The main takeaway from a 15-minute press conference where Tommy La Stella talked a lot and said very little: Only the Cubs.
Even La Stella realizes he’s fortunate to be working for Joe Maddon, perhaps the most liberal manager in an extremely conservative industry, and Theo Epstein’s front office, which takes a holistic view of player development and built out an entire wing for mental skills.
There aren’t many other markets where one of the last guys on the roster could dominate multiple news cycles, but the appetite for information on the best team in baseball appears to be endless, and this story is so bizarre, even by Cubbie standards.
La Stella addressed his teammates inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse for about 10 minutes before starting at second base and batting seventh in Wednesday night’s lineup against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But La Stella – the second act in a trilogy of media sessions in the underground interview room, after Maddon and before Epstein – didn’t offer any real insight into why he refused to report to Triple-A Iowa in late July, moved home to New Jersey, told ESPN he might retire if he couldn’t play for the big-league Cubs and finally ended his three-week holdout in the middle of August.
“That’s pretty much between me and them – and me and Theo,” La Stella said. “I understand that there’s going to be people out there who kind of draw conclusions and stuff. And that’s fine. I’m not necessarily out here to make anybody see anything or explain anything.
“As long as people understand that there are things out there that are kind of personal to me – and I’ve shared those with the guys. It’s not necessarily going to be just like a cut-and-dry, black-and-white answer where everybody goes: ‘Oh, yeah, I get it now.’ That answer doesn’t really exist.”
La Stella confirmed the answer didn't involve a health issue or crisis in his family. This reunion became inevitable the longer the Cubs played this game, taking a softer approach, knowing his left-handed swing could help win a playoff game and not immediately cutting him.
“That was obviously a very real possibility that I was fully prepared for,” La Stella said. “I was at a point in my life, just personally and professionally, (where) that wasn’t something that I was in fear of. I was OK with it.
“The way Theo approached it…I was very lucky because he treated me like a person and not an employee.”
La Stella, 27, isn’t sure if he wants to remain a Cubs employee beyond this season: “I don’t know, to be honest with you. I don’t want to say something, because I don’t have an answer.”
And when asked if he missed the game during his retreat, La Stella said: “I missed the guys. The game, to me, that’s kind of just the avenue for the other type of enjoyment that I get through those guys and the stuff that we get to do together.”
How much of your decision to step away came out of pure frustration after being sent down to the minors with a .295 average?
“None of it,” La Stella said. “I know that sounds absurd to say. (But) that had absolutely nothing to do with that. I made that very clear to Theo. I told him when it happened: I totally understood the move. He’s doing what he believes is in the best interest of the team. I’m all for that.”
It got to the point where an exasperated columnist asked: Do you understand how strange this is for us to comprehend, how there’s nothing to grasp here?
“I hear ya,” La Stella said. “It’s certainly not a typical situation.”
Epstein – who’s in his 25th season in Major League Baseball, which should be converted into dog years after all the time he’s spent with the Cubs and Boston Red Sox – had never seen anything like it before.
“There are appropriate times for punishment,” Epstein said, “and standing up for the organization if we think an individual is acting in a malevolent way and putting himself before the organization and trying to do damage to the team concept.
“I can just tell you that after talking to him, we didn’t feel that way. We felt it was more misguided and not malevolent, so we wanted to work with him to get him back to this point.”
La Stella’s personal journey included temporarily quitting baseball in high school, transferring from St. John’s University to Coastal Carolina University and deserting the Atlanta Braves, which he explained as a “completely different” situation: “Somebody close to me was sick in the hospital.”
“One of the things I like about Tommy the most is that he is his own man,” Maddon said. Another thing: “The guy can wake up in the middle of the night and hit a line drive on a 1-2 count.”
La Stella clearly made a connection with Maddon, forged alliances in the clubhouse with respected professionals like Jake Arrieta and Jason Heyward and should still have that unique hand-eye coordination and contact skills. As for the reaction from the fans…
“It’s tough for me to say, because I haven’t read anything,” La Stella said. “I haven’t looked at anything – good or bad – so I don’t really necessarily know what the perception of all of it is. I’m sure negatively there’s going to be some people who don’t understand, or don’t agree. And that’s fine.
“A couple difficult personal experiences for me between now and the end of the year isn’t going to outweigh all the incredible stuff I’ve gotten to see here at Wrigley. It’s a pretty sacred place. It’s going to take more than a couple difficult moments for me personally to change any feeling on that.”
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La Stella did admit that he wondered how he would be received by teammates – and if they would question his commitment to the game.
“I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t something that eventually enters your mind,” La Stella said. “But the thing that outweighed that for me was I couldn’t not do what I felt was right for me, just because of how it might be perceived by other people.
“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.”
Only the Cubs.