By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) With the lazy national go-to of curses ready to fire up during October, I’m a bit surprised the Chicago Cubs brilliant social media team hasn’t harnessed something having to do with the sarcastic hashtag #blessed.
The players just finished a jaw-dropping 22-6 August, another statistical feather in a season’s cap full of them. Their plus-222 run differential is tops in baseball by eighty-friggin’-one.
Kyle Hendricks, their fifth starter, leads baseball in ERA and is an improbable Cy Young candidate. Kris Bryant could club a baby seal and still probably win MVP. Through 19 games, new closer Aroldis Chapman has made late Cubs leads fait accompli. Even their season-long worry, Jason Heyward, is swinging a good bat recently.
Hardly a game goes by there isn’t some defensive play that makes the audience need to collectively re-shift its underwear.
Those infamous curse narratives are always looming, yet these Cubs in almost all facets seem blessed. And the Tommy La Stella saga only magnifies that.
La Stella returned to the big club Wednesday after a long, strange trip. It was one that saw him go from demoted to the minors to AWOL to excused absence to foggy explanations to public enemy to good soldier and back.
He spoke to the media prior to his start at second base against the Pittsburgh Pirates and left many in the media and shirseys still wanting for satisfaction. There are a lot of shades of gray to La Stella’s motives for initially refusing his Triple-A assignment, most of them beyond those of us who are incapable of empathizing with the humanity of athletes who aren’t supposed to be human.
“I don’t know that there’s necessarily an answer I can give that really ties it all together, sums it up and makes everybody go, ‘OK, that makes sense,’’’ La Stella tried to articulate to reporters Wednesday. “Because that answer doesn’t exist in my eyes. There’s a lot more that goes into it than that.”
La Stella knows that we know that he seems like a total weirdo. Because in terms of a pro ballplayer, he is. He’s cursed with the sports brain cancer of being an independent thinker and big-picture philosopher, and at any moment it could kill his life as an athlete. Some fans and media see one of two easily removable tumors, be it his pesky existential self-reflection or his place on the 40-man roster.
Yet the Cubs didn’t get surgical on either. And this isn’t a star or some key cog in the daily machine that’s chugged its way to a 15-game National League Central lead on Sept. 1.
The reflex was to assume that the favorite to win the World Series wouldn’t dare mess with anything that could make toxic this really dominant, really fun and relaxed club. The hell would you waste time with an overly cerebral, maybe selfish utility bench guy when his place could be filled by any number of blossoming minor leaguers or cheap trades? When you’re so darn blessed with cohesiveness as well as thunder and lightning hitting and pitching?
“I know some people portrayed it as if he was quitting on the team,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said in defending La Stella, as he publicly has from the start of this saga. “The way he was thinking about it, he wasn’t. He was in essence reflecting the passion that he had for the team and his teammates, and he saw his role as being here to support the other 24 guys. And in his mind, I think he was acting consistently with that.
“Again, you may think it was misguided. I may have thought it was misguided and would have hoped that he would have handled it differently. But his motives were almost pure in a sense, as funny as that sounds.’’
The entire time between La Stella’s initial assignment to Iowa to his return to Chicago, the Cubs in charge worked to accommodate him while remaining firm that he would have to put time in the minors before getting back to the big club. While La Stella knows himself better than we know him, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer obviously know something we don’t about why you don’t just punt a dude like this and how he can be brought back into the fold without disrupting the good vibe the Cubs got going. That suggests we consider the La Stella situation a bigger deal than the cool, calm, and collected Cubs brass do.
But what of the precious delicate clubhouse? Wasn’t what La Stella pulled an affront to all the dues paid by ballplayers who sometimes need to go down to the farm to help the team?
“As much as we allowed him that break and to go to Iowa and come back,” Hoyer told 670 The Score’s Dan Bernstein and Laurence Holmes, “he still has to answer to his teammates and he still has to be a big part of that group. He’s going to have to talk to those guys and convince him that he’s OK.”
La Stella did speak privately to his teammates upon his return and explained his rationale. Still, these are ornery MLBers with their unwritten rules and kangaroo courts and whatnot. There had to be some bad vibes in there still.
“I just loved the way that whole moment worked because that truly indicated that everything we’ve been attempting to put together this year was real – that they are a group, they are one, they are a team,’’ manager Joe Maddon said of the team meeting. “They sat there, they listened, and very intelligently and respectfully talked with him about it. Perfect.
“For me, it couldn’t have happened any better, and actually I thought it could be a galvanizing moment moving forward.’’
Maddon is a coach like any other in that some things need to be played close to the vest, but I don’t see any reason he would need to cover up for anything here. It should be safe to take him at his word that this isn’t an issue anymore if it ever was much of one internally. La Stella has seemingly been reabsorbed back into the the giant killer blob of awesome that the Cubs are.
And this team sails on smoothly. Despite the social media and 670 The Score caller freaks who take any Cubs loss as extrapolatory to pending doom. Despite the virus of a diminutive infielder who wasn’t sure he wanted to make baseball his career anymore. And Wednesday night there was no difference in the fluidity of what we’ve become used to with, the great starting pitching, defensive wizardry and amazing offense as the Cubs won 6-5. The bullpen had hiccups, so some of those players are clearly taking the La Stella thing particularly hard.
But otherwise nothing superficial is pushing this team off course. If you want to manufacture some curse talk, it won’t come from anything on the inside at Wrigley Field.
Everything Cubs seems pretty #blessed.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.