Russell turning heads in field since young age
Stomping Grounds: Former coach knew Cubs infielder was special
PITTSBURGH -- When Cubs manager Joe Maddon first saw Addison Russell, he was impressed by the infielder's solid fundamentals. Karl Jernigan takes pride in that. He recalls all the grounders he hit to the young shortstop, starting when Russell was 9 years old.
Jernigan was drafted three times and finally signed with the Giants in 2001. But he batted .224 in two Minor League seasons and never got above Class A. He returned to Florida and decided to coach, and a friend recruited Jernigan to help with a team of 9-year-old boys.
"I remember the first day of practice," Jernigan said. "I was new at the coaching thing, and I didn't really know what to expect, to be honest. Addison was the shortstop. I told the coach, 'That kid right there at shortstop, has he always been this good?' He said, 'He's pretty good.' I said, 'No, that kid's fricking really good.'"
At just 9 years old, Russell was making plays "that most 12-, 13- and 14-year-old kids couldn't do talent-wise," Jernigan said.
"All the success he's having right now doesn't surprise me," Jernigan said. "The kid has worked his tail off since I've known him. He's the last one to leave, he's the first one there."
It wasn't hard to get Russell to do the drills.
"He was always saying, 'Coach, can you hit me a few more after practice?'" said Jernigan, now the baseball and golf coach at Pace High School in Milton, Fla. "You hit them and hit them, and you think, 'OK, one bucket [of balls].' And after the bucket, you'd say, 'All right, are you good?' and he'd say, 'Can I get one more bucket?' You've already taken ground balls for about 45 minutes, an hour and now you want some more? You don't see kids do that.
"I've been coaching high school ball for 12 years," he said. "When practice is over, they want to get out of there. Addy had a goal in his mind. Where he's at [in the big leagues] was his goal, and now his goal is to stay as long as he can."
Russell often played against kids who were a couple years older, and Jernigan said he was never overmatched. Jernigan said he heard stories about when Russell was 5 years old, playing with kids who were 8.
"And he was the best on the team then," Jernigan said.
"I had a natural knack for the position," Russell said about playing shortstop. "I don't even remember getting taught the fundamentals, but I know I hardly missed. Growing up, my dad told me if there was a ball near me, I was down on the ground getting it. When I was a kid in T-ball, I'd dive for the ball and come up firing and throw the guy out. That was pretty incredible to [my dad]. I've been doing that my entire life. I'm very confident about my defensive skills."
Jernigan, who played shortstop for four years at Florida State, won't take any credit for Russell's ability.
"It has nothing to do with me," Jernigan said. "It's all him -- the kid is talented and has a great work ethic."
But Russell gives Jernigan credit for fine-tuning his skills.
"That's when I learned my fielding mechanics," Russell said of the travel team Jernigan coached, called "Pace Plays."
"It just came kind of easy to me," Russell said. "[Jernigan] would say, 'Make sure your glove is pointed down,' just the small things. I just got the grasp of it, and the muscle memory of it quickly."
Jernigan, 36, follows Cubs games closely and knows Russell will only get better.
"Before his career is over with, he'll win two, three, four Gold Gloves," Jernigan said. "It was automatic when the ball was hit to him in high school. You hit it to short, you're out. If you hit it to the left side of the infield, it had to be over his head to get through. He challenges himself -- he's probably got 1,000 goals for himself, and things that you never thought about. He wants to be perfect. He's a special kid."