MESA, Ariz. — This wasn’t the Chicago Cubs’ annual state-of-the-franchise address Monday on the eve of spring training.
It was a confessional.
Cubs president Theo Epstein spent more time talking about shortstop Addison Russell, domestic violence and Joe Ricketts’ vile personal emails than the team’s aspirations to return to the mountaintop.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon wasn’t asked a single question about the pressure of being in the final year of his contract, but plenty about whether Russell’s suspension for domestic violence abuse would affect the clubhouse.
Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer weren’t asked about the $185 million in last year’s free-agent moves that went belly-up, but instead spoke at length about their empathy for this year’s free-agent class – which they avoided wading into.
Why, since those lovable Cubs were last seen walking off Wrigley Field after losing to the Colorado Rockies in the wild-card game last season, Russell was suspended 40 games, the father of Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts was caught sending racist emails, and that loyal fanbase spent the winter screaming that the team wasn’t trying to sign Bryce Harper.
The lights have officially been extinguished from the 2016 World Series championship party, leaving the Cubs defending themselves Monday, instead of celebrating the fact these are the glory days of the franchise.
The Cubs’ new mantra this season will be “Own it Now,” and the day before their first workout, the Cubs were addressing all of their sins.
The biggest issue that dominated their press conference in front of a packed media audience was not who will bat leadoff or Yu Darvish’s comeback, but Russell.
He will be here at camp, work out with the club and even play in spring games, but he won’t be playing a meaningful game for the Cubs until May 3.
“We’ll continue to hold Addison to an incredibly high standard,” Epstein said flatly, “or he won’t play a regular-season game with the Chicago Cubs ever again.”
The Cubs realize there’s a large faction of their fanbase that wanted Russell released after details of his domestic abuse surfaced from his ex-wife, Melisa Reidy. The Cubs opted to keep him, giving him a $3.4 million salary that will provide him an extra $600,000 if he stays on the 25-man roster.
“I personally thing we’re doing the right thing,” Epstein said, “but I understand people that are critical to the approach we took. There are people who are upset and think we should have just moved on. But I can at least pledge to those people that we’re taking this on earnestly, that it’s important to us. It’s not words, they’re actions. And I will continue to be transparent with you [media], and our fans our fans about everything that we’re doing to attack this problem of domestic violence.”
It’s why the Cubs are requiring every single person in the organization, from the lowest-ranking minor-league position to the entire front office, participate in their domestic violence training program.
Russell, who is scheduled to address the media and his teammates this weekend, has been seeing a therapist three to four times a week, Epstein said, and is taking full accountability for his actions.
“Addison has been given a conditional second chance by this organization,” Epstein said, “and we’re still in the bottom of the second inning of this process. We still have a long way to go. He has to put in the work to be a better person, citizen, teammate and father. He has fully and enthusiastically complied with everything MLB has put in front of him.”
Next in line in the confessional booth will be Ricketts, who is scheduled to address his team and the media next week, talking about those emails sent by his father that was leaked by the website Splinter.
Those emails included such vulgar and racist messages as:
“I think Islam is a cult and not a religion. Christianity and Judaism are based on love whereas Islam is based on ‘kill the infidel’ a thing of evil.”
“Muslims are naturally my (our) enemy.”
“They have blown up our trains and turned our beautiful Spanish cities into the third world, drowning in filth and crime.”
Ricketts may not be involved in the Cubs’ operations, but it was his money that helped pay for the franchise run by his kids.
“The emails were upsetting to read and especially upsetting that some of our fans were put into a position, where they had to consider a connection of their favorite team, Epstein said, “and the views expressed in those emails have no place in the organization, the sport of baseball or society overall. And I join Tom in condemning racism and Islamophobia.”
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Epstein said the entire organization was appalled, and will fully embrace diversity.
“We do stand for everybody in, and now that that this happened,” Epstein said, “the burden falls on us more to not only talk about it, but show it. Words are cheap. Actions mean a lot more.
“We have this additional burden to prove what we’re all about.”
Meanwhile, the Cubs will open their spring training vying for their fifth consecutive playoff berth, and their third division title in five years. They may have stayed away from the marquee free agents, never made a major trade, but still believe they can bounce back, stinging from last year’s quick ouster.
“I want guys to own it,” Maddon said. “A big part of our success this year is that we own each moment.
If you think about owning it now, you think about presence tense, and “now’ spelled backwards spells “won.’
“There’s a real good look about them now. They’re motivated now. I know our guys are ready to go.”
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This will be the team that Cubs will go with in 2019, except for adding an inexpensive reliever, but dousing any speculation that they could be late players for Harper or any other marquee free agent.
And while they were in the mood of forgiveness this day, hey, they even apologized on their behalf for the dreadfully slow free-agent market.
“I do empathize and sympathize for the players that are still out there,” Epstein said. “I believe by the next CBA [in 2022], there will be more rapid moving offseason.
“It’s not easy to get to free agency. These guys work hard to get six years in, and been looking forward to this, but now not knowing where they’ll play. I know we’re talking about millionaires, and it’s not one of society’s great problems, but I still feel for these guys.”
The Cubs’ confessional, after 47 minutes, 48 seconds, finally ended mid-afternoon.
They are asking their fans for forgiveness, to believe in them, and to love them once again.
They also realize this is baseball, and winning can go an awful long way to healing all wounds.