His presence lacked familiar command and his words carried less conviction than usual Thursday at an uncomfortable news conference at Wrigley Field, yet Cubs President Theo Epstein came away looking as smart as ever.
Somehow, Epstein's awkwardness seemed appropriate for the occasion.
An uncharacteristically shaky Epstein spoke for 10 minutes about the troubling saga of Cubs shortstop Addison Russell, the subject of a Major League Baseball investigation into allegations of domestic abuse made by a friend of his wife in an Instagram post. In carefully navigating a minefield full of assumptions he cannot make, Epstein neither supported nor abandoned Russell because the best crisis managers know what they don't know — and the facts remain too scarce for any of us to form conclusions.
"It's honestly at such an early stage that I don't think it would be appropriate to do anything other than say we're going to let it develop and act as appropriately as we can,'' Epstein said. "We care about all the parties involved. Making any judgment would be inappropriate.''
That was the message Epstein successfully delivered to Cubs players before Thursday's game against the Rockies in a rare team meeting. Notably absent was Russell, ordered to stay home — but Epstein refused to call the edict a suspension or predict how long it would last. Remember, the league's stiff new policy on domestic violence, collectively bargained, permits the commissioner to discipline a player even in the absence of legal action.
Russell adamantly defended himself in a statement issued through the team.
"Any allegation I have abused my wife is false and hurtful,'' said Russell, the father of two. "For the well-being of my family, I'll have no further comment."
Life was much simpler for the 23-year-old Russell when reporters were asking about his Pokemon card collection. And by Thursday's first pitch, the Cubs longed for the days when their biggest worry was Kyle Schwarber's batting average. Suddenly, a team full of millennials seemingly with the world at their feet was reminded of the importance of watching every step.
"Just baseball questions,'' outfielder Jason Heyward announced to the crowd of reporters.
Some of Russell's teammates were more accommodating. Kris Bryant called it a "tough situation" and said he believed it was important as a team leader to face reporters in the name of accountability. Albert Almora Jr. apologized for not knowing about the news until he arrived at the ballpark. Anthony Rizzo spoke of the professionalism Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts expects from players and sought more information before making any declarations.
"You just want to find out what's going on,'' Rizzo said. "I love (Russell) here, but I don't know what's going on outside of this clubhouse.''
Anybody who came into the Cubs clubhouse looking for unconditional support for Russell walked out still looking. Consider that progress. No team can claim to take the issue of domestic violence seriously and blindly back a player accused of it, especially a team that 11 months ago traded for a player once suspended for domestic abuse, Aroldis Chapman. Perhaps having learned from that uneasy experience, the Cubs showed more sensitivity handling Russell's uncertainty than Chapman's arrival.
In discussing Russell, most Cubs wisely followed their leader, Epstein, and found the gray area between withholding judgment and being supportive. On a team that uses social-media platforms to document Bryant's wedding and Rizzo's engagement, ignoring the potential impact of an Instagram post would have been hypocritical.
"The Addison Russell that we know is somebody who is a young kid doing his best to be a really good citizen and really good player,'' Epstein said cautiously. "I'd rather let this play out of fairness to Addison and fairness to the Cubs.''
That wasn't exactly, "We've got your back no matter what, Addy.''
Professional athletes typically start losing respect for players who let off-the-field issues interfere with on-the-field performance, not that any Cubs admitted as much. Manager Joe Maddon struck the most positive note about Russell, vowing to keep his mind and ears open to a player hitting .209 he acknowledged "wasn't quite right" lately.
"In a situation like this where it's very easy to be accusatory, I choose not to be,'' Maddon said. "I choose to listen. I don't know enough to know one way or another how I feel about this.''
Maddon met with Russell after Wednesday's game before Epstein approached the shortstop about the allegation levied during the Cubs' 6-5 loss to the Marlins. In a response to a comment on a photo of Russell's wife, Melisa, who alleged Russell cheated on her, family friend Carlie Reed opened a private spat for public view and instantly created national headlines.
"Hateful is cheating on your wife, mentally and physically abusing her,'' Reed wrote. "Melisa didn't want that out but I'll say it. He hit her. In front of (kids) Aiden and Mila.''
Immediately, Epstein considered the accusations serious enough to take the initiative and contact the league. Team officials privately had worried about Russell's personal maturation last season, a source said, but never imagined him as the type of guy capable of being at the center of a controversy like this. Whatever this turns out to be.
"I just think you have to be patient and let the facts develop,'' Epstein said.
On that, Epstein was certain — and correct.