Angels All-Star hopeful Tommy La Stella is just getting started

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·MLB columnist
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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Joe Maddon raised an eyebrow, grinned as though he already had the answer and said, “How’s Tommy?”

He’s rakin’, I said. That’s how he is.

“But he’s good?”

I mean, he’s smiling a lot. He seems to be having fun. I guess he’s good.

“You haven’t talked to him?”

Not really. You see, there’s something about introducing yourself to a guy after he hits a couple home runs, then a bunch of home runs, when he’s suddenly going that good, that feels, I don’t know, like front-running. I was waiting for a quieter moment. Maybe let the crowd thin a bit.

“Oh man,” the Chicago Cubs manager said. “You have to go talk to him. Tell me you’ll go talk to him. He’s special, man. Tommy La Stella is special.” OK, I said. I’ll say hello.

“I hope he’s good.”

I’m sure he is, I said. He’s rakin’. Why wouldn’t he be? But I’ll check.

***

A few days later, Tommy La Stella smiled like he already had the answer and said, “Joe said that?”

As he spoke, he was approached by a team official, who held out a new baseball and a pen. La Stella spun the ball in his hand, away from the sweet spot, signed it under the Rawlings stamp and returned it with a nod.

Los Angeles Angels' Tommy La Stella runs out an at bat in the second inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers in Detroit, Thursday, May 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Tommy La Stella has 16 home runs this season for the Los Angeles Angels. (AP)

Maybe we invest too hard in good, in happy, like it’s a tattoo or a scar, something that comes and never goes. Like it’s a choice and can be stockpiled, set aside for the days when the clouds are stubborn and the line drives won’t fall. Like we should be able to talk ourselves into it, or walk ourselves into it, or buck up, man. Just buck up.

La Stella sat on a bench and watched batting practice one afternoon this week. He wore a T-shirt and shorts, socks and shower shoes. In an hour or so he’d hit his 16th home run, this one requiring a sprint from home to home, and still his 16th, six more than in his first four seasons in the big leagues. He’d later add a single, so halfway through the season would be batting .296 and gathering All-Star votes, and the easy assumption is that he is becoming the ballplayer he always knew he could be, or the ballplayer he was expected to be, when in reality he is being the ballplayer he is today.

He’d put off this conversation earlier, when the clubhouse was crowded and the music was loud.

“I have a question for you,” he’d said. “How deeply would you like to get into this? Because, I would like to talk about it. But, I’m sure as Joe might have told you, I’m kind of specific about what that might look like. You know, I don’t want to give some kind of fast-food answer to something that is personal and is kind of like my personal evolution.

“Are you going to be around at all? The only reason I say it is I have to go hit and I didn’t want to rush through this.”

So, musty from his reps in the cage, he climbed up on the bench and looked out at what would become a baseball game and thought for a few seconds about his place in all of this, in this tiny world inside not one big world, but inside so many other small worlds. He is 30 years old. He’s skilled at the game. He likes the game. There is a place in it for him, he seemed pretty sure, and a place in him for it.

“I think we kind of get this idea of happiness as though, like, I’m gonna get there and I’m gonna stay there and I’m gonna know I’m there forever,” La Stella said. “But it’s going to be like this a little bit. It’s not always going to go your way. What you do after it doesn’t go your way is kind of what helps define the next moment. I know it’s a cheesy cliche, but that’s kind of it.”

You’d recall that La Stella went home to New Jersey a few summers back, to the house he grew up in, in a town off the Hudson River between the Tappan Zee and George Washington bridges. He was there when he was supposed to be in the minor leagues, where the Cubs had sent him, and instead he’d gone home to think. Nearly three years later, those three weeks remain significant to the young man sitting on a bench in Anaheim, turning at-bats into home runs or line drives or whatever is to become of them. When he is asked generally about the changes, he understands the question is about where he stands in the box, how he stands in the box, why the baseball looks and sounds different off his bat, and how 10 home runs in 828 at-bats becomes 16 in 267. And he has an answer for that, too, about what was required of him as a rookie in Atlanta or as a part-time player in Chicago and how he’d obliged for long enough that he’d misplaced this hitter. But, you see, that swing was the least of what he’d set aside, or lost, or convinced himself was unnecessary, or was trying to live up to.

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 25: Los Angeles Angels second baseman Tommy La Stella (9) watches his inside the park home run during a MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on June 25, 2019 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tommy La Stella is in his first season with the Angels after spending four years with the Chicago Cubs. (Getty Images)

The swing was what he did. He’d gone home to think about who he was. Where he belonged. What world would have him and, more, which one he’d have. He’d gone home because he wouldn’t spend another day in pursuit of another day.

“Just because I had wanted out for a while,” La Stella said. “I had wanted to stop playing for a while. But, I couldn’t. I felt trapped by it because of what other people would say and what people would think and me walking out on an amazing opportunity. That wasn’t enough of a reason for me to want to keep doing something I truly didn’t enjoy doing. It wasn’t baseball’s fault. It was the way I was looking at it. But at the time I pinned it on that. I was looking at it wrong. I was looking at my situation and where I was and how I got there all wrong. And, while I look back on it, and obviously it wasn’t the right decision, the one thing that I am OK with is the fact I allowed myself to be true to myself and to make the wrong decision without being afraid of what was going to happen because of it.”

What is forgotten in their stories -- how they were blessed or pushed or simply driven, how they persevered, how they sensed doubt, how they overcame obstacles real or perceived, how they produced and won -- is how personally they were lived. Are lived. The young man with the bottomless brown eyes and deeper conviction played ball and struggled a little and found something in his swing and, given some playing time and room to breathe, became an All-Star caliber player for the Los Angeles Angels, and that’s a fine story in itself. But La Stella lived every second of it, questioned it, fought it, stripped it down and then made a decision he still says was wrong but couldn’t be wrong. It was too honest to be wrong.

His father, Phil, is an emergency room doctor. His mother, Jane, is a psychologist. He comes from a family of healers. So, he’d gone home to patch himself up, if that’s what it would be, and maybe what would come would be more baseball, if that’s what he would choose at the end, and then maybe one afternoon going on three years later he would be, if you need to call it that, happy. He’d be good, good on his own terms, good because of his choices, good because he’d be in charge of his own story.

He discovered baseball could be a game again if he’d let it be. You know, it’s serious and all, this showing up and winning and losing and giving yourself over to the common good and earning your pay. It’s also a broad smile long before you slide into home on that inside-the-park home run, because that’s fun. It’s even the occasional lapse into contentment, just a second or two, just long enough to honor the work required to this point, before narrowing the focus again to honor the work ahead.

“I feel like I have my reasons for playing now,” La Stella said. “Put it that way. I have a better understanding of why I’m out there, what it takes to be out there and why I show up every day.

“No. 1 is the challenge. It’s one of the most difficult sports to play, right? It’s gotta be. A hundred and sixty-two times. Hitting a baseball is one of the hardest things to do. And the challenge of it always reveals stuff. It helps develop you off the field. I enjoy looking at it that way now. While it’s certainly going to go up and down, you’re going to get frustrated, you’re going to go through your ruts, it teaches you a lot about yourself, about life and the kind of person you want to be.”

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 02:  Tommy La Stella #9 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim scores on a wild pitch by Connor Sadzeck #54 of the Seattle Mariners in the fifth inning at T-Mobile Park on June 2, 2019 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images)
Tommy La Stella is trying to make his first All-Star team. (Getty Images)

So, he’s robbed of a hit one night, straight robbed by a diving, tumbling catch in left field, and when the disappointment eases, he allows the game to be the game.

“And as pissed as I was,” he said, “I was running off the field and I was like, ‘Man, that’s a sick play. And that dude works a lot of hours that nobody sees in the offseason to be able to make that play a few times a year or whatever it is.’ I appreciated that. And even though it wasn’t my turn to get my hit, I always appreciated that it was his turn to make that play. I guess all of our turns come at somebody else’s expense. I can’t hit a home run unless there’s somebody out there throwing me the ball. He’s gotta lose if I’m gonna win. I don’t know. I guess a better way of saying it, if you always try to make the game so one-sided where you only ever experience the success, it becomes not worth doing it anymore.”

He’d tried that once before. And, yet, here he is, Joe, doing OK, doing good, rakin’. That’s how Tommy is.

“Then I have to remember, man, this is a long process culminating right now,” he said. “And the more I think about it the more I realize like, man, it’s not just me here. It’s really not just me finding success right now. It’s anybody who ever helped me out, supported me, even a conversation, anybody who invested their time in me.”

Culminating?

“You’re right,” he said with a grin. “You’re right. I used that word because we are where we’re at.”

Maybe getting started.

“I hope so,” La Stella said. “I really hope so.”

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