Though the Cubs tendered contracts to seven members of the 2016 World Series championship team Friday, the procedural move barely warranted a press release for six — Javier Báez, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Carl Edwards Jr., Kyle Hendricks and Mike Montgomery.
The seventh was Addison Russell, the shortstop facing a 40-game suspension under Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violence Policy. The Cubs released lengthy statements from Russell as well as President Theo Epstein, taking the unusual step of distributing them to fans via an email list usually used for ticket sales and other marketing activities.
MLB placed Russell on administrative leave Sept. 19 to investigate allegations from his ex-wife, but trouble first surfaced in a June 2017 third-party social media post preceding the divorce.
Many fans would prefer Russell were released then or cut loose now. Some remain bitterly upset the Cubs traded for closer Aroldis Chapman in 2016, a season he started with a 30-game suspension linked to a domestic violence allegation.
Epstein implied there’s no guarantee Russell will return to Wrigley Field.
“While this decision leaves the door open for Addison to later make an impact for us on the field, it does not represent the finish line nor rubber-stamp his future as a Cub,” Epstein wrote. “It does however reflect our support for him as long as he continues to make progress and demonstrates his commitment to these important issues.”
That progress includes private therapy, league-mandated treatment and work with nonprofit groups in Florida, Chicago and Arizona “to support their missions and become part of the solution,” according to Russell, who added, “I am just in the early stages of this process. It is work that goes far beyond being a baseball player — it goes to my core values of being the best family man, partner and teammate that I can be, and giving back to the community and the less fortunate.”
Clearly those core values haven’t been a lifetime credo, but Russell vowed a commitment to regaining trust of fans and teammates. Both statements said Epstein and owner Tom Ricketts met with Russell to outline the team’s expectations, but those conditions won’t be public. Neither should we expect to learn how much confidence anyone has that Russell will actually check all the boxes.
In that regard, it’s not much different from the team’s relationship with manager Joe Maddon, who is in the last year of his contract. Undoubtedly, Epstein and Ricketts told Maddon what they hope to see from him next season in order for them to reopen contract negotiations, and although their opinion is the only one that matters, it’s already clear fans’ expectations exist on a much broader spectrum than the specific demands of the front office.
The issue is challenging. I abhor domestic violence but believe humans can be redeemed. Playing baseball to earn millions is an absolute privilege that should demand people be held to a high standard, but the game has a long, sordid history of tolerating detestable conduct.
Epstein also is conflicted. He astutely noted the team is in regular contact with Russell’s ex-wife, “to support her and to listen,” vital decency too rarely afforded to women in her position.
“The behavior … happened on our watch,” Epstein wrote. “We traded for Addison when he was a 20-year-old Double-A player, helped him develop into a world champion and welcomed the praise that came along with his triumphs.
“If we’re willing to accept credit when a member of our organization succeeds on the field, what should we do if he engages in conduct off the field worthy of discipline from (MLB)?”
Cutting ties might’ve been easier.
Retaining Russell invites additional, justified scrutiny on an already overexposed franchise. Epstein is attempting to lead by example, and I want to believe his intentions are pure, but buying in already feels like gullibility.
Fans will never fully know know what kind of person Addison Russell is, was or will be. But he’s getting a second chance — what each of us would wish for ourselves. Maybe he’ll earn the trust the Cubs invested, but I more so hope he becomes the type of man his family deserves.
Even if that means he never plays another inning.