Addison Russell left Arizona for Iowa on Tuesday — a key change of scenery as the embattled Cubs shortstop attempts a comeback to the big leagues.
No more extended spring training for Russell, who has served the bulk of a 40-game suspension, retroactive to Sept. 21 of last year, for violating Major League Baseball’s policy on domestic violence. Instead of competing daily in the Arizona Rookie League, Russell will play with the Class AAA Cubs for at least seven games.
At some point after that — possibly as soon as May 3, when Russell is eligible to be activated from MLB’s restricted list — the 25-year-old will reach another crossroads as he tries to simultaneously put his disturbing personal story behind him and reclaim his former role as a Cubs regular.
None of it will be easy. Media will expect answers from Russell before he even leaves Des Moines. Fans in major-league cities — perhaps even Chicago — will greet him with boos. All over again, the rest of the Cubs will have to get used to the subject and specter of Russell’s abusive past.
And that’s assuming the Cubs decide to give Russell the “conditional second chance” they’ve refused for months to promise him.
In an interview in Mesa, Arizona, Russell described to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale what it would feel like to take the field May 3 against the rival Cardinals at Wrigley Field.
“It’s going to hit me,” he said. “It’s going to hit me hard.”
But in sports, we tend to classify situations like this one as potential “distractions.” As third baseman Kris Bryant said during spring training, “At the end of the day, we’ve got a job to do on the field. We realize that. We’re baseball players. But sometimes it’s hard to take the human element out of it.”
• Cubs’ Jose Quintana deals, Javy Baez highlight-reels in 7-2 victory over Dodgers
• Christian Yelich’s start makes Kris Bryant’s that much tougher to watch for Cubs
Before the Cubs beat the Dodgers 7-2 on Tuesday, manager Joe Maddon chose not to speculate on the reaction Russell will get along the comeback trail.
“We haven’t had that conversation yet about how he’ll be received,” Maddon said. “My conversation has been more about baseball and how he’s feeling. He’s feeling really well. I was just talking to [Cubs baseball operations assistant] John Baker, who just saw him play in Arizona and said he’s hitting the ball extremely well.”
Russell told Nightengale he has been happier in Arizona — happier than he’d been since the start of his pro career in the Athletics organization in 2012.
“You go to the yard to kind of get away and play baseball,” he said. “It’s kind of like [amateur club] baseball. No scouting reports. You don’t even think. You just go out there and play.”
An eventuality that is, at this point, difficult to even piece together in one’s mind is what it means to the Cubs’ roster if Russell successfully returns. How will it be received if his opportunities come at the expenses of players who seem more deserving?
When veteran Daniel Descalso, a Cubs newcomer, drove a double into the left-field corner in the first inning Tuesday to put the Cubs in front 4-0, it was a reminder of just how outstanding he has been in his short time with the team. Is Descalso — one of the Cubs’ best hitters thus far, and a well-liked and respected teammate — going to find far fewer opportunities at second base after Russell is reactivated? And what about David Bote, a clutch-hitting infielder and fan favorite who will return to the team as soon as Wednesday after a brief paternity leave? Will his role — hard-earned and performed well — be in jeopardy?
And the mother of all scenarios: If Russell, long admired as a player by Maddon, works his way back into the lineup, will it be at shortstop? Is there any conceivable way that Javy Baez — who has ascended to a superstar level and is, most would agree, the Cubs’ best player — would be moved back to second base to make room for his former infield partner?
Cubdom might not be able to withstand the earthquake of disapproval that would create.