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Addison Russell and Theo Epstein talk about addressing domestic violence, and his Cubs future

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The statements were wide-ranging and laid out a path Russell must follow.

Addison Russell tags out Christian Yelich
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest questions of the offseason for the Cubs was the future of shortstop Addison Russell. Russell will open 2019 with 29 games remaining on a 40-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy. He was suspended after an MLB investigation last September into accusations of abuse made by his ex-wife Melisa Reidy. Those allegations originally surfaced shortly after the couple split up in June of 2017. The original accusations stemmed from a comment on social media and MLB began an investigation shortly thereafter. Reidy was not initially comfortable participating in that investigation, however that changed after she posted a compelling and highly personal account on her blog on September 19.

Since September Reidy has spoken in great detail about her decision to come forward addressing the timing of the decision and the complicated nature of deciding to go public with her post. She also offered a way forward for sports organizations:

Reidy-Russell places no blame on the Cubs but wishes she had somewhere to turn as professional sports -- especially baseball -- can be uniquely difficult on relationships, especially youthful ones.

”I hope that organizations that are family-oriented will do better in having some kind of system to help victims of domestic abuse, help them transition from what they are going through. Baseball is very, very stressful. It takes a toll on a relationship. Not everyone knows how to work through things. That could be huge.”

Today’s non-tender deadline marks the first of many decision points the Cubs will have to make since Russell has been suspended. Russell’s administrative leave and suspension were handed down by MLB and the MLB contract limits what clubs can do while a player is being investigated. However, if the Cubs had failed to offer the 25-year-old shortstop a contract today he would have become a free agent. In other words, if there had not been a contract offered today the Cubs were done with Russell.

Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein articulated this clearly in his statement about the contract and emphasized that this is not a final decision by the organization:

Today we are taking the procedural step of tendering Addison a non-guaranteed contract in conjunction with Major League Baseball’s deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players. While this decision leaves the door open for Addison to later make an impact for us on the field, it does not represent the finish line nor rubber-stamp his future as a Cub. It does however reflect our support for him as long as he continues to make progress and demonstrates his commitment to these important issues.

While today’s decision to offer Russell a non-guaranteed contract does not necessarily mean that he will play another game for the Cubs, it does mean that they want to keep that option open, even if it is just to trade his contract to another team at some point in the offseason.

It is worth noting that in the aftermath of Russell being placed on leave, suspended, and Reidy continuing to open up about her experiences and decision to come forward, many people thought it would be difficult for the club to bring Russell back. Consider this comment from Epstein’s press conference the day the allegations broke when asked about Russell as a person:

“I would say that I know him in a baseball context and that one thing I think we’ve learned as a society as we collectively … try to deal appropriately with and handle accusations like this, it’s important to step back and understand because you know someone in one context, you don’t necessarily know them fully.”

It was not a full-throated endorsement of his player and there was speculation that Russell had played his last game as a Cub.

However, as the offseason has progressed it has become clear that the Cubs are not closing the door on Russell’s future with the team. As Patrick Mooney of the Athletic reported earlier this month:

Internally, it has become a conversation about the organization’s limits and responsibilities.

There is a path opening for Russell to potentially come back to Wrigley Field and wear a Cubs uniform again, sources told The Athletic, stressing that no final decision has been made yet. The Cubs understand that a conditional return would be controversial and unpopular and could backfire in a way that alienates fans and again embarrasses the franchise.

Don’t assume that the Cubs are automatically going to cut ties with Russell this winter or that Russell is guaranteed a second chance, at least in Chicago. His future with the team is still up in the air as the baseball industry gathers for the annual GM meetings this week in Carlsbad, California.

As GM meetings got under way it seems the Cubs front office is considering an audacious plan to restructure how the organization confronts issues like domestic violence with their players. It is also clear that they want the option of Russell and his rehabilitation to be a potential part of that plan as you can tell from comments Epstein made as he addressed the media reported by the Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma:

“Domestic violence is everyone’s problem,” Epstein said as baseball’s GM meetings got underway. “This did happen on our watch, so we have to be part of the solution. For us it means prevention, it means trying to do everything we can as an organization to make sure this never happens again. So having everyone who interfaces with the players and their families trained professionally for detection and awareness and prevention. It’s impossible to say we’re going to create an organization where there’s never another episode of domestic violence again, but that has to be the goal. And we’re taking steps in that regard.”

Epstein continued:

“It doesn’t necessarily,” Epstein said when asked why this process would have to be undertaken with Russell on the Cubs. “But look, this happened on our watch. It’s not like we signed a minor-league free agent and he demonstrated this behavior a month in and you move on from him. This is somebody that we acquired in Double-A, he grew up in large part in our farm system too. Especially with a high school kid, you’re a big part of a player’s development.

“We take credit when players grow up and experience great success on the field and off the field. We feel proud of being a part of that, playing a small role in that and providing the right kind of environment for that. So when a player has something in their life that goes the other direction or does something you’re not proud of, does that mean you should automatically cut bait and move on and have it be someone else’s problem or society’s problem? Or do you explore the possibility of staying connected with that player with the hope of rehabilitation including a lot of verification along the way. I think these are difficult things to wrestle with, but I’m not so sure that the answer is simply to cast the player aside and hope that someone else performs that work or that work takes place at all.”

Theo is an outstanding executive and his ability to utilize resources in innovative ways was at the core of the Cubs rebuild, but rebuilding a baseball team to win on the field and rebuilding a baseball team to rehabilitate players and address domestic violence are radically different things. 670 The Score’s Julie DiCaro summed up some of the challenges well in this piece earlier this week:

But Epstein and the Cubs are likely in over their heads if they think they can rehabilitate Russell and his image on their own, despite well-intentioned talks with Russell about his past behavior and adding more stability to his life. Of course, part of the suspension Russell negotiated with MLB includes psychological evaluation by a third-party expert, jointly hired by MLB and the MLB Players Association, to conduct an initial evaluation, develop a treatment plan for the player and then assume responsibility for overseeing the player’s compliance with the treatment plan, which includes identifying appropriate health care professionals in the player’s home city to provide counseling and intervention.

She continued:

If the Cubs are serious about being part of the solution when it comes to domestic violence, it starts with both accountability and transparency to the general public. After the trade for Chapman in 2016 and after Russell’s suspension (and Maddon’s flippant comments on the same topic), Epstein has insisted the organization takes domestic violence seriously. If that’s the case, it’s long past time for the team to demonstrate how seriously. Simply refusing to discuss in-house matters in the name of privacy concerns isn’t enough. The fans, especially the hordes of young men who have taken the Cubs’ silence as a tacit approval of Russell’s innocence, deserve to know exactly what the conditions are for Russell potentially remaining in the organization.

Anything less renders the Cubs just another organization that talks a good game when it comes to domestic violence but fails to holder their players or their organization truly accountable.

Today’s statement from Epstein included some promising first steps on this front, although I need to stress these are basic first steps, not final solutions:

“Just as Addison has a responsibility to own his actions and put in significant work to grow, our organization has a responsibility to act as well. We’re taking a hard look at how we can support domestic violence prevention. In our own workplace, we are dedicating more resources to expand training for our players, their families and our coaching staff and front office. We will engage the appropriate experts to help us design programs for the Cubs which raise awareness of domestic violence, help prevent future incidents and make us the safest workplace possible. We also have connected with Family Rescue, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to serving survivors of domestic violence and community education and prevention. We’re exploring ways we can support their award-winning efforts to eradicate domestic violence in Chicago.

‘We understand every action we take and word we use sends a message to our fans - all of whom have their own unique experiences and perspectives, and some of whom have a personal connection to domestic violence. The message we would like to leave you with is we take the issue of domestic violence seriously. There is a long road ahead for Addison, and we will hold him accountable. There also is a long road ahead for our organization as we attempt to make some good of this situation. We are committed to being a part of the solution.”

For his part today Addison Russell issued a statement today that went far beyond his minimal acceptance of a suspension from early October:

“I offer my heartfelt apology to my family and my former wife Melisa for my past behavior. I also want to apologize to Cubs fans, the Cubs organization, and my teammates for letting them down. Since accepting my suspension, I’ve had time to reflect on my past behavior and think about the next steps I need to take to grow as a person. Here are the first steps I’ve taken:

“I accepted my suspension and did not appeal. I am responsible for my actions.

“I am complying with the MLB-MLBPA treatment plan, and I will be meeting regularly with different experts, counselors, and therapists. Even before any mandated treatment, I took the extra initiative of obtaining my own therapist and I have been meeting with that therapist several times a week for the last two months and plan to continue this therapy beyond the MLB treatment plan. With that therapy, I am attempting to improve myself by learning new outlooks and understanding different emotions.

“After I have done my own therapy and gained new insights into myself, I hope to be able to work with non-profit groups in Pensacola, Chicago, and Arizona to support their missions and become part of the solution.

“Finally, I recently met with Tom Ricketts and Theo Epstein to explain my progress and goals. They outlined the Cubs’ expectations for me. I accept and am completely committed to meeting those expectations. I am grateful for their support.

“I am just in the early stages of this process. It is work that goes far beyond being a baseball player – it goes to my core values of being the best family man, partner, and teammate that I can be, and giving back to the community and the less fortunate. While there is a lot of work ahead for me to earn back the trust of the Cubs fans, my teammates, and the entire organization, it’s work that I am 110 percent committed to doing.”

Sincerely,

Addison Russell

And so, Addison Russell has been offered a non-guaranteed contract with the Cubs.

In some ways it’s a non-decision, a decision to keep the door open to making a final decision another day. But in other ways it’s the largest decision the organization can make. Theo Epstein is attempting to restructure a professional sports organization to help a young player rehabilitate while adequately addressing domestic violence issues. It will be far and away the most difficult rebuild he’s ever attempted.