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Cubs' Russell grew up in big league parks

Reliever remembers joining dad on the 'playground'

Imagine being a kid and having big league stadiums to play in. James Russell's playgrounds included the Ballpark in Arlington and Royals Stadium in Kansas City.

James' father, Jeff, pitched for 14 seasons in the Majors, beginning in 1983 with the Reds. He also pitched for the Rangers, the Athletics, the Red Sox and the Indians before finishing back in Texas from 1995-96.

Being in the huge ballparks seemed normal to James.

"I didn't think much of it, because it's all I knew," said the Cubs reliever. "Looking back on it, it's cool. I was a little kid running around in a big league ballpark. It was like my little playground."

James remembers how Johnny Oates, then the Rangers' manager, would encourage the players to bring their sons to the ballpark. James' younger brother Casey once tried to catch a line drive by Rangers slugger Juan Gonzalez during batting practice and was hit on the shoulder.

"He fell down, cried a little bit and got up," James said of his sibling.

Casey got some redemption. Benji Gil hit a line drive that day, and the ball landed in Casey's glove and knocked it off his hand.

"The ball actually stayed in his glove, and it was the first ball he caught," James said.

Baseball has always been a huge part of the Russell family, and Jeff, James and possibly Casey could all be working on Father's Day on Sunday. Jeff is now the pitching coach for the San Rafael Pacifics, an independent team that's part of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs. Casey, 24, is on the pitching staff.

"He's been wanting to get back into baseball," James said of his father. "He's been out of it for 14, 15 years. I don't know if he was getting bored at home or tired of playing golf and fishing all day and wanted to actually do something."

James' mother is at every Cubs Opening Day game. Jeff keeps an eye on things.

"Our games are on TV for a reason," James said. "You don't have to come and watch me in person. You can actually see stuff better on TV sometimes."

No matter the outcome, James updates his father after every game he pitches.

"I call him after every outing, whether I get one out or go out and throw two innings," James said. "We talk a little bit, and if it goes bad, we kind of discuss what could've been done better. If it's good, we talk about how to keep it good."

Jeff doesn't have to watch every outing either.

"I guess he's gotten to the point that I somewhat know what I'm doing, and if I need a little kick in the pants sometimes, he's there for that," James said.

Dad did give James plenty of advice.

"He always taught me to look at it as if they're trying to take food off your table," James said. "You've got to get your food or you're not going to eat, you're not going to survive. Go out there and do your job. Whenever you have a chance to twist the blade, per se, you do it, and don't hesitate doing it."

He didn't say that when James was a little kid, did he?

"He was a tough love kind of guy," James said. "It makes you stronger."

The family traveled quite a bit because of Jeff's Major League life. James was born in Cincinnati but remembers living in Boston, Oakland and the Dallas area. Because his dad was the closer, sometimes he'd enter games after the kids were supposed to be in bed.

"Whenever we were able to watch, we did," James said. "I didn't get to stay up too late. He'd always come in whenever he got home and say hey, and say 'Good night.'"

Jeff encouraged his sons to participate in all sports.

"I played every sport," James said. "You played soccer when you were younger, but I got over that real quick. It was football, basketball or baseball."

And then it became all baseball. James was drafted out of Heritage High School in Colleyville, Texas, in 2004 in the 37th round by the Mariners, and they selected him again in the 17th round in '05 when he was pitching for Navarro Junior College in Texas.

"The first time I got drafted, I knew I wasn't going to sign," James said. "It was the first time I knew that, 'Hey, I might have a shot at this.' It was kind of cool. I guess I was good enough to get drafted out of high school but not good enough to get into a four-year college. Some of that could have been grades."

James did eventually attend the University of Texas, and in 2007, the Cubs picked him in the 14th round. It was time to play ball. He made his big league debut on April 5, 2010, throwing two scoreless innings against the Braves. He looked right at home, which might be because big league ballparks have felt that way from the days he was a kid in the outfield.

"I got to meet some really good people," James said of his days in Texas. "I really became a fan of baseball. Now, I'm a grown-up kid playing in a gigantic playground in front of thousands of people."

People are constantly calling the Cubs lefty "Jeff," partly because of his dad.

"Whether I get called 'Jeff' because of me having long hair like [Jeff] Samardzija, or now because I look like my dad and all the coaching staff played with him, I get it a lot," James said. "[Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio] still calls me 'Jeff' sometimes. It happens at least once a day."

Baseball has always been a part of his life since he was born. James jokes that he's a product of his environment. Would he be pitching if it weren't for his dad?

"No," James said. "I definitely had him pushing me, and that helped a lot. Being able to learn from him and watch from him and learn how to carry yourself as a professional baseball player and how to act like one, and the unwritten rules you have to know whenever you're a young guy coming up and how to handle yourself when you're getting your butt whupped and when things are going good. He's been through it.

"Any position I can put myself into on the field, I guarantee my dad's been in it, and I can always go and ask him for help," James said. "It's a good thing to have in my back pocket."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.
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