How Braves second basemen Tommy La Stella took the path less traveled to the bigs

Despite knocks on his other skills, the unheralded lefty simply hits.

After the recent one-game suspension of Dan Uggla, it seems safe to declare that Tommy La Stella will frequent Fredi Gonzalez’s starting lineup for the rest of 2014 and possibly beyond. The 25-year-old has performed serviceably, hitting .292 in 154 at-bats—a welcome jump in production from the .189 average that other Braves second basemen have collectively hit this season.

La Stella is a foil to the recent cast of Braves batters—right-handers with healthy homerun hacks who strike out when they don’t connect. He joins Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward as a lefty while complementing Andrelton Simmons as the only other contact hitter in the lineup; he has struck out only 20 times so far. As long as the Upton brothers are whiffing as often as they are, contact will be a commodity for Fredi’s team.

Tweets, selfies, and friend requests are all irrelevant to the low-profile New Jersey native. “Off the field, Derek Jeter is who I will always try to model myself after,” he told in an interview. “I’m from the New York area, so I have watched from the start how he has been the consummate professional.” La Stella doesn’t have a social media presence but instead prefers to remain out of public focus, similar to Jeter, who manages to only make minor appearances in tabloids despite his role as unquestioned leader of one of the most recognized sports franchises in the world for more than a decade.

But unlike Jeter, who was drafted as the Yankees top pick out of high school, La Stella’s path to the big leagues was not direct. Instead of playing ball the summer before his senior year, as most elite players do, he spent his days working on a farm. His duties included feeding a donkey that, like Napoleon Dynamite’s llama, Tina, was not keen on eating. “Every night when I would go to feed this donkey, as I was carrying that bucket of food out there, I was thinking, ‘What am I doing? I could be playing ball, and I could be going to college the next year,’” La Stella told about rediscovering his passion for the game.

With a fresh perspective and reaffirmed goals, La Stella graduated high school and took his talents to St. John’s University without an athletic scholarship. After only starting four games his freshman year, he was again denied a scholarship as a sophomore. An old hitting coach found him a place on the Coastal Carolina squad, but because of NCAA transfer rules, he couldn’t prove himself on the field for another year.

In his first season with the Chanticleers in 2010, La Stella hit 14 homeruns with a .378 average—numbers that earned him a spot on the First Team All-Big South squad. The following year he hit .398 and won the Big South Player of the Year award. In five years, La Stella went from feeding a stubborn donkey to being drafted in the eighth round by the Braves in 2011.

La Stella’s rise has not been meteoric. He has steadily performed everywhere he has played, but his lack of a distinguishing trait like superior speed, arm strength, or power always leaves scouts and coaches attempting to dismiss him. With the gaping hole that exists at second for the Braves, La Stella has landed on a team that needs him—giving him ample opportunity to prove himself.