CHICAGO — The Chicago Cubs are the hottest team in baseball, having gone a robust 20-6 since a piddling 2-7 start. They reside at the top of the NL Central standings and play in a Wrigley Field that’s been completely renovated into a beautiful cash machine while still preserving its true spirit.
And yet all is not well at the Friendly Confines.
Despite the team’s recent play, this week’s headlines have centered on a pair of events away from the game and the Cubs’ conflicting messages toward both: The return of infielder Addison Russell from a 40-game suspension for violation of MLB’s domestic violence policy and the banning of a fan for making what was interpreted by the team as a racist gesture in the background of Tuesday’s TV broadcast.
Both stories have added two more PR quagmires to a franchise that has recently struggled with more than a few thorny situations.
Russell’s return to the lineup on Wednesday night drew no shortage of opinions from a fan base that already had to wrestle with closer Aroldis Chapman — another player who served a domestic violence suspension — playing a key role on the 2016 World Series championship team.
An overwhelming majority of the comments in the tweets detailing Russell’s callup from Triple-A Iowa were negative. (“I don’t recall in my life the Cubs ever having a leper in uniform so this should be fun for everyone,” read one.)
Russell’s plate appearances, meanwhile, were met with a very vocal representation of boos during his 0-for-4 night. While there were some cheers, the greeting was far from the lovefests we’ve seen for players returning from suspensions for non-domestic violence transgressions.
“When you screw up in Chicago, people are going to let you know,” Cubs fan Jim Postula said before Thursday’s game.
The Cubs knew they were walking a tightrope when they made the decision to tender Russell a contract this spring and team president Theo Epstein has done his best to detail why the team acted the way it did.
"I personally think the most important thing going forward is to be part of the solution," Epstein said at the time of Russell’s suspension in October. "Not to sound really corny about this, but make this a better place and make sure this doesn't happen going forward, especially on our watch, and try to control what we can control."
Epstein has said his research has shown that zero tolerance is “not effective or appropriate given the circumstances.” Russell has gone through therapy and regular check-ins with the team, but Epstein stressed on Wednesday that the 25-year-old still has a lot to prove.
"This does not represent the end of the road or an accomplishment in any way,” Epstein said on Wednesday.
While the team has given him a conditional welcome back, many Cubs fans still don’t know how to process the allegations of domestic abuse that Russell’s ex-wife Melisa Reidy leveled against him in a blog post last fall.
About an hour before Thursday’s first pitch, friends Kyle Buikema and Josh DeGroot stood drinking beers near the back bar of Murphy’s Bleachers.
“We were actually just talking about that,” DeGroot said when the topic of Russell and how Cubs fans feel about him was brought up.
Buikema said the entire situation didn’t sit well with him.
“I feel conflicted,” the 33-year-old from suburban Chicago said. “I kind of understand the whole thing about him getting a second chance and I know that Theo has put a lot of thought into it.
“At the same time, it still doesn’t sit well with me and I feel like it would’ve been easier as a fan for the Cubs to have moved on already.”
DeGroot, meanwhile, said it was his hope that Russell would play well enough to be traded for a valuable bullpen piece the Cubs so desperately need.
Both men said they’d probably “do nothing” if Russell came up to bat later in the day (Russell did not start or appear in Thursday’s game against the Marlins.)
Just then, another friend walked up to join the conversation and said he couldn’t stay silent if Russell was inserted as a pinch hitter.
“Yeah, that might be a boo for me,” said Griffin Brandau before offering to buy his fellow fans another round.
Elsewhere at Murphy’s, another group of fans were more supportive of Russell.
“We love Addy, I say keep him,” said Julie Dillman, who was at the game with her daughters Jordan and Hannah. “He served his 40-game suspension and I’m sure he’s trying to be a better person.”
“Of course, she’s saying that as a big fan of the Cubs,” Jordan added. “If you were asking about a White Sox player it’d probably different.”
Russell came to the Cubs in 2015 as part of the Jeff Samardzija trade and made the All-Star team in 2016, hitting 21 homers and 95 RBI. But his production dipped precipitously in both 2017 and 2018, making one wonder if the Cubs fans who want to ditch him would be singing a different tune if his batting average were 70 points higher.
This is relatively unfamiliar territory for the Cubs. For so many decades, the Midwestern icon was built on the reputation as being as wholesome as a field of corn. A day at Wrigley Field was marketed as the ultimate family experience. Hall of Fame talent like Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson were heroes Chicagoans never needed to question.
But while warm sunshine and green grass stands up to even the sternest inspection, the same can’t be said for baseball players and fans in the era when any blog post or tweet can become a national story within hours.
Throw in an ownership group that was rocked by the publication of racist emails from family patriarch Joe Ricketts and it’s a tricky situation for even the most skilled of PR pros.
On Tuesday night, an unidentified Cubs fan was spotted making a gesture with his right hand behind NBC Sports Chicago personality Doug Glanville, an African-American who is a popular former Cubs player.
Some social media users immediately pointed out the fan as making the upside down “OK” sign, deeming it racist. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the propagation of the sign as a “racist” symbol began in 2017 as a hoax and is now “used by people across several segments of the right and far right — including some actual white supremacists — who generally use it to trigger reactions, or what they would describe as 'trolling the libs.’ ”
Other viewers, though, saw the sign as the fan playing the popular childhood “circle game,” which aims to get another person to notice the circle before getting punched on the shoulder.
Whatever the fan’s intention, it didn’t take long for the Cubs to act. Team president of business operations Crane Kenney released a statement early Wednesday morning decrying the action. Epstein called the incident “truly disgusting.” By the end of the day the fan had been identified by the team and banned “indefinitely” from Wrigley Field.
But here’s the rub: The team said it wasn’t able to get in touch with the fan to hear his side of the story. And Kenney admitted on a local radio show that he himself wouldn’t have been able to identify the symbol as nefarious in nature.
If Kenney and others (including this writer) were ignorant to the alternate meaning behind the OK symbol, can it be assumed the fan knew the implication?
“Whether this person is going to ultimately say he intended it, that he was playing the circle game or some other stunt, the judgment to use that in connection with a respected reporter who happens to be African-American doing his job … that coincidence is not going to fly here,” Kenney said.
It made for a stark contrast. On the same day the team was preaching second chances and not adhering to zero tolerance for a player alleged to have been abusive toward a woman, it was quickly playing judge, jury and executioner for a fan on the other side of the road. (If the Cubs had any other information ascertaining the fan’s intent, they did not release it.)
So while one segment of social media was hammering the Cubs for bringing back Addison Russell, another was coming just as fierce over the team banning a fan without knowing if his intent was malicious or not.
On the field, the Cubs are winning a lot these days.
The same can’t be said away from it.
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