How Tommy La Stella pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in Cubs history

MESA, Ariz. — Get assigned to Iowa and decide to go to New Jersey instead? No problem.

But park in the general manager’s assigned spot at spring training? Now you’re talking about a punishable offense if you’re Tommy La Stella.

“He deserved it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s been stirring it up with the front office a bit.”

La Stella, the Cubs’ top left-handed pinch hitter and backup infielder, had decided to mess with GM Jed Hoyer and other front-office personnel by picking one of their spots to park in each morning. By Monday morning, his practice clothes were gone when he got to his locker, replaced by a front-office “uniform” of khakis and a polo shirt, with instructions to wear it during morning stretch before practice.

Dressed for success: Tommy La Stella takes infield in khakis and a polo shirt.

Instead, La Stella put on the office-casual uni, donned his ballcap, glove and spikes and wore the garb through all of his pregame work — splitting the back of the pants to allow him to better turn a double play.

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It was hard to be sure who got the last laugh.

But it was definitely the strangest sight of the spring on a Cubs practice field — and stranger still for the fact that La Stella is still a Cub at all after what he pulled in the summer of 2016. After being optioned to the minors because of a numbers crunch on the roster, he refused to report. Instead, he went home to New Jersey, contemplated retirement and only returned after weeks of conversations with the front office, Maddon, teammates and the team psychologist.

“Anywhere else, I’m probably out of baseball,” La Stella said. “Which I was fully prepared for and completely accepted.”

The last guy on the end of the bench. The gall.

And all of this during the Cubs’ wire-to-wire championship season that had been about nothing but harmony and victories until then.

“But it was one of those things where they had my best interest at heart even when I didn’t understand what I wanted, necessarily,” La Stella said. “They were going to allow me to take the time to figure it out. I don’t think that would have happened anywhere else.

“I’m incredibly fortunate that it was here. Which is why I’m so adamant about wanting to be here.”

Barely 18 months later, he’s pranking the GM.

And scribbling notes like this on meeting notices pinned to the clubhouse bulletin board: “Hitters only. So [expletive] coaches. JK. But seriously, [expletive].”

Whether that says more about the Cubs organization or La Stella is hard to measure.

“It says something about both,” said veteran Jason Heyward, a third-year Cub, who said of the organization: “They treat us like human beings.”

Team president Theo Epstein admitted in 2016 that his first impulse was to release La Stella, who was not dealing with any extenuating health or family situation. Many teammates were confused by the likeable La Stella’s actions; some were chapped.

But now, Maddon said, “It’s in the rearview mirror to the point that you don’t even think about it. And how he’s ascended within the group is really fascinating to watch.”

La Stella said some of the questions he faced then are gone, questions about why he played the game and whether he was playing it for others’ approval or outside expectations. He has rediscovered his passion and is in a better place — which recently has been Hoyer’s parking spot.

“He’s developed a voice within the group,” Maddon said.

And he’s as popular as ever.

“It’s not the same when he’s not around,” Heyward said.

People around the team who have been in baseball for decades consider it one of the most remarkable things they’ve seen.

“The way it’s all shaken out has been special, man,” La Stella said. “I never would have anticipated it. To feel like it never happened is just a testament to this place. The closeness of the guys that we have, not only in the clubhouse but top to bottom — front office, coaches, everybody — allowing me to work through what I was working on at the time, and understanding that there is more to life than baseball. . . . I think the situation as it stands now kind of reflects that.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com