Maybe the move shouldn’t have come as a surprise given management’s recent familiarity with dubious character trades, but for a number of Chicago Cub fans (including myself) it did. Last week, and five months before he is eligible to return from a Major League Baseball-mandated suspension for violating its domestic-violence policy, the Cubs tendered a contract to shortstop Addison Russell.
Yes, baseball is a business but the Cubs of this era have built a reputation for being the good, fun-loving guys – zoo days for the players at Wrigley Field, bullpen dances, “Try not to suck,” Anthony Rizzo’s 2017 Roberto Clemente Award, “#EverybodyIn.” The Cubs care about the community, each other, their fans. Not everything is about winning and the budget, right? For many female die-hards, however, as well as members of Wrigleyville Nation who belong to the LGBTQIA community, the team’s self-propelled narrative of moral rectitude is wearing a little thin.
In 2016, the Cubs made a business decision to overlook Yankee reliever Aroldis Chapman’s domestic-violence suspension in favor of securing a reliable closer for a presumed World Series run. The Cubs did in fact win their first ring in 108 years, but there was a reputational cost of which leadership seemed to be aware. At the time, President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein said this:
“I don’t feel like we compromised integrity in making this move…We approached it as thoroughly as we did – and gave it as much careful consideration as we did and had a genuine debate about it for weeks – because we wanted to make sure we preserve our integrity as an organization.”
During the 2018 season, and with an already crowded infield, the Cubs conducted a trade with the Washington Nationals to acquire Daniel Murphy, an unapologetic homophobe. The former Mr. October proved to be useless to the team’s would-be playoff run – stiff and prone to errors in the field, listless at the plate. Sometimes a trade doesn’t work out and that’s part of the game. But fan frustration was compounded by what many viewed as yet another morally abhorrent transaction. Writer Whitney McIntosh of SB Nation wrote this of Murphy’s first team press conference, on August 25:
“If the Cubs had handled this with any sort of tact, or maybe thought to double check if Murphy has ever gone through any media training in his life, they might be in a position to be forgiven. Then people might feel comfortable still rooting for them without questioning their enjoyment of the game.
But the Cubs betrayed a portion of their fans by trading for Murphy in the first place, especially without an assurance he could speak on those comments in a more respectful way than previously, and they’ve only doubled down on mistakes that would (and should) alienate fans. “
And now we have the Russell controversy as the team prepares for the 2019 season. Once again, Epstein issued a carefully worded statement, full of faux accountability and principled anguish:
“The behavior that led to Addison Russell’s suspension under MLB’s Joint Domestic Violence Policy happened on our watch…If you’re willing to accept credit when a member of our organization succeeds on the field, what should we do if he engages in conduct off the field worthy of discipline from MLB?”
“We have chosen to take action to try to become a small part of the solution for Addison, his family, Melisa Reidy, and the larger issue of domestic violence prevention.”
Yes, offering continued employment to a player with a history of verbally and physically abusing the mother of his child is just the “solution” this situation needs. The cynicism is so thick, you need a sharpened steak knife to cut it.
As a number of Internet-based mansplainers have informed me, this is a pure business decision from the Cubs. If they hadn’t tendered a contract to Russell, he becomes a free agent, and the club gets no return on their investment. The decision in no way guarantees him a salary, or even that he plays for the Cubs in 2019. The team can still trade him, and his contract. The tendering retains their control to do that.
To which I ask…so what? And which team could possibly want the Russell albatross hung around its neck?
Let’s leave aside the ethics for a moment and talk about the Cubs roster. As I’ve already said, the infield is crowded. Rizzo, Baez, Bryant, Happ, LaStella, Zobrist, Bote and Russell all played in the front, part or full-time, during the 2018 season. After Russell left the scene, Javy Baez made a defensive and offensive case good enough for a second-place NL MVP finish. El Mago offered welcome thrills during an otherwise disappointing Cubs season. Will he be moved back to second base for 2019? If so, that’s just stupid. Javy has proven that he’s born to be a shortstop.
Instead of permanently exiling an un-needed Russell to an island of mediocrity and questionable conscience, the Cubs decided to engage in moral contortions for a player with a lifetime batting average of .242. In every conceivable way, the Cubs would have been better off keeping new California Angel Tommy LaStella.
Whatever time or money would have been lost by the team’s release of Russell, it can’t be more expensive than its repeatedly damaged credibility with female fans. #EverybodyIn it turns out, comes at the expense of our personal safety. The Cubs organization has made their peace with a 2019 season that will start with all eyes on Addison Russell, for all wrong reasons.