Gallardo, Russell share bond from childhood
Brewers righty, Cubs lefty grew up as teammates, friends
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Last Aug. 27, James Russell came close to facing one of his offseason friends, Yovani Gallardo, in a game at Miller Park. It was the bottom of the seventh and Gallardo was to lead off, but he was lifted for a pinch-hitter against Russell, who started the inning for the Cubs.
"I would've struck him out," Russell said Tuesday, laughing.
The Brewers had a 5-1 lead at the time, and Gallardo had given up one unearned run over seven innings, so his work was done. The Cubs scored three runs in the ninth but lost, 6-4.
If Russell and Gallardo squared off, it would've been the first time since they were high school players. Both grew up outside of Dallas. Gallardo said Russell struck him out the last time they met. That was shortly before Gallardo was drafted by the Brewers in the second round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft.
"I knew he was going to be good at that point," Gallardo said of Russell. "He learned a lot through the years. I think he struck me out pretty quickly."
They have yet to face each other in the Major Leagues.
"If I ever do, I'm pretty sure it will bring back all of those memories from back in the day," Gallardo said.
"One of these days, I'm going to have a big-boy at-bat against him," Russell said.
Gallardo, 26, is now a starter on the Brewers. Russell, 26, is a reliever for the Cubs. On Wednesday, the two National League Central teams will meet for the second time this spring, this time at HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz. There's no chance of a Gallardo-Russell showdown because the Milwaukee right-hander is not slated to pitch.
Russell and Gallardo both remember when they first met. They were 13 years old.
"I remember him and his buddy came up to practice one day," Russell said. "They were in jean shorts and came and tried out for the team, and they both made it, and next thing I know, [Gallardo] is our shortstop and one day, he's like, 'Yeah, I can pitch, too,' and started pitching and it went from there."
How good a shortstop was Gallardo?
"He was pretty good," Russell said. "He could hit, he could always hit. Even when he pitched, he still hit, kind of like all of us."
They were together on the same team, traveling all over Texas to compete in tournaments, then they started playing against each other in the summer rec league.
"It was crazy -- the older we got, the more he'd progress and the harder he'd throw and all of a sudden, he's throwing 94, 95 [mph] and they're talking about him being a big first-round pick and all that stuff," Russell said of Gallardo.
What about Russell? He's the son of a big league pitcher, Jeff Russell, so he must have shown the same potential.
"No chance did I think I'd be as touted as he was," said the left-hander, who attended the University of Texas and was drafted in the 14th round in 2007 by the Cubs. "You could tell [Gallardo] was really good and had the good stuff to succeed in the game."
They did not attend the same high school as Gallardo went to Trimble Tech in Fort Worth while Russell was at Heritage High in Colleyville.
Gallardo did expect to see Russell in the big leagues.
"Way back then, he was such a good pitcher from the left side," Gallardo said. "I remember him playing first base, too, but you saw he was a pitcher. He struck me out a few times and I'm pretty sure I got him a few times. It was competitive."
Gallardo downplays how good of a hitter he was back then. Was Russell a good hitter? Gallardo paused a long time.
"Mostly, he pitched," Gallardo said with a smile.
Russell recalls an at-bat against Gallardo and says the right-hander hit him in the foot with a slider.
"I'm sure he's punched me out plenty of times," Russell said.
The two have stayed friends. In the offseason, they train together in the Dallas area with former big leaguer David Hulse, who played with Russell's father, and Gallardo's agent, Bobby Witt.
"I didn't have anybody I was working out with, training wise, and Bobby's like, 'Hey, why don't you work out with Yovani and David,' and that was a couple years ago and we've been together ever since," Russell said. "We usually do our workouts and lifting and running together. We usually throw on different schedules. I usually start a little earlier."
Being in the same division in the big leagues has simply extended their friendship.
"It's fun," Gallardo said. "You don't see the guys you played against or played with that often, especially a guy you've known for that long. Obviously he's on a different team, but we're pretty good friends."
Russell quizzed Gallardo this offseason about new Cubs manager Dale Sveum, who was on the Brewers coaching staff for the last six years.
"[Gallardo] had nothing but good things to say about [Sveum]," Russell said. "It's cool because [Gallardo] has been doing it a little longer than I have, even though we're the same age. I can still ask him what to expect and stuff like that."
Players can count on their teammates. Russell and Gallardo can count on each other as well.
"He's always been a great guy," Russell said of Gallardo. "He was quiet when we were younger and now he talks a little bit more."
There had to be times when the two would pretend to be playing in the big leagues on those hot summer days in Texas when they were playing in rec games.
"Never would I have thought it would happen," Russell said. "And once I got picked up by the Cubs, I was looking forward to playing against him with the Brewers.
"The plan was for both of us starting against each other but, hey, that didn't work out," Russell said. "Now we can just work on beating him."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter@CarrieMuskat. Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.