PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- If Tommy La Stella realizes a childhood dream that developed as he was denting his basement walls with line drives, there is a good chance he would become the first player to reach the Major League level with the help of a donkey.
As La Stella has impressed during his first big league camp and created further reason to wonder when he might be given a shot to serve as Atlanta's starting second baseman, he has not lost sight of what he learned when his parents forced him to get a job after he abruptly quit playing baseball during the summer leading into his senior year at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, N.J.
"It was really a perspective issue," La Stella said of his decision to briefly stop playing. "It was one of those things where I really didn't understand just how blessed and fortunate I was to be able to do what I had been doing. It took me stepping away from the game and realizing that I'm very lucky and fortunate to be able to do.
"Thank God for my parents, because they made me go out and get a job. Getting the job really gave me the perspective I needed to really get back into it and realize that I have a gift and [I was] wasting my talent."
When La Stella decided that baseball was denying him the chance to partake in the summer fun some of his friends were enjoying leading into their senior year of high school, his parents did not allow him to remain idle. Instead, they led him through a job search that ultimately landed him employment at a farm stand.
Along with delivering bales of hay that would be used for Halloween arrangements, La Stella had a wide range of responsibilities, none of which was more influential than the task of feeding an uncooperative donkey.
"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?'" La Stella said. "I could be playing ball, and I could be going to college the next year. That was where I rediscovered my passion [for baseball]."
Despite hitting .525 and being a first-team All-State selection after his senior season at St. Joseph, La Stella had to deal with the fact that a number of previously interested collegiate coaches had seen him quit playing the previous summer. Thus, he had to settle for the invitation to head to Queens to play for St. John's with the benefit of a partial academic scholarship.
When that partial scholarship was not renewed and he approached his sophomore season understanding he was not necessarily wanted at St. John's, La Stella jumped at the opportunity to play for Coastal Carolina University. But because he was transferring to another NCAA Division I program, he was not eligible to play during his first year on campus.
"There were definitely times when I was questioning what exactly am I doing [at Coastal Carolina]," La Stella said. "I'm sitting here in South Carolina, and I haven't really played any college baseball yet. It worked out for me."
After watching La Stella display his offensive skills over two seasons with Coastal, the Braves drafted him in the eighth round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft and then watched him hit .323 with a .401 on-base percentage in the 63 games he played that same summer for Class A Rome.
"We've always liked his bat," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "He got drafted because of his bat. He reported to Rome that year and hit, and he's hit ever since. I think keeping him healthy and keeping him on the field has really been one of the challenges. But when he plays, offensively, he's done everything we could hope and more."
La Stella missed the early portion of last season with a right elbow strain and then took advantage of the opportunity to vault himself closer to the big league level. The 25-year-old second baseman hit .343 with a .422 on-base percentage in 81 games with Double-A Mississippi last year, and then batted .290 over 18 games in the Arizona Fall League.
Despite recording just two hits in 12 at-bats last week, La Stella entered Tuesday's off-day hitting .286 (12-for-42) in Grapefruit League play. The fact that he has garnered a team-high 49 plate appearances confirms Atlanta's interest in seeing how he would react to his first experience in a big league setting.
With Dan Uggla coming off two miserable seasons, many Braves fans have wondered when La Stella might supplant Uggla as Atlanta's starting second baseman.
But as Uggla attempts to prove himself through the early portion of the season, La Stella is expected to be serving as Triple-A Gwinnett's starting second baseman. The role will give him a chance to lessen concerns about his defensive range and prove that he can indeed stay healthy. Injuries have prevented La Stella from playing more than 90 games in both of the past two seasons.
"If you spend a few minutes talking to Tom, you will see he is supremely confident in his ability," Dr. Phil La Stella said of his son. "Whatever it takes, that's his approach, and he believes he will get it done."
Along with placing a pitching machine in the family's basement approximately 15 years ago, the elder La Stella has served as an inspiration to his son, whose perseverance is strengthened by the daily reminder that his father was 29 years old before he traveled to the Dominican Republic to attend medical school.
La Stella has routinely encountered adversity dating back to those days when he walked away from baseball and was introduced to that influential donkey. He persevered when he was forced to find a place to play in college, and he has since dealt with the critics who have questioned his speed and defensive skills since he began playing baseball.
Along the way, La Stella has never lost sight of where he has been or where he plans to go.
"We tend to forget the difficult times when things are going well," La Stella said. "But I think it's always good to have it in the back of your mind as a reminder of all you have been through. It reminds you it's not always going to be as good as it is now. I think it's good to have that kind of perspective that allows you to know there's always going to be ups and downs. But the end product is what matters."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.