Addison Avenue: No roadblock too big for Cubs' SS
CHICAGO -- Addison Russell is a private man in a public game. He handles attention; he doesn't seek it.
While Russell thrives in the spotlight, he's a self-proclaimed "hometown guy" who is most at peace when he's in Pensacola, Fla., in the nest he's built for himself and his growing family.
The second of three shortstops selected in the 2012 Draft -- before Corey Seager, after Carlos Correa -- he used a big chunk of his signing bonus from the Oakland Athletics to buy a house for him and his mother. Then he splurged on a Shih Tzu-poodle mix puppy to roam the place when he was off playing baseball.
While the 22-year-old has been building his reputation as one of the best young players in the Major Leagues, he's also been building a family. He shares the home he bought four years ago with his wife, Melisa, and their two children, a son who is 1 and an infant daughter.
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It was there, one day in early December, about a month after the Cubs' World Series parade, that the wonders of his life caught up to him. He was laying on his mom's bed, he said, when his dog Oakley wandered over and started licking his face.
"That's when tears just started pouring out," Russell said to a group of reporters at Cubs Convention. "My mom was like, 'I can't believe you did this, baby.' We've talked before, before that moment. It just hit me really hard there. There was a loss of words. Emotions that were way too powerful for me."
Can you blame him?
Among the 25 players in uniform for the World Series, none have come further in the last three years than Russell. He was in Double-A with the A's in July 2014, having just missed two months with a strained hamstring. He dreamed that one day Jed Lowrie's job in Oakland would be his, and no doubt dreamed about being on a championship team.
Then Billy Beane pushed his chips into the middle of the table to get Jonathan Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in two trades, including one that made Russell a Cub. His timing couldn't have been better. Nor Russell's performance upon arrival.
He would need only 61 more Minor League games before Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein would deem him ready to join Kristopher Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro in the Chicago infield. His sure hands and gracefulness up the middle would establish him as a guy who can be for a Cub powerhouse what Derek Jeter was for the Yankees.
Everyone has noticed, which has taken a little time to get accustomed to.
"Normally there's not that much attention drawn toward me [at home]," Russell said. "But it's different now. I'd just go to the mall. Maybe I'd go to the nail salon with my wife. It just seems there's attention everywhere. It's definitely different. I enjoy it. My wife enjoys it. We have fun with it."
Pat Hughes, the Cubs' radio voice, handled the introduction of players to a ballroom packed with adoring fans on Friday night. He called Russell a "future Gold Glove winner" and "[maybe] a future MVP" of the National League.
That's high praise, for sure. But it's right on the money.
Russell's defensive excellence was a major feature of the team that survived three difficult postseason series to win the Cubs' first championship since 1908. The Giants' Brandon Crawford has won the NL Gold Glove Award at shortstop the last two seasons, but Russell provided stiff competition. Here were the Defensive Runs Saved metrics last season: Crawford, +19; Russell, +19; Andrelton Simmons, +18; Francisco Lindor, +17, and no one else better than +10.
While Russell was Joe Maddon's No. 9 hitter for most of his rookie season, he worked his way up to fifth last season, right behind the ultra-productive trio of Bryant, Rizzo and Benjamin Zobrist. He went through extended slumps that left his batting average at only .238 by the end of the regular season, but he hit 21 home runs and drove in 95 runs, only one fewer RBI than Correa.
Russell has shown amazing mental toughness.
In the NL Wild Card Game against the Pirates two seasons ago, he botched a screaming ground ball from Andrew McCutchen that was hit right at him. Then he started a double play two pitches later on a ball that Starling Marte hit even harder.
Russell opened the postseason in a 1-for-24 slump through seven games, raising some question about whether he belonged in the lineup against Julio Urias for Game 4 of the NL Championship Series, with the Cubs trailing 2-1. He blasted a fourth-inning homer off Urias, breaking up a scoreless game, and would go 12-for-40 to finish the postseason with three homers and a team-high 13 RBIs, including nine in the World Series.
No wonder he's on the radar for A-listers like Eddie George, the former Ohio State and NFL superstar who is now an actor, activist and self-proclaimed renaissance man.
Russell told reporters that George had sent him an autographed Tennessee Titans helmet before the 2016 season, wishing him luck, but it was still a shock to hear from him after the World Series.
"Congrats, champ," said one text.
Another invited him to get together, which he still hasn't found time to do.
"I go home and get a text saying, 'Hey, this is Eddie George. How you doing?'" Russell said. "I'm like, 'I'm good.' I couldn't text back. I waited four days because I was thinking of what to say. He said, 'If you have the time, let's chill.' There's hardly any time because everything's happening so quick. Just to come into contact with people like that, makes me smile. It definitely gets me in the mood of getting better. That's the goal. Getting better."
Safe to say Russell is looking forward to meeting President Barack Obama on Monday at the White House.
"We're excited," Russell said. "I know probably about three people I'd get star-struck by, and he's one of them."
When the trip to Washington, D.C., is over, Russell will hurry home to Pensacola. He'll bask himself in the warmth of his family and continue to turn the page, working toward the upcoming season. He's as excited about that as meeting Obama or hanging with George.
"The body's ready," Russell said. "My body took as much rest as it needed. I'm happy to get back training. I've been hitting on the field the last two weeks. Everything feels good. I'm seeing the ball well. It's just about trying to get better."
As far as Russell has come, it's going to be fun to see where he can go.