South/North Xtra: After 7-year hiatus, Lebo grad a hit with Bellevue

FEDERATION LEAGUE BASEBALL


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Brad Russell had not picked up a baseball bat or saw live pitching since 2005 when he got the call from a friend this spring asking if he wanted to join the Bellevue team in the Greater Pittsburgh Federation League.

When Russell last played, he was helping lead the Clairton Orioles to a Federation League championship against St. Johns Lambros.

After seven years away from the league, Russell has discovered that not too much has changed.

In the six seasons of Federation League baseball he missed, St. Johns has won every league title. The only thing that really changed is the name of the league's dominant franchise -- it's now called St. Johns-Lefty's.

Russell, a 2002 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate and still a Lebo resident, found he can still play baseball.

Russell, 28, jumped at the chance to play baseball again. He had been playing semipro arena football with the Steel City Speed in Harmarville until a concussion put his tackle football career on hold.

Baseball has always been Russell's passion and favorite sport. As a junior and senior at Mt. Lebanon he played in back-to-back WPIAL Class AAA championship games at PNC Park.

The Blue Devils were runners-up in 2001 to Franklin Regional and won WPIAL gold during his senior season in 2002. He was an all-section shortstop that season.

In college Russell played two seasons at CCAC-South.

"Then I had to decide to follow my dream or go to work," Russell said.

He chose work and joined the local boilermakers union, but the desire to return to a baseball diamond stayed with him.

Russell is the only player in the eight-team Federation League who has won a league title on a team other than St. Johns. It is a valuable asset to have for a team such as Bellevue, which is trying to unseat the perennial "kings" of the league.

"It is pretty crazy they have dominated the league like that," Russell said. "There is great talent in the league and great players. St. Johns has always been tough. I recognized quite a few of the guys [this year]. It is nice to see them all still playing."

Everybody is always chasing St. Johns-Lefty's in the Fed League and this year is no different. The reigning league champs are 12-0 with Bellevue (9-4-1) and Steel City Blacksox (10-6) behind them in the league standings.

"Brad Russell has just been phenomenal," Bellevue co-manager John Katich said. "We can play him anywhere."

Despite that lengthy absence from competition, Russell is batting .480 this season. He plays mostly in the outfield and middle infield.

"For years Brad has been one of those guys you always took notice of," Katich said. "Whether it was at pro tryouts or all-star games, he was always one of those guys who stood out. Brad is fast as lightning and he is just an all-around good baseball player and I know he takes a lot of pride in his game. He has been the most welcome addition to the team."

When he got the call to join Bellevue this year, Russell began taking batting practice two weeks before the season started.

"I just have a love for the game," Russell said. "Nothing has really changed about the league. The pitching is always there. Everybody is hard-nosed. Everybody plays hard and everybody loves the game."

Already Russell can see some similarities between his Bellevue team this year and his 2005 Clairton team.

"It is a similar group," Russell said. "We all have that fire to win."

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