tell your boss to get bent and work just about anywhere you want. The headhunters would have been calling you for years and years anyway. Once you’re at that level, you get to pick where you work, not the other way around.

You are a musician. You are a political consultant. You are a firefighter, teacher, plumber, graphic designer, valet, or movie producer. You’re one of the best in the world at it. And if someone tells you to go away, the odds are outstanding that not only will you have the opportunity to choose a different situation, but that people will fight for your services.

In baseball, you have to go where they tell you, or you can’t work in your chosen industry anymore.

Put aside the part of your brain that can’t feel empathy for anyone who’s made six figures before: That’s weird, right? That seems weird. Players are betrothed to a team that can do what they want with them, and their only recourse is to leave the industry. Even though they’ve risen to the top of your profession. Even though they’ve succeeded there. Even though absolutely no one disputes their contributions to their employers and their stated goals.

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. Another reason is that usually players like La Stella are rewarded, not discarded, when they’re hitting well. This is a uniquely deep roster. So now you have the one player who is willing to take a stand vs. the one team that really thinks they’re better without him. What a perfectly awful perfect storm.

After this fades, we’ll forget all about it, just like we did with Stewart. Either La Stella will get his spot back on the roster, or he won’t. Either he’ll be with the Cubs, he’ll be on another team, or he’ll retire. And in three days, much less three years, we’ll talk about roster moves like they’re completely normal. Send this guy down, he’s a bum. Call this guy up. Trade this guy for that guy. Release that other guy, he’s the worst. you know, baseball stuff.

Every once in a while, though, we get a reminder that baseball is a weird fantasyland with its own rules, and it doesn’t apply to anything else we’ve ever seen. We can’t imagine what it’s like, and yet we all have opinions about what these people can do. It’s hard to feel completely sorry for someone so blessed, and yet we’re totally aware that rich and talented people can be some of the most miserable human beings on the planet because wealth and talent doesn’t always have a favorable exchange rate with happiness. So it makes sense that even the rich and talented have to look out for their own happiness. And here we are.

There is no happy ending here. Both sides say there won’t be hard feelings either way, but there will be hard feelings either way. All we can do is marvel at the details. Tommy La Stella was one of the best at what he did. He was told to go away. He declined, and now there isn't anything else he can do about it.

That’s weird, right?

That seems weird.