SIOUX CITY -- It would be doing American Association baseball quite a disservice if I were to reference that old line about the journey from “the penthouse to the outhouse” not being too far.
As the 25th season of Sioux City Explorers baseball continues to unfold, I’m reminded more than ever just how lucky we were to roll the dice with the old independent Northern League back in 1993.
It had been 33 years since our town’s last look at professional baseball -- ever since the Sioux City Soos folded after the 1960 season in the old Class B Three-I League.
For many years thereafter, local baseball enthusiasts lobbied to little avail for a team in the Midwest League. And, even though a team in that low-A circuit would expose us to young talent from a major league organization, it would offer little more than a few glimpses at some of that talent. Meanwhile, we’d miss out on so many aspects from our current league that we keep taking for granted.
The American Association, for example, allows us to watch an accomplished major leaguer like James Russell, who dropped into Lewis and Clark Park on Saturday and dealt the Sioux City Explorers their first shutout loss of the season.
Russell, whose father, Jeff, was an all-star closer during an outstanding 14-year stint in the big leagues, has seven years in “The Show” to his credit, hoping to add a few more.
Now pitching for the Association’s Texas AirHogs and Manager Billy Martin, Jr., the 31-year-old Russell was the Chicago Cubs’ top lefthanded reliever for the better part of six seasons. Aside from a brief detour to Atlanta for the last two months of the 2014 campaign, that spanned from 2010 through 2015, when the Cubs forced him into free agency.
We all know what happened the very next year -- last year, remember? -- for those beloved Cubbies, winning their first world championship in 108 years. Russell, who had worn the blue pinstripes longer than anyone on that history-making team, had to watch the whole thing on TV.
“It was bittersweet,’’ he said Saturday after lowering his earned run average to 2.08, fourth best in the league. “I was happy for a lot of the guys. I still keep in touch with quite a few of them. I was happy for Theo (Epstein, president of baseball operations) and Jed (Hoyer, general manager). I’ve got nothing but good things to say about them.’’
A former University of Texas hurler, Russell was drafted by the Cubs in 2007, the same year the long-suffering franchise used the third pick in the draft to claim high school senior Josh Vitters. Russell and Vitters, one of three former Cubs now playing for Sioux City, were immediately paired up as roommates.
The Cubs drafted shortstop Nate Samson in 2006 and centerfielder Tony Campana in 2008. And, of course, both are now in the same X’s lineup as Vitters.
“We were all in the organization at the same time,’’ said Russell, who averaged over 60 relief appearances a year for six seasons after his MLB debut with the Cubs in 2010. Campana and Vitters both got there for a time, as well, but Samson, the American Association MVP, was a wrong place/wrong time guy, trying to reach the majors with an organization going through a wealth of shortstop talent.
Russell’s first five years with the Wrigleys saw the team post records of 75-87, 71-91, 61-101, 66-96 and 73-89. Finally, in 2015, with the arrival of Kris Bryant, Jon Lester, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, etc., he was able to share in a 97-65 ticket to the playoffs. Unfortunately, he was left off the postseason roster as the team lost the NLCS to the Mets.
Then, his contract wasn’t renewed and he wound up signing as a free agent with the Phillies.
“I had a really good spring and I made the team out of spring training,’’ said Russell. “Then, I just kind of got off to a rough start and they’re in the rebuilding process. It was easy for them to send me out of there and bring up some young guys.’’
The Phillies assigned Russell to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, their top farm club, and he was even given a string of 10 consecutive mid-season starts after pitching almost exclusively as a reliever since his time in the minors. Released last fall, he went to spring training this year with the Cleveland Indians, but didn’t stick.
“Not everybody knows the business side of baseball and unfortunately that’s where I’m at,’’ said the 31-year-old Russell, who has made close to $7-million in a very solid career. “The game’s getting younger, so it’s tougher for guys in my position just getting jobs. There’s a lot of good talent out there. I feel great. It’s just a matter of finding an opportunity and taking advantage of it.’’
Russell’s time with the AirHogs has been reminiscent of his first several years in Chicago. The Hogs skidded to 14 losses in a row and were 4-18 before winning three of the first five games of a seven-game road trip to Winnipeg and Sioux City. The Explorers followed up Russell’s 2-0 win in the series opener by winning 6-2 and 11-6.
“You’ve gotta ride the highs and kind of shake off the lows,’’ he said. “It’s happened to me plenty of times in the big leagues. Chicago, we were rebuilding. We went through a stretch where we lost (12 straight games from May 15-25 in 2012). It’s good to have veteran guys (like himself) that have been around the game to just help out the younger kids who’ve never been through it. You don’t want to press. Just kind of keep doing the same thing.’’
Pointing a recorder at Darryl Strawberry or Jack Morris or the Explorers’ own Oil Can Boyd have been a few more of the memorable experiences that Sioux City’s quarter-century of independent pro ball have allowed me.
For the time being, I’d be happy for Russell if he was picked up between now and the AirHogs’ return to Sioux City July 14-16. And, I’m sure the X’s wouldn’t mind, either.