Sometimes in life, you don't appreciate what you've got until it's gone.
Tommy La Stella would know. These days, you'll find him at the top of the Atlanta Braves' batting order, anchoring second base in the stead of the struggling platoon of Dan Uggla, Tyler Pastornicky and Ramiro Pena, and La Stella is grateful for every second of the chance he's been given.
But once upon a time, that chance seemed a long way off -- impossible, even.
See, La Stella's path to the big leagues is a bit different than most. It took some determination, a little time away and a little help from a donkey.
Yes -- a donkey.
It was the summer before his senior year of high school in Montvale, N.J., and the young La Stella abruptly decided he'd had enough of baseball.
But even with a newly freed calendar, he didn't stay idle for long. At the urging of his parents, La Stella took a job at a farm stand. That's where he was delivered an unexpected dose of perspective.
One of the teenager's tasks was to feed a certain donkey who simply did not want to be fed.
You can almost picture the 5-foot-11, 185-pound athlete trudging through mud in some New Jersey farm, with a bucket of slop in his hands and his forsaken passion on his mind.
"I think that time in my life was definitely a great learning experience for me," La Stella said. "It definitely gave me some perspective. I definitely needed that perspective at that time. It's obviously a story that people get a kick out of. I don't mind talking about it. But obviously when you are going through it, I was thinking to myself, 'What am I doing? I could be playing baseball.' It definitely shaped the way I am today.
"As you're doing it day in and day out, it starts to wear on you. At first, you kind of lie to yourself and say, 'Ah, this isn't that bad.' And then as you're [working] every night and you're not playing baseball and you're not around your friends on the field, [baseball] really starts to grow on you. And you realize you made a mistake and [you say], 'I need to get back into it.'"
So get back into it Tommy La Stella did.
It was a long road, not without its fair share of bumps along the way.
But long story short, La Stella found himself in 2011 with a one-way ticket to Rome, Ga. -- the Class A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves -- after being selected in the eighth round of Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft.
Fast-forward another three years, and the stars have aligned once more for the 25-year-old: After ripping 49 hits in 47 games at Triple-A Gwinnett, La Stella got the call he'd been waiting for on May 28.
Since then, La Stella has been doing an admirable job of proving his worth, holding his own in a star-studded 2014 rookie class that has included the likes of George Springer, Gregory Polanco and Oscar Taveras.
"It's incredible," La Stella said. "I feel very blessed to have this opportunity. It's been a dream of mine since I was a kid, and at that time in my life, I really lost sight of that. To have all of this happening around me now, it's special.
"When we were at Fenway Park for my first game, I was out on the field and I got to hug my dad down the left-field line. I hugged my dad and I hugged my sister, and just looking around at that stadium -- it's such an incredible ballpark -- just looking around, that was kind of like my moment that I made it."
Yes, Tommy, you have indeed made it.
So, now that the Coastal Carolina graduate is hitting .302 with a .368 OBP atop Atlanta's lineup, is there a sense of job security?
"I don't know about job security just yet," La Stella laughed, "but it's nice to be in the lineup every day. It's one of the things I've look forward to, coming to the park every day and hopefully having a chance to be in there and contribute and hopefully win some games."
There's one thing La Stella knows for sure, though.
"Whether or not baseball pans out, I don't think I will ever work at that stand and feed that donkey," La Stella said without an ounce of hesitation. "I'll stay as far away from that as I can."
Has his success been unprecedented?
"I wouldn't say [I've been] better than expected, but it's always nice any time you're in a new place, especially the top level like the big leagues, to start off on the right foot," La Stella said. "I got some momentum early on, which has kind of carried me a little bit. Hopefully, I can keep it going, or if not keep it going, stay somewhat level."
La Stella's manager, Fredi Gonzalez, likes what he sees in his new second baseman.
"He's an alley-to-alley, gap-to-gap guy, hits a double," Gonzalez said. "Gives you good at-bats, works the count, gives you a good professional at-bat. He's a solid defender and he's done a great job, and I'm really pleased with how he's been doing."
Gonzalez also said he detects signs of improvement in La Stella's performance.
"Spring Training is kind of difficult because he's trying to make the team and he [was] probably a little apprehensive," Gonzalez said. "But this time around, he's been better than what I saw in Spring Training."
La Stella is showing he's got the tools for long-term success. One of his prime assets is his plate discipline, especially when hitting leadoff, as he has the past few weeks.
"For me, it's a fine line between being very disciplined and being a little bit too passive at the plate and not necessarily pulling the trigger on pitches that I can do some damage with," La Stella said.
"Hitting leadoff is something I've never done before, but I think my approach lends itself to the spot: [Being] somewhat patient, working at-bats, working counts, hopefully getting a walk every once in a while. As long as I stick to my approach, what I was doing in the seven-hole, hopefully the results will take care of themselves in the leadoff spot."
Regardless of what the coming days bring for La Stella, the second baseman of the Atlanta Braves will be savoring every second.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less