Russell following in father’s footsteps
Lefty reliever James Russell proved the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when he picked up his first major league save yesterday against the San Diego Padres. In a 14-year major league career, James’ father, Jeff, compiled 186 saves, leading the AL with 38 in 1989 when he was with the Texas Rangers. Over the years, 57 Cubs major leaguers have been part of MLB father-son combinations—recent Cubs call-up Casey Coleman is actually a third-generation major league pitcher.
In the June issue of Vine Line, we celebrate Father’s Day by looking at some famous father-son pairs in the Cubs system, including the Russells. The following excerpt is from our “Like Father, Like Son” feature.
Cubs reliever James Russell always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, and so far their career paths have been remarkably similar. Jeff Russell spent 14 years in the major leagues, beginning as a starter with the Reds and eventually notching 186 career saves with the Rangers, A’s, Red Sox and Indians. These days, he does some work with the Rangers and gives lessons on the side.
James pitched as a starter for the University of Texas before being drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round in 2007. In 2009, the Cubs moved him primarily into relief work, and his career took off. Although he still has his sights set on starting, he’s been a key cog in the Cubs bullpen since 2010.
James practically grew up in major league clubhouses, something Jeff said gave James an advantage over other young players. James not only got to witness the work ethic of professional athletes, he also got to see how players prepared themselves mentally.
“It was awesome,” James said. “You get to run around the clubhouse and see all the guys you watch on TV—and learn from them. Being around them and seeing how they do things and how they carry themselves was really important.”
James said nearly everything he knows about pitching he learned from his dad. Although their styles are a bit different—Jeff threw harder and is right-handed—they are still able to share trade secrets. Jeff watches every game (he admitted it’s hard for him to sit still when James is pitching) and is happy to offer advice from his years as a closer.
“After every time I throw, usually the first person I call is my dad,” James said. “He’s right there watching or has it taped on DVR. And he goes over the pitches and tells me what he thinks I did and what he thinks I should do. We just kind of chit-chat about it and see how to right the wrongs.”
Jeff said while he’s happy to impart advice to his son, he’s not sure how much James really needs it. Jeff, who said his proudest moment was when his son made the Cubs’ big league roster, has been impressed by how fast James picked up the game.
“He’s well ahead of my career right now because he understands how to pitch. It took me maybe four or five years to really learn how to pitch,” Jeff said. “At this point in his career, if he stays healthy, he can pitch for as long as he wants to.”