After performing a measure of due diligence in the wake of his 40-game suspension for domestic violence, the Cubs decided to tender Addison Russell a contract for the 2019 season. Theo Epstein said Tuesday in no uncertain terms that the team is offering a conditional second chance for Russell to prove he has changed his ways. Many fans, myself included, have voiced vocal opposition to the decision, but the team has plowed ahead.
Russell is already in camp and will address the situation with the media after position players officially report later this week. It’s a controlled situation and he’s surely been coached up when it comes to how to handle it, but there’s still the possibility that he could come across as tone-deaf or insincere. Even if he manages to close the stable door after the horse bolted long ago, there’s still the matter of how the rest of players will talk about Russell when they face the press.
Domestic violence is a fraught and complicated subject even for the most adroit communicators. Joe Maddon was roundly criticized for his flippant responses to questions about Russell last fall. Asking players who haven’t been in baseball for decades like the Cubs skipper has could lead to even more misstatements.
Based on the commentary from a handful of players who’ve commented on Russell during the offseason, it appears the Cubs have given little to no guidance on how to address the matter. And while it’d be foolish to assume that they’d all be polished orators, it’s not unreasonable to expect a few talking points on questions everyone knew were coming. Their answers thus far offer a glimpse of the potential pitfalls facing the rest of the roster when they arrive in Arizona.
Ian Happ made probably the best statement about the problem when he spoke with 670 The Score in January.
“Addison’s got a lot of personal stuff to work on before he’s back with us,” Happ said. “I think that we’re all very aware of that. We’re all going to be there to support him if he’s taking the proper steps. And that’s our job as teammates — to welcome him back if, in fact, he does everything he needs to be back on the field with us.”
The pressure within a clubhouse to support other players is intense, but Happ made it clear that Russell needs to really commit to changing his ways in order to earn the support of his teammates. To not publicly support someone on your team is considered unforgivable by some, so this is pretty much as strong a statement as you will see from a baseball player regarding an active teammate.
Kris Bryant took a different tack when asked about Russell in a subsequent radio interview during Cubs convention. The former MVP and current players union rep said that the only person who should talk about the specifics of the issue is the Cubs shortstop. Bryant felt Russell must address reporters and answer for what he’s done, which might be the best strategy for avoiding controversy. Of course, it could also be spun as ducking the issue.
Some players have gone the way of supporting their fellow teammate and minimizing the weight of the matter. Kyle Hendricks seemed to gloss over Russell’s actions and brush them off as something of a mistake.
“We’re all on the same page with it. We’re all on board,” Hendricks said. “We love Addison. We love Melisa [Reidy, Russell’s ex-wife] too. Everything that happened is unfortunate. We’re just behind him. He’s our teammate, and we’re backing him.”
Unfortunate is cussing out an umpire over a call that was actually correct or hurting your back while taking your pants off, not years of systemic abuse that eventually led to a simple suspension. So referring to domestic violence as “unfortunate” puts it on par with simple mistakes or harmless lapses in judgement. I don’t think Hendricks intended to come off as cavalier about the abuse, but that’s how it was viewed by some.
And Hendricks is far from alone when it comes to the failure to give this topic the gravity it requires.
“We’re human,” Pedro Strop told the Sun-Times upon arriving to camp. “He made a mistake. If he does the right thing, if he does whatever he needs to do, he’s going to be welcome to come back.”
Albert Almora Jr. expressed a similar sentiment, complete with the requisite problematic semantics.
“We call Russell family, he’s a brother,” Almora said. “From what we heard and communicating with Addison, the way he’s dealing with things, if he continues to do that, we’ll welcome him back with open arms. Let’s let him gain our trust again.”
This is the problem having no clear media strategy for your players. There is no one to tell them comments like “welcome him back with open arms” might upset people who are victims of domestic abuse. Perhaps that will be part of the “enhanced” domestic violence training the Cubs are mandating for everyone in the organization. If they are determined to keep Russell, they have to be prepared for the fully justified questions from reporters and fans.
Kyle Schwarber best laid out the dilemma he and his fellow Cubs currently face:
“It’s an unfortunate situation, but you…I don’t know how to answer that question for you there,” he admitted. “It’s something that’s obviously put in front of us. I think that everyone wants to handle it the right way.”
Schwarber’s sentiments likely echo what most players are thinking. They want to say and do the right things when it comes to the mess put in their laps through no fault of their own. It’s now up to ownership and the front office to help them do just that.