PENSACOLA, Fla. – Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell has the keys to his hometown of Pensacola, but not to his own home.
He won a historic World Series championship in November, but any World Series replica trophy will have to wait.
He has friends, neighbors and teammates driving Mercedes and BMWs, but his white truck suits him just fine.
Chicago and its throng of fans around the world might go into convulsions at the mere sight of him, but Russell would prefer having a profile as large as a Wrigley Field peanut vendor.
It’s nothing personal, but he was quite uncomfortable when the woman at Pensacola International Airport followed him out of the terminal this winter, screaming to get his attention, wanting to know whether he was a celebrity and if he played baseball for a living.
No disrespect to the table full of schoolteachers at the Grand Marlin restaurant, but he was embarrassed two weeks ago when they kept taking pictures and asking for his autograph when he simply was trying to enjoy a family get-together.
This is a 23-year-old man not only considered one of baseball’s greatest young stars, but, with his heritage, one who soon could be the game’s multicultural face.
Russell’s mom is Filipino. His biological dad is African American. He was raised by a Caucasian father. His wife is half-Filipino and half-Caucasian, and they have two kids.
“I feel pretty blessed,” Russell tells USA TODAY Sports while ordering lunch on a rare off day at the EXOS performance center, just across Pensacola Bay from where he starred as a high school athlete. “I can relate to a lot of people, particularly young kids.
“I’m recognized a lot around these parts, but I don’t strive for the attention. What I strive for is to make a difference. If I can make an impact on someone’s life, one time a day, or even one time a year, that’ll make me happy. That’s a reason why we were put here on this earth, to make a difference, to influence people, to get them going in the right direction.”
Russell, who turned 23 two weeks ago, has a dossier most ballplayers don’t accomplish in a lifetime. In the last nine months alone, Russell:
- Became the youngest Cubs player to make the All-Star team.
- Helped lead the Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years.
- Tied a World Series record with six RBI in a game.
- Became the youngest player since Mickey Mantle to hit a World Series grand slam.
- Hugged Michelle Obama at the White House.
- Tried to put a dance move on video in front of the famed Abraham Lincoln portrait in the White House dining room.
- Got a shout-out from legendary boxer Manny Pacquiao.
- Hung out with Grammy-nominated hip-hop star Chance the Rapper.
- Received a dinner invitation from his idol, former NFL star Eddie George.
- Got the keys to Pensacola from Mayor Ashton Hayward, with two Addison Russell Days scheduled next winter.
There’s not a whole lot of folks who had a better 22nd year on this earth than Geoffreye O’Neal Addison Robert Watts Jr III.
Yes, that was his full name on his original birth certificate. His mom, Milany Ocampo-Russell, insists she was only responsible for the Addison part of the full name. Her favorite actor was Bruce Willis, and he played arrogant but charismatic detective David Addison on the TV series Moonlighting.
“He’s my miracle baby,’’ says Milany, softly crying. “I almost lost him at 3 months. He had RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). His lungs were aspirating. He wasn’t able to digest formula. His lungs were drowning. I went to the ICU on Thursday, and on Saturday the doctors wanted to pull the plug.
“I used to be one of those fake Christians. On this day, I prayed. I said, ‘Please, God, take me, not my baby.’ He fought so hard. A day later, he was perfectly fine. It was the first time in my life I believed in God, and he’s been looking over me and my family ever since.”
He has become known to the rest of the world as Addison Wayne Russell. When he was legally adopted by his dad at the age of 13, they told him he could choose any name he wished. He stuck with Addison and chose his middle name to honor his father, Wayne Russell, who had raised him since he was 2.
“My name changed, but I’m the same person I’ve always been,” says Russell, who sees no reason to permit his biological father to enter his life. “I’ll never change. I hope 20 years or 30 years from now, when people see me around town, they’ll say, ‘There’s Addison Russell. I remember him. He never changed a bit.’
“That would make me proud.”
Certainly, fame hasn’t changed Russell’s living style. He and his wife, Melisa, parents of 1-year-olds (Mila and Aiden), still live at their parents’ homes. If they’re not at Melisa’s parents’ home, they’re sleeping in the upstairs bedroom at Wayne and Milany’s home, with Russell’s three younger siblings downstairs.
Russell drives a Ram truck. Melisa has a Jeep. Their idea of a fancy dinner is picking up a pizza at the Tuscan Oven pizzeria, where Russell’s dad is a cook, working double shifts twice a week.
Russell’s mom works three jobs in the Pensacola area. She’s a grill operator and waitress at Waffle House, a line cook at Chili’s and, starting Saturday with the grand opening, she’ll also be a manager at TASTEbuds, an ice cream and trail mix parlor.
“I’m a workaholic,” Milany says. “When Addison hit that grand slam in the World Series, I didn’t see it. I was at Chili’s, cooking in the back. Everyone ran into the kitchen to tell me. I still haven’t seen it.”
So when your 41-year-old parents are still working like this, Russell says, it’s little wonder why the purchase of a $50,000 World Series replica trophy seems rather frivolous.
“My family sacrificed so much for me,” says Russell, who lay on his bed crying in front of his mother, trying to grasp what he accomplished after returning home. “They made me who I am today. If I can be just like them when I grow up and be the kind of parent and role model they’ve been to me, I’ll be pretty happy.”
The Russell family never had much money raising their four children. They never owned a house and moved every few years, trying to meet rent demands. Any extra money was spent on Addison, allowing him to realize his dream as a baseball player, playing on travel baseball teams during the summer.
“We were so broke, we didn’t even have a debit card or credit cards,” Milany Russell says, “so we borrowed money, asked to get our paychecks early and had a lot of donors helping us out. We didn’t want to take away his dream.
“We saw how special he was at an early age. He never crawled. He went straight to running when he was 8 months old. He was climbing the ceiling and doing back flips at 18 months. He was throwing balls into the walls and breaking every window of every place we rented. My husband saw his ability and wanted to give Addison every opportunity to play baseball.
“We will never forget what so many families did for us to help make this happen.”
Addison never had time for a social life growing up. When he wasn’t playing baseball, he was helping raise his three younger siblings. He cleaned. He often cooked dinner at night. He made sure everyone did their homework until their parents came home from work.
“Addison has changed more dirty diapers than I ever have as a parent,” Milany says. “Without him and his sister (Kailani, 21), we wouldn’t be able to work hours we worked. He saved us $250 a week for day care. Really, when he’s done with baseball, he could be the greatest babysitter that anyone would ever want.”
The Cubs hardly want him to change occupations anytime soon. He’s the gift that keeps on giving, acquired in 2014 from the Oakland Athletics along with outfielder Billy McKinney and pitcher Dan Straily for starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. It’s a trade that could haunt the A’s for generations, just as the 1964 Lou Brock-Ernie Broglio trade ravaged the Cubs.
Russell hit 21 homers and drove in 95 runs last year in his first full season. It was the most RBI by a Cubs shortstop since Hall of Famer Ernie Banks in 1960. He also saved more runs (19) than any other shortstop in baseball besides Brandon Crawford of the San Francisco Giants, according to FanGraphs.
“We knew what we were getting in terms of the plus-tools, the bat speed, the hands, the quick feet,” Cubs President Theo Epstein says. “We didn’t know that he would adjust this quickly at the big-league level and be such a stabilizer for a contending team the way he has been.
“It’s pretty remarkable how calmly Addison plays the game at such a young age.”
People in the baseball industry aren’t the only folks to take notice. The agencies on Madison Avenue are paying attention, too, with companies such as Pepsi and Audi reaching out for potential endorsements.
Russell is two years away from being able to rent a car on his own, but he has the maturity of a CEO, even if he wore a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume for Halloween. He sought the services of a financial planner before even graduating from Pace High School. When the A’s took him with the 11th pick in the 2012 draft, he received a $2.625 million signing bonus. He almost immediately plunked down $400,000 to buy his parents and siblings a six-bedroom, 3½-bathroom home, with an acre of land. He says his next big expenditure is taking the entire family to the Philippines, where he is a folk hero, next winter.
Russell, who earned $527,000 last year and is due a modest raise this year, realizes his big payday is coming. Yet if he’s going to be paid like a star, he needs to play like one, and that means staying healthy. He took a month off after the World Series parade, and on Dec. 10 he began spending the winter at EXOS, even ordering all of his food each day from the fitness center. He could be found in the afternoon at a rigorous, 90-minute kickboxing class.
Russell, who missed the 2015 National League Championship Series against the New York Mets with a strained hamstring, is doing everything imaginable to ensure his career is not impeded by injuries. He played in 151 games last season and 17 more in the playoffs and said he felt just as strong in late October as he did opening day.
“When I got hurt in the playoffs that year, it was the worst feeling in the world. I just felt so helpless. I don’t want to ever feel that way again,” Russell says. “If I want to be the best, I’ve got to be on the field.”
Jeremy Evans, his performance coach, has no way of predicting Russell’s performance this season but insists when he reports to the Cubs camp in Mesa, Ariz., next weekend for spring training he’ll be in the type of shape that will keep him strong throughout the Cubs’ repeat bid.
“He’s a pretty freaky athlete, one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around,” Evans says. “Some guys get wrapped up in all of the attention. I see rookies who have all of this God-given ability and take the offseason off, partying and drinking alcohol.
“Not Addison. He’s so serious. He wants to be the best.”
Russell knows what he accomplished in his past and has yet to watch video of the World Series, but all that matters to him is the future. He wants to be the best shortstop in the game, helping the Cubs become the first NL team in 40 years to win back-to-back World Series.
“You make the sacrifices to accomplish the things in life that you want, and even if you accomplish them pretty early, you’ve got to keep it going,” Russell says. “I’m not talking about just baseball. But family, faith, everything to become the best man I can possibly be.
“Really, I just want to make my family proud.”