Tommy La Stella, Ballplayer In Exile

Tommy La Stella wants to play baseball for the Chicago Cubs, and only the Chicago Cubs, and that insistence means he's not presently playing anywhere at all. It's complicated.
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Chicago Cubs infielder Tommy La Stella, presently in self-imposed exile in New Jersey, is chasing the American dream by not playing baseball; the pursuit of happiness can lead to some counterintuitive decisions. Each of us, wrote Thomas Jefferson and the gang, is endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the ability to walk away from a $532,000 salary that might, with time, climb into the millions of dollars; to forgo a chance to make history by being a member of the first Cubs team to go to the World Series since 1945; to give up the urbane, jazzy Windy City for the strip mall blahscape of northern New Jersey; to want to stop playing a game.

La Stella left the Cubs because he so wanted to stay with the Cubs; instead of accepting an assignment to Triple-A Iowa earlier last month, La Stella effectively boycotted it. Basically, La Stella has decided if he’s going to play baseball at all, he’s going to do it for the Cubs in Chicago, not for the Cubs in Iowa, nor for any other team. "He's not angry. He's not upset," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's just at that point where he doesn't know exactly what he wants to do. That's it."

La Stella told ESPN that he’s considering retirement. “It didn't feel right to me to go be somewhere else just to continue playing. That's not what my thoughts center around, being a ballplayer and making it happen anyway possible. We all have a right to dictate what we do to some extent.”

If there’s a question about La Stella being angry, it’s because of the circumstances under which he was sent down back on July 29. The 27-year-old La Stella was hitting .295/.388/.457 in 122 plate appearances when he was demoted in favor of veteran utilityman Chris Coghlan. The 31-year-old was a useful regular for the Cubs the last two seasons, hitting a combined .265/.346/.447. Coghlan’s not great defensively at any position, but as a player who can slot in around the diamond without embarrassing himself, Coghlan meshes with Maddon’s Zobristian ideal. Still, Coghlan was hitting .155/.244/.278 in 217 plate appearances, and being sent down for that guy, when you’ve hit as well as La Stella has, must be painful.

Players have walked away at odd moments before. Perhaps the most notorious was the great Dick Allen, who walked away with about two weeks to go in the 1974 season. He was 32, leading the American League in home runs, and the highest-paid player in baseball, but he was unhappy in the clubhouse. On September 14, he took batting practice, then gathered his Chicago White Sox teammates and said, “I’ve never been happier anywhere than here. You’re a good ball team without me and you have a good man leading you.” And he was gone. He came back the next season, but he was never the same.

The most vivid example for La Stella, though, is an ancient nightmare that, like his tale and Allen’s, belongs to Chicago. Beginning in 1918, the Cubs had a talented young shortstop named Charlie Hollocher. Charlie was always feeling sick. Sometimes you could see the reason why, but mostly he had vague symptoms like stomach pain that doctors could neither diagnose nor confirm. Having played through this for a few years, in July, 1923, he left Bill Killefer, his manager, a note:

Dear Bill:

Tried to see you at the clubhouse this afternoon but guess I missed you. Feeling pretty rotten so made up my mind to go home and take a rest and forget baseball for the rest of the year.  No hard feelings, just didn't feel like playing anymore. Good luck,

  As Ever,

He came back a month into the 1924 season, but his stomach still hurt. When he played poorly the Cubs sent him home. In the ensuing years there was fruitless talk of a comeback. On August 14, 1940, Hollocher put a shotgun to his neck and pulled the trigger. “I miss baseball,” he had said a few years earlier. “If I had my health I would be playing baseball even if I had a million dollars. I love the game.”

The point here isn’t to suggest that La Stella is having a breakdown or is in danger of harming himself—that sort of darkness is too serious for idle speculation, and anyway there’s no reason to speculate that. It’s just to say that, with luck, La Stella will be retired a long time, and that once baseball is over, it’s over. Better to be sure than to have unfinished business that the passage of years will not let you complete.

If he’s certain, though, don’t call him a quitter. As he said, he has the right. Call him a true American, a Thoreau: “I went to New Jersey because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

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