Very little has felt right about the Addison Russell rehabilitation experiment.
From the Cubs’ vow to stand by him while he went through counseling for domestic abuse to his practiced, robotic answers at a spring-training news conference to his criticism of Cubs fans who were booing him to his weak play and mental errors of late, something always has felt off.
The only development that has felt right was the one that came Wednesday, when the Cubs banished the second baseman to Class AAA Iowa after he admitted he had forgotten the team’s signs.
A new direction and a change of scenery can do wonders for a person, and the pity is that the Cubs didn’t realize this last season after Major League Baseball suspended Russell 40 games for violating its domestic-violence policy. They should have waived him. Instead, they took what they considered a more humane, responsible approach: They would walk the counseling path with a player they had acquired when he was 20 years old.
The details of the troubles that led to the suspension are well known, but some are worth rehashing. Here’s his ex-wife, Melisa Reidy, describing an incident involving Russell and their son:
“He kicked the door down and ripped Aiden out of my arms. I’m following him, like . . . please give him to me, I’m nervous. I don’t think he’s going to hurt [Aiden], but he’s drunk.’’
Then Russell, with their son in one arm, grabbed her and threw her across the room, she said.
Not good at all. All of it seemed like an odd place for the Cubs to plant the compassion flag.
Russell could have gone through counseling while he was with another team, in a city that hadn’t lived through his turmoil. He surely wouldn’t have felt so many eyes on him, wouldn’t have felt as much judgment. Remember how most Cubs fans welcomed domestic-abuse offender Aroldis Chapman when he arrived in 2016? Part of it had to do with his ability to throw a baseball 103 mph at a time the team really needed a closer. But it also had something to do with distance. Chapman’s ugliness had taken place while he was with another team, far away from Chicago. There was an element of separation to it all. It might have been a convenient trick of the mind, but there was some detachment nevertheless.
Not so with Russell and our city. His nastiness had happened while he was a Cub, and no matter how baby-faced and innocent he looked, there was no getting past that. He got booed at Wrigley Field when his suspension ended, leading to this eye-rolling comment from him:
“If hometown fans want to boo someone that’s trying to help bring the team a World Series again, then that’s on them.”
As time went on, there was very little in the way of public reaction to a player whom Cubs fans had once adored. There weren’t boos, and there weren’t cheers. There was only a .247 batting average, six home runs and 16 RBI.
It almost seemed preordained that it wouldn’t go well for Russell. Maybe he would have struggled just as much for another team. But we know for sure that the warm cocoon of the Cubs’ clubhouse didn’t work any miracles.
The hope now is that Iowa is just a holding spot for the 25-year-old Russell before the Cubs trade him. He was unremarkable at the baseball aspect of his second chance. There shouldn’t be a third act in Chicago.
As for the team’s firm benevolence toward Russell, I never quite understood it. His actions had been horrible. And if performance is the only thing that matters in sports, he was never that good anyway. Perhaps team president Theo Epstein was trying to prove that the Cubs are about more than on-field success. Or maybe he was hoping to rehabilitate Russell enough to get the best deal possible in a trade. Who knows?
But I did wonder: How far would the team’s compassion extend? What if five Cubs had abused their spouses in the same time frame? Would the club have been so forward thinking?
I’ve had similar thoughts about the Ben Zobrist situation. What if five Cubs were going through messy divorces, as Zobrist is? Would the team give each of them as much time and space as they’ve given their super-utility player? How do you field a competitive team under those circumstances?
Obviously, you deal with things on a case-by-case basis. Why the Cubs dealt with Russell the way they did never made a whole lot of sense, and nothing that has happened since has changed that. This chapter should close with two words: The End.