When Melisa Reidy, Addison Russell’s ex-wife, published her letter confirming domestic abuse charges, many Cubs fans expressed a desire to have Russell let go immediately. This was largely to their credit as it seemed to show greater sensitivity to the matter than when Starlin Castro faced date-rape charges in 2012 or when Aroldis Chapman was acquired to solidify World Series title contention.
For some, Russell’s sub-par, injury-riddled season(s) may have made it easier to cut bait. But this isn’t to say many, many fans do not have pure, unalloyed revulsion toward any domestic abuse and sexual assault charges. If you have experienced an abusive household or know how domestic violence has permanently altered the lives of friends and loved ones, the disgust comes instantly and viscerally.
As for myself, I took the charges against Russell seriously but kept my opinion private. I admit to a reflexive empathy for survivors and victims of bullies of all kind. This comes from personal experience and statistics that show alleged victims to be far, far less likely to lie – especially when voiced publicly – than the alleged perpetrators.
That said, the former newspaper reporter in me usually takes a wait-and-see approach in order to digest any and all specifics. Because specific details of physical abuse weren’t disclosed in the Russell case, I didn’t have much except instinct to go on. Thus, I personally appreciate Major League Baseball’s reputable approach for confidentially investigating and disciplining.
After all, these situations are extremely painful for victims to re-live, especially if every detail must be exposed publicly. So to even partially reveal the details Reidy shared took much fortitude on her part.
On the other hand for the accused abusers, the more publicity charges against them get, the deeper they dig in and the more strenuously they deny. This makes it even harder for outside observers to not be swayed by cognitive dissonance, identity politics, spin, etc. Plus, there’s always that 4-8 percent chance the charges are either false or that the truth lies somewhere in between.
Which brings us to Russell’s future. What we know is he has 29 games left on his 40-game suspension. If the Cubs keep him, he would be eligible to play as of May 3. We also know from Theo Epstein’s end-of-year news conference that the Cubs aren’t making any quick public decisions on Russell’s employment.
“[Russell] accepted this discipline,” Epstein said. “And so I want to talk to him about what that means and find out more. And the victim, first and foremost, deserves our outreach and support, and that will be forthcoming very quickly.
“Addy [Russell], in my opinion, also should not just be completely dismissed. I think he deserves our support and our help going forward too. I think the fact MLB includes in their determination that there is an evaluation and treatment going forward, that is something we should fully support and support Addy participating in.”
So Epstein is not going to immediately jettison Russell, not as a person or a player. However, the decision-making flow chart for his return to the Cubs’ roster has many, many boxes to work through. For example, Epstein noted talking directly with Russell first. After all, when a player vigorously denies something many times and then accepts responsibility via written statement, one must test how much is coming from the player’s heart or his agent’s word processor.
Whether Russell restarts his career with the Cubs or another team, he must at minimum fully embrace treatment for anger/domestic abuse, as well as any drinking issues. Then he must hold a news conference — perhaps on the first day of spring training — during which he should take full responsibility and apologize to his ex-wife, family, friends and the whole Cubs organization. Only in this way does he have a chance to win back trust from teammates, a title-focused Cubs organization, and fans.
From a team perspective, stories about Russell being an isolated drinker who stays late at bars and clubs were also disturbing. They could explain Russell’s many lingering injuries, the depth of his hitting slumps, and his head-scratching defensive lapses the last two years. It also may credibly explain last offseason’s rumored trade for Manny Machado, as well as why the Cubs may have offered and the Orioles rejected a rumored package of Russell, Mike Montgomery, and more.
The degree to which Russell accepts responsibility and embraces rehabilitation will determine whether he restarts his career with a contender like the Cubs or with a team willing to take a flyer. I honestly am not rooting for any option more than another. I love the talent – especially his defense at a critical position – but talent alone does not win titles. A sense of urgency, focus on the larger team goal, and making personal sacrifice to improve are all crucial. But these are also hard to judge from a fan’s distance.
What I doubt happens is the Cubs just non-tendering Russell during the upcoming arbitration period and getting nothing in return. One flashes back to Carlos Zambrano and the bridges he burned in 2011. Even then, the Cubs got a flyer back (Chris Volstad) in trading Zambrano and cash to the Marlins.
Or put it this way: Who thinks Epstein will let the Cardinals or Pirates upgrade at shortstop for free?
But also don’t expect any quick answers to the Russell story. He has a lot to work through before the Cubs can decide on their best course of action. That said, the Cubs must make all 2019 plans assuming Russell has played his last game with them. If he does return as a truly contrite person, as a better teammate, and as some version of his 2016 peak, that will be quite a bonus.