The word “family” gets tossed around a lot when it comes to the baseball clubhouse.
The confines are a bit of a safe haven for 25 men and their coaches. They are together more often than those who wait for them at home from February to October, talking the game, working out, eating and living out their dreams.
Addison Russell found out just how important that sense of brotherhood was in 2017.
The Cubs shortstop struggled through adversity on and off the field including a domestic abuse claims, which he denied, in June that led to his wife, Melisa, filing for divorce.
“I feel like everyone in this clubhouse has each other’s back and even when I had my rough (times) going on a lot of my teammates embraced me,” Russell said Sunday from the spring training clubhouse. “I knew that I could lean on them. I know this year is not always going to go as planned and when it doesn’t we have each other.”
It was a place for him to retreat when everything else around him – including injuries to his foot and throwing shoulder that limited him to 110 games – was out of sorts.
The men in the clubhouse have a special a bond, for the most part, and it comes handy when someone like Russell is going through something during the season or like first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who left the team after his alma mater Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was the devastated after a mass shooting, is now.
“He’s needs hugs and we give a lot of hugs around here,” Cub veteran Ben Zobrist said before Rizzo’s returned to the team. “We are a tight-knit group. One of the best things about baseball, it helps people move on from difficult things that happen.”
Russell, 24, is doing just that now that the 2018 season is here, and he enters spring training healthy and ready to put last year’s frustrations behind him.
“I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent than I displayed,” Russell said. “Going into this year, I’m keeping a good mental (approach), staying level-headed and then also staying healthy and producing when I’m on the field.”
It was especially frustrating after going from being a rising start on the World Champions to having his name in the news for the wrong reasons and then again, this offseason in some trade rumors.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” he said. “You have to live in the moment. It was a tough season last year. We were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover.”
Manager Joe Maddon feels like Russell is in a good place after seeing him rebound toward the end of the regular season, but will monitor his health in the spring, especially when it comes to his shoulder.
“I really think this is kind of like his year to really blossom,” Maddon said. “He’s so athletic. He’s so gifted. As a shortstop, he’s so fundamentally sound.
“Arm health would be the most important thing. If he can throw consistently, the rest of his game is going to be better because he’s not going to have to worry about it.”
Russell hit .239 with 12 home runs, 43 RBIs and a career-low on-base percentage of .304. He will be reunited with the Cubs’ new hitting coach Chili Davis, who was also with the A’s when Russell was drafted in 2012.
“He was my first hitting coach and he said, ‘One day Addy, you are going to switch to a leg kick,'” Russell said. “Baseball is a magical sport. We’ve had one day in the cage already and I can tell it is going to be a great season by the way he communicates with me. I’m not the easiest to communicate with but with the way he breaks things down I can really understand him.”
Considering his connection with Davis, the comfort of the clubhouse and what he learned from the mental side of the game a year ago, Russell, who finished 19th in the National League MVP voting in 2017, might be in line for his breakout year.
“Baseball has mental adversities you have to overcome,” he said. “I am glad to say I have overcome some of those as well. It’s a positive feel and I’m coming to the clubhouse with a good mentality.
“I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I stay healthy for a full season. If I stay on the field, I’m going to produce.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.