Tommy La Stella remembers an offseason conversation sometime in 2015, well before the business of baseball intruded on his enjoyment of the sport.
Joe Maddon, the Chicago Cubs manager for whom he played four seasons before being traded to the Angels in November, walked La Stella through the role he’d been asked to fill. It wasn’t glamorous. Pinch-hitters are rarely glorified. But it was pivotal to the Cubs’ mission to have a contact hitter like La Stella on the bench.
“It’s not easy when you want to be out there every day to be out there every two weeks,” La Stella said. “But looking around that room in Chicago and seeing all the guys on that team, it was pretty apparent who needed to be getting playing time and that we were the best team with those guys out there. It made it easier for me to accept my role and then eventually it kind of became like I really liked it.”
Sometimes the role weighed on La Stella. At one point in 2016, just a few months before the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians to win the franchise’s first World Series championship in 108 years, he declined to accept a minor league assignment. He was hitting .295 in 105 at-bats over 51 games at the time but the Cubs chose to replace him on the active roster with a utility player, Chris Coghlan, who had a .155 average. Disappointed, La Stella went home to New Jersey to decide if he wanted to play baseball.
Nearly three years later, La Stella is excelling in a different role. Entering Sunday’s game, he was second on the Angels in batting average, third in on-base-plus-slugging percentage and fourth in games played. He has sat near the top of those lists all season.
La Stella’s peers around baseball noticed. They voted him into his first All-Star game as a reserve, the league announced Sunday before the Angels lost 12-3 to the Oakland Athletics at Angel Stadium.
“It’s a lot, honestly,” said La Stella, who tallied three hits as the Angels lost their third game in a row. “It’s a lot of kind of reflecting back on getting here and all the people helping me along the way. My parents, my friends, everybody back home. They were pushing for me to make the All-Star game. I’m happier for them, honestly. It means more to them because they were so excited for me and wanted it for me. To everybody back home, thank you.”
La Stella will join Mike Trout in Cleveland for the festivities, which begin July 8 with the home run derby. It will be the first time Trout, earlier this week elected a starter for the seventh consecutive year, has an Angels teammate at his side since Albert Pujols and Hector Santiago were in the All-Star game in 2015.
It is also the first time the Angels have had a second baseman elected to an All-Star team since Howie Kendrick in 2011.
“He’s having a career year,” Trout said earlier this week. “He obviously believes in himself and we believe in him as a team. He just comes in every day and puts in work and it’s showing. I’m happy for him. He’s helping this ball club a lot. Nobody saw this coming. If someone said they saw this coming, they’re lying to you.”
It wasn’t long ago the 30-year-old fought, often fruitlessly, to break into the lineup of a team so stacked with infield talent that Javier Baez, the runner-up in last year’s National League MVP award voting, barely played his natural shortstop position until the 2016 championship. The sparse playing time made the All-Star game fade from La Stella’s mind.
La Stella, with 16 home runs and 44 RBIs during a breakout season that has caught even the campaign’s architect by surprise, won that first phase of fan voting but finished third in the next round. Fellow second basemen DJ LeMahieu of the New York Yankees won the vote.
But players around the league chose not to let La Stella, whose .329 average since April 18 ranks third among qualified American League hitters, sit at home.
“I don’t want to say Tommy’s an underdog,” Angels manager Brad Ausmus said, “but he’s not someone I would have picked to be an All-Star this season. … I’m happy for him. I hope he really enjoys it.”