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Russell returns to field, braces for fan wrath over domestic-violence suspension

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In the Cubs’ second game of spring training Sunday, Addison Russell stepped into the batter’s box for the first time since September and into his new normal.

Except it’s anything but normal — at least it’s not supposed to be. Russell’s 40-game suspension for domestic violence hangs like a dark cloud everywhere he goes this spring, his awkward, scripted news conference less than two weeks behind him, his penance indefinite, with no promise of absolution.

“I totally understand why fans have the negative reaction toward me,” said the 25-year-old shortstop, who heard only a few isolated boos when he was announced for his first at-bat Sunday in a return to the field that was conspicuously scheduled for a road game. “But I’m doing everything that I can to get out there on the field and become a better person and be a guy in this clubhouse that could help this team win.”

When the front office talks about a “conditional second chance” with Russell, and about how early it is in the process before they decide whether to retain him in 2019, this is one of the so-called boxes left to check.

Russell during an awkward, scripted press conference Feb. 15.

Russell knows the boos and heckling are coming, though he called much of the crowd at Scottsdale Stadium on Sunday “supporting.”

“It’s going to happen. I’m just trying to prepare myself for when that happens,” he said, surmising that “the tough stuff is pretty much out of the way.”

“But there’s still some room for growth,” he added. “That’s what I’m looking forward to, and that’s what I’m pushing for.”

It’s hard to fathom the tough stuff is behind Russell if team president Theo Epstein ultimately decides he’ll return the field for the Cubs when it counts. Even Russell admits he expects more tough conversations with teammates as he rebuilds relationships in the clubhouse since being sent home in September, when new allegations surfaced from his ex-wife that he had physically and emotionally abused her.

“I think it’s good now that he’s actually talked about it [publicly], because now you [media] guys can ask him all the questions, and they’re not really on us anymore,” said teammate Kris Bryant, Russell’s locker neighbor in the spring clubhouse. “That’s what was needed in here to kind of move on for some of the other guys in here. I don’t know about Addison. I hope to see him take those actions that are needed to get himself right. He certainly seems to be doing some of those actions. But it’s all left to be seen.”

Russell said his teammates have been “understanding and supportive” of him.

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“We’re picking back up where we left off,” he said. But he added in the next breath: “It’s [about] making myself more available for them and getting to the level where they feel comfortable with me, just at the breakfast table, and go from there.”

Said Bryant: “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.”

Russell said his ongoing therapy and work on personal growth and awareness is scheduled into his spring routine as fundamentally and rigidly as batting practice and fielding work are.

“I consider it taking hacks off the tee, but it’s taking hacks off the tee in my mind,” he said. “It’s not a bad thing to learn more skills about people and yourself.”

Russell singled and hit a sacrifice fly off the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner before leaving Sunday’s game with the rest of the starters. He said it was good to get back on a field again.

But if he thinks the tough part is over, or that a return to the field marks a return to normalcy, he might have a longer road back than he knows.

“Different stadiums, it’s going to be a different reaction, obviously,” he said. “But I just get back to my inner thoughts. I’ve just got to stay on course with this process and progress I’ve been showing, and I think that’s going to be a really good year.”