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Suspended Cubs SS Addison Russell says he’s serious about being changed man

Addison Russell speaks with media at at the Under Armour Performance Center, the Spring Training home of the Chicago Cubs in Mesa, AZ. 02-15-2019. | John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — When asked about what he worked on during the offseason, Addison Russell didn’t mention baseball.

“Just myself,” he said Sunday after batting practice. “Creating healthy relationships with Mallory [Engstrom, mother of Russell’s first child] and Melisa [Reidy], getting back into the good graces of fans and taking small steps like that. But also, I’ve been working on being a better father, communicating better, and I think that I’m going toward the right direction.”

It has been over a month since Russell gave well-rehearsed answers at his first news conference after Major League Baseball handed him a 40-game suspension for domestic violence last year. This time around, he sounded less robotic and more natural.

Russell, who has been accused of physically and mentally abusing Reidy, his ex-wife, believes he’s a changed person.

But actions speak louder than words, and some of his teammates said they’ve noticed a change in Russell’s demeanor.

Second baseman Javy Baez said Russell has been more “active and open” in the clubhouse and talking more with his teammates than in past seasons. Left-hander Jon Lester also has observed a new Russell.

“Anytime you go through something like this, you have to grow,” Lester said. “You have to go one way or another, and I think he’s definitely grown and learned from his mistakes and hopefully he’s a better person for it. And like I said, we’re all family. We all support each other, and we’re all here for each other.”

Sunday marked the Cubs’ second domestic-violence meeting this camp. Though Russell didn’t share the details of what was discussed, he said he has benefitted greatly from having those sessions with his teammates.

“I feel supported,” Russell said. “They know that I’ve been going through a tough time in my life, but it’s nice to have people to speak out and show their concern and ask questions.

“I’m put into a situation to where it’s uncomfortable and I am vulnerable, but at the end of the day, we’re just trying to become better. We make mistakes.”

Russell knows he still has a long road ahead as he tries to regain the support of fans. He said he has received mixed reactions from crowds during every at-bat this spring. Russell admitted the boos have been distracting, but he is learning to deal with it.

“You don’t not hear the boos,” said Russell, who has played in eight spring games. “You expect it, but I kind of embrace the moment of trying to help my team win. The boos are going to happen. Just focus on the task at hand.”

With spring training winding down, manager Joe Maddon said he’ll reduce Russell’s playing time because he won’t be an option at the start of the season as he serves the final 28 games of his suspension. Though it’s not set in stone, Russell, who signed a $3.4 million non-guaranteed contract in January, could start his season with Class AAA Iowa, an option under the MLB suspension rules.

Team president Theo Epstein said at the start of camp that Russell won’t play if he doesn’t continue to show improvement and meet the standards set by MLB and the Cubs. Maddon said Russell has been adhering to the Cubs’ regulations and has shown progress.

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“The big thing I’m trying to get through to him is we talk about family a lot, and he’s really been talking about his family a lot,” Maddon said. “He’s smiling more easily right now. I think he’s more at ease. I think he’s coming to terms or grips with the past and trying to move forward.”

Russell, who has been in constant communication with Reidy as they co-parent their son, Aiden, said his family has started the healing process.

“It’s nice to see Melisa is being cooperative, not only with me but with [girlfriend Asti Kelley], as well,” he said. “We’re a functional family. It’s not, I guess, the everyday family, but you have to make things right for the children, and that’s what we preach and that’s what we know to be true.”