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No way to know if a well-rehearsed Addison Russell has changed

MESA, Ariz. — There was no way that anyone in Addison Russell’s audience Friday could tell if he was sincere in his assertion that he’s a changed man, or even a changing man.

The audience included a group of reporters, Cubs president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer, manager Joe Maddon, the club’s corporate spokesman and the Ricketts family’s public-relations person.

And that audience most definitely included you, the public — a mix of discerning people and those who want to believe, at any cost, in Russell’s metamorphosis from woman abuser to enlightened human being. The truth is that nobody knows.

What we do know is that the Cubs shortstop came to a spring-training news conference armed with answers. The answers sounded rehearsed. It’s not that they were necessarily insincere. It’s that they were spoken as if they had been selected from a menu that had been drawn up over the course of days and weeks. And then uttered by an automated voice from a mobile device.

Cubs shortstop Addison Russell meets with the media for the first time since Major League Baseball suspended him for domestic violence. Sun-Times photo by John Antonoff)

Someone asked him how he could regain the support of Cubs fans after admitting to abusing his ex-wife.

“Thank you for that question,’’ he said. “I know that I’m still early in this process, and through this process, I realize that I have let a lot of people down. I’ve let Cubs fans down, our organization, my teammates, my family and also myself. I’m doing everything in my power to become a better person, father, teammate, partner and provider. And through this process, I believe that I have already shown great improvements.

“My family and my kids, we are creating a happy, healthy, lovable household.’’

For those of us who thought it was a mistake for the Cubs to have brought Russell back, the news conference did little to change our minds. It probably wasn’t easy for him to get up in front of skeptics. He probably had been thinking about this moment since October, when Major League Baseball suspended him 40 games for domestic abuse involving his ex-wife, Melisa. But the words seemed to be spoken by rote, and this was an occasion when rote wasn’t going to cut it.

Someone asked him whether his teammates had been supporting him.

“Thank you for asking that question,’’ he said. “My teammates have shown nothing but support for me and my family. I think through this whole process, the person that has been afflicted the most is Melisa. What I want to say to everyone here today and also to her is that I want to own those actions, and I am sorry for … for … I am sorry for the hurt that I have caused Melisa and the pain I have put her through. And I’m trying my best efforts to become a better person.’’

The Cubs have been clear that Russell can stay on the team only if he goes through counseling and shows growth in his attitude toward women. So who knows if this performance was real.

I believe that people have the power to change. I also believe that some actions are bad enough that those people should have to change while working for another employer. The message that comes with welcoming back a decent player who abused a woman is much stronger than the message of a baseball team confronting domestic violence head-on by keeping him on its roster.

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Russell said he thinks he understands why he got a second chance.

“I believe that the organization and the people within the organization, also my teammates, see something in me that wants to come out,’’ he said. “They see that I am determined and 110 percent committed to making myself better.’’

Russell’s stilted performance was a bad look. He was almost surely PR-ed up. More earnestness would have helped, but I get it: We probably would have found fault in that, too.

The Cubs have chosen a direction, and the only thing that matters is if their shortstop has learned anything. Again, the question remains: Who knows?

“Through counseling, I know how to identify my feelings a lot better,’’ he said. “I would say that that person is left in the past.’’

It was the first time Russell had addressed the media since the Cubs put him on leave in September, after his ex-wife had made allegations of physical and mental abuse in a blog post. The initial accusations came out in 2017.

The most-human, least-plastic answer Russell gave came after he was asked how long he had been preparing for his meeting with reporters.

“My preparation for this press conference, it’s been tough,’’ he said. “It’s been tough. I haven’t ever had to face the media like this before, and to do that, I think I am becoming a better person.’’

Is he? Nobody can say for sure. Time will decide that. He’s beyond lucky that the Cubs are giving it to him.