Theo Epstein Says Addison Russell’s Conditional Return ‘Not a Finish Line’

Theo Epstein joined 670 The Score Wednesday afternoon to discuss the flurry of roster moves and the bigger implications of them, most notably the return of Addison Russell to Chicago. This comes less than a week after Russell was optioned to Triple-A Iowa at the conclusion of his 40-game domestic violence suspension, so it’s certainly earlier than what a lot of us had suspected.

Because Javy Báez is firmly entrenched at shortstop, Russell will be playing second base and batting eighth for the Cubs Wednesday. It’s but the first tiny step in what Epstein called a “conditional second chance.” Rather than look at this as the culmination of a process, however, the Cubs’ baseball boss was adamant that this is all part of a much longer journey for Russell.

“This is not a finish line,” Epstein told The Score. “This does not represent the end of the road or an accomplishment in any way.”

Russell didn’t have time to accomplish much during his time in Iowa, hitting .222 with three home runs in 45 at-bats, but the Cubs had apparently seen enough to feel good about bringing him back. Some of that may have had to do with further educating the other members on the roster about how to address the situation in general and their old/new teammate in particular.

Anthony Rizzo and others scoffed at the notion that Russell’s presence would be any sort of distraction, but it’s hard to take that at face value given how much every player is going to have to deal with the questions. We may have gotten a glimpse at the company line all the players are expected to echo during Epstein’s radio spot.

“They want to give him conditional support,” Epstein said. “By that, they want Addison to continue to put work in to grow as a person so they can support him as a teammate.”

If nothing else, we can at least hope the team has learned something on how not to handle situations like this one from a PR perspective in the future. I mean, it’d be better if no such situation ever materialized, but the way the Cubs have dealt with this whole Russell business has been bad from the start.

Perhaps the only aspect of this move that doesn’t create at least some measure of controversy is that Russell isn’t pushing anyone from the active roster. While he’s filling Ben Zobrist‘s spot, it’s only because the elder utility man has been placed on the restricted list for personal reasons. That opens a spot on the 40-man roster and doesn’t have a specific end date, with Epstein saying Zobrist will be away for “a period of time.”

You may recall that Zobrist got a late start on spring training due to personal reasons, though what those were and whether they coincide with this aren’t really known. Nor should they be, since that’s nobody’s business other than Zobrist and his family. Let’s just hope that whatever it is, he takes all the time he needs to be with his family and work through the matter properly.

Between these corresponding moves and Pedro Strop going on the IL with a tight hammy that he told the training staff he could pitch through, it has been quite the day. There’s a palpable sense that Russell’s promotion was more of a necessity with Zobrist’s absence that it was the Cubs truly wanting to bring the former All-Star back, though the front office is probably relieved by not having to bump anyone…for now.

Then you add in the stuff with the Cubs fan who made a racist white power/OK/circle game hand gesture behind Doug Glanville on Tuesday’s telecast and it’s really been a normal one for the Cubs.

“We are currently investigating an incident that occurred during the Cubs’ May 7 broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago while reporter Doug Glanville was on the air,” read a statement from Cubs President of Business Operations Crane Kenney. “An individual seated behind Mr. Glanville used what appears to be an offensive hand gesture that is associated with racism.

“Such ignorant and repulsive behavior is not tolerated at Wrigley Field. We are reviewing the incident thoroughly because no one should be subjected to this type of offensive behavior.”

The Cubs were investigating the intent of the gesture, but Kenney said a group of team officials had already reached the conclusion that it was “more likely than not” a racist gesture. Should that hold true, the fan will be banned for life, along with any fans in the future that perform rampant displays of bigoted idiocy.

Exactly how they go about enforcing such a ban is beyond me, though I suppose electronic tickets help in that regard. And though there’s probably no foolproof way to enact the ban, this would at least be a step in the right direction.

Activating Russell is likewise a step, only we don’t know which direction it’s in. Epstein said the infielder has learned a lot about toxic masculinity — which is not the idea that all masculinity itself is toxic, so don’t go getting it twisted — from actor Terry Crews. And Russell himself shared a bit about his journey with the assembled media.

“I’m here, you know,” Russell responded when asked about those who don’t feel he deserves this chance. “They’re gonna think and say whatever they wanna say. And they’re entitled to that and I respect them for that, but thing is, I’m here and I have an opportunity to help this team win.”

That didn’t sound quite as canned as his responses during a press conference during spring training, but the whole “I’m here” thing came off almost as a taunt. Or maybe that’s just the bias talking. Because in a very literal sense, Russell is “here” in terms of being back with the Cubs. But like Epstein said, that’s only one small step in what must be a life-long journey.

As for what Russell does on the field, I really couldn’t care much less at this point. My only hope is that he improves himself as a person and that he’s able to keep making positive changes as he moves forward.

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