Four years ago, everything was looking up for the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs, who in 2014 had won just 73 games, improved by 24 games in 2015. While their 97-win season was only good enough to finish in third place in the National League Central, the Cubs vanquished the 98-win, second-place Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Wild Card game on the strength of eventual Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, and in the NLDS, the Cubs defeated the 100-win St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cubs did this with a young core which was the envy of Major League Baseball. Following the 29 year-old Arrieta, the three most valuable players on the Cubs by Wins Above Replacement were 25, 23, and 21. Of the team’s fourteen most frequently used position players, eight were twenty-five or younger. They entered the 2015-16 off-season as prohibitive favorites to usurp the three-time defending division champion Cardinals: in addition to their young talent, the Cubs had already outpaced the likes of the Cardinals and Pirates by underlying metrics such as FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. And then to bolster what few weaknesses they had, the Cubs signed the top pitcher and top position player from the 2015 Cardinals–John Lackey and Jason Heyward.
The Cubs took the NL Central lead early in 2016 and never let up. The Cardinals remained in the Wild Card hunt until the eighth inning of their final game of the season, yet finished 17 1/2 games behind the Cubs–that’s how dominant the latter was. And, of course, in October, the Cubs won the World Series title. And three months earlier, the Cubs lost their innocence.
This isn’t to say that before July 25, 2016, the Chicago Cubs were the perfect embodiment of all that was good and pure. But as somebody tribally obliged to hate everything about the Chicago Cubs, it took some sincere effort to force my contempt for them. There was nothing hateable about burgeoning superstars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Ascending prospects Willson Contreras and Javier Baez, before they ever even reached Major League Baseball, were already household names for those who followed prospect lists. Although Cardinals fans would accuse Cubs fans of being bandwagoners (note: every fan base in the history of the world is accused of being bandwagoners), the Cubs would still pull in over 2.6 million fans per season despite a below-average sized stadium and some truly reprehensibly bad rosters, and it’s hard to argue against a long-suffering fan base looking for its first title that any of their fans would ever experience.
But with the acquisition of Aroldis Chapman, less than five months removed from a 30-day suspension which stemmed from some truly horrific domestic violence accusations, any claims to the higher ground were forfeited by the Cubs. My contempt for the Cubs, long mindless and irrational, was now based in some kind of tangible reality. Hating them was no longer fun.
Sports rivalries aren’t supposed to be real. Maybe they act as metaphors for something real, but your sports rival winning isn’t actually supposed to be evil rising. It’s supposed to be a slightly annoying thing which, in the end, signifies nothing. But for as long as the Chicago Cubs employ Addison Russell, there will be a grossness surrounding them which they could easily shake but choose not to.
Russell, acquired in 2014 from the Oakland Athletics in part of a trade which sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the west coast, was already a super-prospect and for a while, he was part of the Cubs prospect core that had me cursing the name of Billy Beane (Samardzija was flipped a few months later for really good shortstop Marcus Semien, so this isn’t really fair), and he took off starting in 2015, his rookie season. He was a defensive standout at shortstop and he was developing a penchant for power. In 2016, Addison Russell was an All-Star and looked to be a critical cog in the Cubs machine for years to come.
In June 2017, Addison Russell’s then-wife posted on Instagram the implication that her husband was abusive and adulterous towards her. Later that year, Melisa Reidy-Russell filed for divorce and the allegations intensified. In a September 2018 blog post, she clarified through a blog post. MLB immediately investigated, and later in the month, Russell was placed on paid administrative leave, rendering him unable to play for the Cubs as they chased an NL Central crown. And twelve days later, Russell was suspended for 40 games, retroactive to time he missed already in the season.
Today was, based on the way the scheduled worked out, supposed to be Addison Russell’s first game back with the Cubs. It was announced earlier this week that Russell would instead go to the AAA Iowa Cubs, sparing the world the potential embarrassment of Addison Russell receiving a loud ovation in his first plate appearance back at Wrigley Field. I say sparing “the world” rather than “Cubs fans” because this isnt’ a Cubs fans problem. This is a humanity problem.
Whispers began and intensified in the last week or so that the Cubs have been trying to stifle negative press coverage of Russell. Cubs VP of Communications & Community Affairs Julian Green essentially admitted to as much.
Hating the Chicago Cubs, at this point, is easy. It’s too easy. Some of it was inevitable–surely, those who saw intense anti-Cardinals sentiments at the peak of their powers in the early 2010s didn’t think this was inherently a Cardinals thing rather than a successful team thing. But that’s what I want–to hate the Cubs for being a really good team with endless potential to torment us. I want to look like a crazed lunatic screaming about how much I hate the Cubs. I don’t want to be right.