When crazy managers roamed the Earth

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Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle has a wonderful column up about an all but extinct species: the volcanic, red-ass manager. The guys who barked at the press and the players and smoked and grunted and did all of those wonderful/awful things. Guys like Gene Mauch and Jim Fregosi and Ralph Houk and Billy Martin. Ostler shares some stories about these guys from his 30+ years on the beat:

Mauch could flip a spread. A few years earlier he had flung a platter of barbecued spareribs after a game, splattering a row of lockers and decorating the dress suits of several players. The Jackson Pollock of managers.

Stuff like that.

Ostler is right that the culture has changed. And it makes sense. Managers are now smoother. CEO-types. Or, more often, delegates of the front office as opposed to generals or, in Houk’s case, majors. Frankly, that’s what their job demands and how most of us, if we ran a team, would want our managers to behave.

But boy, it’s way less fun for those of us not directly in their line of fire.

Tommy La Stella talks about his refusal to report to the minors in 2016

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In late July of 2016, Cubs infielder Tommy La Stella was demoted to Triple-A. It wasn’t personal. It was a roster crunch situation and La Stella had options left so, despite the fact that he had been an effective player to that point of the season, it made sense to send him down.

La Stella didn’t take the demotion well. In fact he refused to report to Iowa and went home to New Jersey instead. It was not until August 17 that he finally reported and then only after prolonged discussions with the Cubs and the assurance that he’d be back in the majors once rosters opened up. Which he was, after spending just over a week down on the farm.

Such a move by a player would, normally speaking, make him persona non-grata. His teammates would shun him and the organization would, eventually, cut bait, with the press characterizing him as a me-first player as he walked out the door. That did not happen with La Stella, however, who remains with the Cubs two years later and, by all accounts, is a popular and important guy in the Cubs’ clubhouse, even if he’s not one of the team’s big stars.

Today Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic has an in-depth story about La Stella, what went down in 2016 and how he and the Cubs have proceeded since then. The story is subscription only, but the short version is that there was a lot of understanding and empathy on the part of the Cubs organization and their players about what was going on in La Stella’s head at the time and how everyone allowed everyone else the space to work through it.

I’m happy to read this story, because all too often we only hear about such incidents as they occur, with little followup. To the extent the story is told, most of the time its completely one-sided, with the player who acts out being treated like a bad seed with little if any explanation of his side of things. And, yes, there are always two sides to the story. Sometimes even more.

Kudos to Rosenthal for telling this story. Here’s hoping the next time a player is involved in a controversy that, in the moment, makes him appear to be a bad seed or have a bad attitude, we hear more about it then too.