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Cubs’ Russell acknowledges ‘long road’ in return

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Chicago Cubs infielder Addison Russell returned from suspension on Wednesday, striking out in his first at-bat to a chorus of boos and a smattering of applause in his first game in a big league uniform since Sept. 19.

He finished the night 0-for-3 with a walk in Chicago’s 3-2 walk-off win over the Miami Marlins in 11 innings.

Russell, 25, was suspended 40 games in September for violating the league’s domestic abuse policy after an investigation into allegations of emotional, verbal and physical abuse made by his ex-wife, Melisa Reidy.

Russell, who started at second base on Wednesday, served the final 28 games of his suspension at the beginning of this season and went through league-mandated counseling as well as his own therapy.

“I’ve just improved overall,” Russell said before Wednesday’s game. “Better relationships and communication with my teammates and family and friends. Just overall, I feel like I’m a better person.

“Hearing from my family and friends and also teammates that I’ve improved is a lot of assurance for me. And just continuing my therapy, as well. I know I’m making great strides. It’s a long road ahead. There is no finish line, but I’m committed to this.”

The Cubs tendered a $3.4 million contract to Russell in December on the condition he follow all league- and team-mandated guidelines for rehabilitation. The Cubs have repeatedly said they want to be part of the solution as it concerns Russell and the “plague” of domestic abuse in society.

“This does not represent the end of the road or an accomplishment in any way,” Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said Wednesday. “But there has been progress. And not just taking Addison’s word for it. I’ve remained in touch with the people who are important to him, people who are in his orbit, including Melisa. I’ve received a lot of positive testimony about Addison’s growth to this point, his coping skills, his emotional control, his communication skills, his engagement as a father.”

Russell’s return has been a controversial topic in Chicago. He was asked if winning back the fans was a goal.

“I think that’s a huge step along the way,” he said. “The goal — I can’t tell you what the big goal is — but I can tell you that I just need to hit small goals. And then, over time, reflect and then look and see how far I’ve come, and then just keep going forward.”

Negative fan reaction is a reality that Russell is likely to have to deal with, perhaps for the rest of his career.

“If there is an additional burden on him, additional scrutiny on him or other things he has to deal with, I think that’s just part of the process,” Epstein said. “That’s not unfair.”

Russell was asked how people will know he is being sincere in his rehabilitation and overall improvement.

“I don’t think I’m a good actor,” Russell said. “I don’t think you can fake what’s true in your heart. And what’s true in my heart is to be a better person.”

Russell’s return was supposed to come next week, after another few games in Triple-A. It was moved up because Ben Zobrist was placed on the restricted list and set to take a leave of absence for personal reasons.

Meanwhile, current closer Pedro Strop was placed on the 10-day injured list with a Grade 2 strain in his left hamstring. The Cubs activated lefty Mike Montgomery from the IL to take Strop’s place on the roster.

Manager Joe Maddon said he’ll use several different arms to close while Strop heals up. But the ninth inning will be the least-watched thing on Wednesday as Russell wears a Cubs uniform for the first time since the end of his suspension for domestic abuse.

“I’m happy I have this second opportunity,” Russell said. “I’m looking forward and still improving as a person.”

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A $245 million payroll?! Why the Los Angeles Dodgers are outspending every other MLB team by a mile

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THE LOS ANGELES DODGERS spent $100 million to renovate Dodger Stadium ahead of the 2020 season, an ambitious undertaking that modified most of the infrastructure in an effort to modernize baseball’s third-oldest ballpark.

“Irony of ironies,” Dodgers president and CEO Stan Kasten said. “After all these years of being the most beautiful stadium ever built to watch the game of baseball, we now also added 21st-century amenities. We have two acres of entertainment, and new food, and new history displays, and kids’ areas, and merchandise. Now we have elevators, and escalators, and connecting bridges — we now have all of that! We have a front door! You’ve seen pictures of it — it’s amazing!”

And it has all been just sitting there, untouched, for a year.

Kasten told CNBC in late October that a fan-less 2020 season led to revenue losses “north of $100 million” for the Dodgers, adding that it would take the franchise “years to catch up.” Three weeks later, the team followed a leaguewide trend in issuing organizationwide layoffs. Three months after that, they splurged on Trevor Bauer, brought back Justin Turner and raised a payroll that now is approaching a whopping $245 million, according to Cot’s Contracts, 26% higher than that of the second-place New York Yankees and the only one on pace to exceed baseball’s luxury-tax threshold.

The Dodgers’ payroll is high, but manageable, given their flexibility to creep back under that threshold in a year or two. Their roster is loaded with stars, but their abundance of young talent makes it seem as if the Dodgers’ run of excellence — consisting of eight consecutive division titles, a 2020 World Series championship and a 2021 PECOTA projection of 104 wins, the highest known number that system has ever produced — might never end. They have built a baseball utopia, evolving into the type of juggernaut their sport rarely produces. While most of their competition reels from the revenue losses of the coronavirus pandemic, which kept fans away from ballparks for an entire season, the Dodgers are doubling down.

How?

As one rival executive noted: “I think it’s important to go back to the beginning.”

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Who is 2021 MLB draft’s No. 1 pitching prospect? Scouting Vanderbilt’s Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker

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In last week’s early 2021 MLB draft rankings, Vanderbilt right-handers Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker were second and third, respectively, on the list — and the top two pitching prospects on our board.

I had a chance to see the two pitch back-to-back in both ends of a doubleheader on Sunday in Nashville against Georgia State, so here’s a deep dive on both prospects and what could cause their stock to rise (or fall) heading into the 2021 MLB draft starting July 11 in Atlanta.

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Cincinnati Reds OF Shogo Akiyama returns to camp after wife seriously injured

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. — – Cincinnati Reds outfielder Shogo Akiyama returned to spring training after a week away to be with his wife, who was seriously injured when a tree fell on her in a park in Ohio.

Akaya Akiyama was hospitalized after being injured by the tree last week while she was walking in Sharon Woods in Cincinnati. Her husband said Thursday that her condition is improving.

“I was in the hospital with her, I was spending time with [the] kids,” the 32-year-old Akiyama said through a translator at the team’s spring training complex in Goodyear, Arizona. “I think it was the inevitable time that I needed with this week away.”

Manager David Bell said Akiyama won’t be in the lineup for a spring training game until Sunday.

The Reds signed the Japanese player to a three-year, $21 million contract before the 2020 season. He played in 54 games last year, hitting .245.

“That’s bigger than baseball,” Reds pitcher Lucas Sims said. “Being able to see him today, it made us all happy and glad to know that she’s doing all right. Hopefully, everything gets back to normal.”

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