SARASOTA, Fla. - Adam Russell didn’t ask for perspective. He didn’t invite it onto the mound and into his life. But a family’s battle with cancer will do that for a guy.
Russell attempts to keep his mind clear as he works out each morning at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. He’s here to play baseball, to beat the odds and make the club out of spring training after signing a minor league contract in early December. But it’s the odds that his sister faces, his brother-in-law, his father and his grandmother, that tug at his emotions and make the act of throwing a baseball seem less important.
His sister, Tracy, was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer two years ago, and it already had spread to her liver. Recently, her husband was diagnosed with Stage 3 non-smoking lung cancer. They have two children, ages 6 and 3.
“It’s been a rough couple of years,” Russell, 29, said this morning before heading to the back fields. “We’ve had a lot of sickness.”
More than any family should have to endure.
“My dad has skin cancer and my grandmother has breast cancer,” Russell said, reciting the roll call as his eyes moisten. “My middle sister found out there’s a cancer gene that my family carries. I’m the only one in the family that doesn’t carry it. My middle sister opted to have a double mastectomy just to alleviate the cancer cause, because she carried the gene, which carries an 87 percent chance of getting breast cancer.
“It’s been a rough couple of years, but I have a great family - very strong, very supportive. They’re going to beat it, knowing them. We’ve never felt sorry for each other going through this. I think it’s made us stronger and better people for it.
“Everyone is very supportive of each other and watching the kids. There’s tons of appointments and stuff to go through. Everyone’s pitching in, everyone’s helping as much as they can. It’s good to see how strong my family is through this. I feel terrible for people who have to go through this and don’t have as strong of a family and don’t have people who are backing them up like my family does, so I feel I’m very fortunate. We’re dealing with it the best we can.”
Here’s where the perspective comes into play for Russell. A poor outing doesn’t stay with him, doesn’t gnaw at him at all hours of the night. He’s very serious about his baseball career, which has included stints with the White Sox, Padres and Rays, but it doesn’t bring the same lows anymore.
“I find myself getting less mad about things,” he said. “Just the way my sister fights shows me how to keep things in perspective. I’m much more of a positive person because I see, here she is, Stage 4 cancer and I’ve never heard her complain once. All she wants to do is to get better. She wants her kids to grow up with a mother. For me complaining about walking a guy or something like that, having a bad game, it’s not something that’s in my life anymore.”
Russell was in San Diego when he learned of Tracy’s diagnosis.
“It kept getting worse after that, but I’m happy to say she’s doing pretty well for how advanced her cancer is,” Russell said. “She will always have cancer, but it’s just not attached to anything right now. It’s the best-case scenario. We’re very fortunate for how she’s acting and how she’s feeling right now. Now we’ve just got to deal with my brother-in-law. We’ll see how it all works out.”
Russell’s emotions change, leaning more toward anger, when relaying how she no longer has access to the drug Avastin.
“She went through chemotherapy and she’s on this drug called Avastin - it’s going to make me mad here - but the drug was discontinued by the FDA,” he said. “This is a drug that she was able to complete chemotherapy and was successful with it, and now it’s not available for use anymore for breast cancer. So if the cancer comes back, she will not be able to use this drug.
“It was kind of a big blow for us. She went to Washington to fight this and show people how it worked for her. People that claim to be smarter than her deemed that it wasn’t healthy. The insurance companies won’t cover it. But right now, she’s doing well and that’s something we can focus on.”
Russell is away from his family now while trying to make an impression on Orioles manager Buck Showalter. He’s returned to using a sidearm motion, an interesting look coming from a pitcher who’s listed at 6-foot-8 and 255 pounds, but he also will switch to a more conventional over-the-top delivery. He has displayed both of them during his side sessions.
“I had done it previously in past years,” said Russell, who last pitched in the majors in 2011 with the Rays, posting a 3.03 ERA in 36 games, and spent most of last summer at Triple-A Salt Lake and Gwinnett. “I had been primarily over the top, but occasionally I would throw sidearm. It had been effective, but then it was told to me that somebody didn’t like it in one point in my career and I had to shut it down. I just felt like it was time to bring it back.
“Last year, I went to the Angels, who remembered me throwing sidearm and wanted to see if I could do it again. I only had a month to get it ready. It was a work in progress last year and I spent the whole offseason getting it ready. It’s a natural slot to me and I think it’s going to be a good move for me in my career.
“I pretty much attribute it to me getting in the big leagues. Back in the day, I was just an average starter in the minors. Then I added the sidearm to my repertoire and my career really took off after that. Just giving guys a different look. Messing with eye levels is a pretty good thing to have in your back pocket. And I’m kind of going to be the opposite of what I was back in the day. I’m going to mostly be sidearm, but occasionally I’m going to go over the top. It just keeps them on their toes. I still have pretty good velocity from over the top, so it’s not something you can just ignore.”
Russell chose the Orioles during the Winter Meetings, and announced his signing on Twitter, after talking to pitching coach Rick Adair.
“I really liked what he had to tell me and how he was all for me going sidearm and what he could bring to the table. I was more than happy to sign here,” he said.
“This is a team on the rise. They’ve always had a great reputation for being a great organization. Last year, I saw they moved a lot of guys up. They sort of built from within the organization and I liked that. I was hearing good things about them, and coming up through the minors and playing against them, they were a class organization and I’m happy to be part of it.
“Everything I’ve heard about coming over here, it’s just a great group of guys. The coaching staff has been more than helpful. I’m real happy with the way things are going.”
Considering what his family is going through, Russell will savor the happy moments as they come. And he will put the sad ones in proper perspective.