Tough Part Not Even Close to Out of Way for Addison Russell, Cubs

More than one member of the Cubs organization has referred to Addison’s Russell’s awkwardly scripted press conference as “the hardest thing he’s ever had to do,” or something along those lines. Joe Maddon said he gave his shortstop a big hug after the harrowing ordeal. Julian Green, the team’s vice president of communications and community relations, offered effusive praise of Russell’s willingness to answer every reporter’s question when he joined Len Kasper and Ron Coomer during Saturday’s broadcast.

Russell himself met with Gordon Wittenmyer and other members of the media after his spring debut Sunday and told them “the tough stuff is pretty much out of the way.” And while I can understand how taking the first steps along a new path might feel like a relief, they don’t get you appreciably closer to your destination. And the steps we’ve seen so far from Russell and the Cubs have been as halting and wobbly as those of a newborn giraffe.

“I totally understand why fans have the negative reaction toward me,” Russell said after hitting an RBI single and notching a sac fly. “But I’m doing everything that I can to get out there on the field and become a better person and be a guy in this clubhouse that could help this team win.”

As critical as I’ve been of Russell and the organization throughout the entire saga of his domestic violence suspension, I must admit that these statements represent a slight improvement. That’s like high-jumping over a bar lying on the ground, but still. If he really believes the tough part is over, though, he neither respects nor understands the counseling process he’s going through.

Domestic violence, which in Russell’s case involved a habitual pattern of behavior that included both physical and psychological abuse, is not just some trivial mistake that can be corrected in short order with a half-assed apology. But for the first time I’ve heard or seen, Russell appeared to be displaying a semblance of awareness of the situation’s gravity and to be addressing specifics of his treatment.

“We’re picking back up where we left off,” he said about rebuilding relationships with teammates. “It’s making myself more available for them and getting to the level where they feel comfortable with me, just at the breakfast table, and go from there.”

He also described his counseling routine as “taking hacks off the tee,” which anyone familiar with baseball or golf will understand as a fundamental practice routine meant to build positive habits. And that’s where the real tough part comes in. Facing the media or hearing boos cascading down from the stands might not be fun, but the real difficulty is making and sustaining meaningful positive behavioral changes.

And since the lifestyle of a professional athlete in Chicago isn’t always conducive to good behavior, Russell and the Cubs really have their work cut out for them. Long is the list of those who’ve fallen prey to the myriad temptations available with nary an effort. Then you’ve got road trips with new people and places to see, likely without as much of that established support system. Learning how to process those stressors in a healthy manner is tough for anyone, let alone someone who’s struggled to cope in the past.

The other players on the roster will need to learn how to deal with a new normal as well, and that includes answering questions about their teammate. But as Kris Bryant explained, that pressure has shifted somewhat since Russell is now available to address the media.

“That’s what was needed in here to kind of move on for some of the other guys in here,” Bryant told Wittenmyer and others Sunday. “I don’t know about Addison. I hope to see him take those actions that are needed to get himself right.

“He certainly seems to be doing some of those actions. But it’s all left to be seen.”

As we’ve been saying this whole time, it’s all dependent upon Russell really following through with what to this point has only been talked about, often poorly. Replacing words with actions is what it’ll take for him to get the conditional green light from Theo Epstein and the organization, but a far more important aspect of that is Russell becoming a better human being. Whether he never plays another inning in a meaningful game or goes on to win five MVPs, he needs to be better for his children and everyone else in his life.

I’ve gone on record as saying the Cubs should have parted ways with Russell and simply committed to helping him as an interested party that didn’t also happen to be his employer. But since that’s not the case, I can only hope everyone involved continues to be truly invested in his growth as a person well beyond the expiration of MLB’s suspension. Because as we’ve already discussed, the hard part is yet to come and will actually never be over.

I want Addison Russell to stay the course not because it’s good for the Chicago Cubs, but because it’s good for Russell’s family and society in general. I’d rather have him hit .180 and be a good person than hit .280 with 20 home runs and a Gold Glove while engaging in despicable patterns of behavior. And though it’s probably too much to hope for, much less expect, maybe some good can even come of this with the way other teams address domestic violence.

So to echo what Bryant said, I hope to see Russell take those actions that are needed to get himself right. But it’s all left to be seen, and we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

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