Known unknowns bedevil Cubs’ role in assessing Russell
Sometimes saying nothing says everything.
Cubs President Theo Epstein sat in a conference room Friday at Guaranteed Rate Field — oddly at the same ballpark his team addressed its last domestic-abuse crisis two years ago after acquiring closer Aroldis Chapman — and carefully considered a question about Addison Russell.
Major League Baseball placed Russell on paid administrative leave after his former wife accused him of domestic abuse in a post linked to her Instagram account and Epstein was asked what he would say about the Cubs shortstop as a character witness.
“I would say I know him in the baseball context,” Epstein said. “One thing that we’ve learned as a society as we collectively try to wrestle with balancing how to appropriately handle accusations like this is it’s important to step back and realize you know someone in one context and you don’t really know them fully.”
Consciously or not, the Cubs realized the need to step back and distance themselves from Russell, who perhaps played his last game for the team this season — and possibly ever.
The league-imposed administrative leave, an intermediate step, can last up to seven days, after which MLB can request an extension for another seven days. With the regular season over one week from Sunday, the Cubs simply could make their own statement at that point and leave the troubled 24-year-old off the playoff roster. The investigation and possible discipline stemming from it is in the hands of Major League Baseball.
Until a resolution, the league policy puts Russell in professional limbo, where Epstein sounded content to let him exist. If you were looking for an impassioned defense of Russell, keep looking. Epstein’s measured tone suggested he realized that no matter how good Russell is with his glove, the Cubs can’t risk MLB’s investigation concluding a player representing the franchise laid hands on a woman.
Assessing the motivation of Russell’s accuser to come forward publicly one week before the playoffs, while compelling, is moot. Worrying about the impact Russell’s potential absence will have on the Cubs’ ability to play deep into October, while understandable, is insensitive. This is about allegations of domestic abuse, not defensive replacements.
“The timing is not ideal but that doesn’t matter,” said Epstein, who appeared at the impromptu news conference next to Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts. “What matters is getting to a just and fair resolution.”
The disturbing nature of the allegations demanded the Cubs take them seriously and respond not only swiftly but responsibly. The baseball world was watching and the Cubs were listening to their conscience, which called late Thursday night.
That’s when Epstein saw the posting online and immediately called an MLB investigator to verify the accuser. In a powerful, personal 2,800-word essay, Melisa Reidy-Russell had described her former husband as an emotionally and physically abusive partner.
“The first time I was physically mistreated by my spouse, I was in shock,” Reidy-Russell wrote. “I couldn’t wrap my head around what just happened. … Why did he get so angry? What did I do for him to want to put his hands on me?”
In relating a visit to Chicago from Florida last summer so Russell could see the couple’s young son, Reidy-Russell implied an ugly altercation occurred in front of the boy.
“I swore to myself it would be the last time he’d lay his hands on me and it would be the last time I’d let my son be a witness to it,” she said.
By the time Epstein contacted Russell on Friday morning to have a difficult conversation — the player “reaffirmed his stance” that he never abused his wife, Epstein said — the Cubs understood the awkward spot they suddenly occupied. More than ever in sports and society, domestic abusers have begun being held accountable, as they should be, yet the Cubs still had to watch how quickly they rushed to judge Russell based on an accusation without evidence or a police report.
This wasn’t like the Chapman case or other MLB domestic-abuse cases involving Roberto Osuna and Jose Reyes that included law enforcement and a paper trail. This was about accusations police never investigated, at least to the knowledge of the Cubs. This was different.
For reasons only Reidy-Russell knows, she has refused to cooperate with MLB investigators since a friend of the family made the first accusation against Russell in June 2017. Maybe that changes now, maybe not.
Whatever the case, the league has kept the investigation open since Reidy-Russell’s refusal last summer — something Epstein said he knew from infrequent updates but Cubs manager Joe Maddon claimed he didn’t. Their differing versions on the state of MLB’s investigation came as a surprise given that Epstein and Ricketts met with players in the visiting clubhouse before Friday’s game to address the situation.
Inexplicably, Maddon had yet to read the blog responsible for Russell’s absence by the time he met the media a little later; a players manager seemingly disassociating himself with a player in Russell to whom he recommended books and TV shows.
“Have you read it?” a reporter asked Maddon about the blog.
“Should I?” Maddon answered, but nobody should have laughed.
In this instance, Maddon being uninformed was unfunny, not to mention inexcusable. Maddon was fine to ask for more time before drawing a conclusion about Russell but seeming to be in no hurry to digest the allegations was a bad look.
“As a baseball player, I know him,” Maddon said. Beyond that, the Cubs made one thing clear about the controversy nobody saw coming: They knew what they didn’t know about Russell the person, not the player.