Former Tar Heels infielder excited about next latest stop

DURHAM — There’s no reason in trying to pin down a position for Michael Russell.

The former college standout for North Carolina is playing for the Durham Bulls. Just where he might appear in the field is a guessing game.

“I think utility is the primary position,” Russell said.

In his case, that could have various meanings. Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said he can see Russell playing any of the four infield positions and in the outfield.

Russell, 25, is mostly glad to have a role after beginning the year at a lower level without a roster spot.

As Tampa Bay’s minor league teams opened the season, Russell hadn’t made the next step to Durham nor was he on Class AA Montgomery’s active roster though he was with the Biscuits.

“It’s hard,” Sandberg said. “Got forced out.”

Once he was activated, Russell strung together good performances for a .343 batting average in 24 games with the Biscuits before last month’s promotion to Durham. He spent all of last season with Montgomery.

“For him to go back there and do what he was doing was a good thing,” Sandberg said. “Like I told him when he got here, he needs to take advantage of it.”

Even with this year’s slight detour, Russell had been on a good path. After 2016 with Bowling Green in the Class A Midwest League, he skipped the high Class A level and went to Montgomery. Sandberg said that’s a noticeable jump.

Russell’s final collegiate game in a 2014 NCAA regional was marred when he was hit in the head by a pitch from Florida’s Bobby Poyner, who has pitched with the Boston Red Sox this year.

The last image of Russell in a Tar Heels uniform included a bloodied face as he received treatment.

That was about the time he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the fifth round. Despite signing, he didn’t play again that year because of a back ailment.

“My back was hurting when I got drafted,” Russell said. “They knew I was going to be out. … I got it taken care of. I’ve had no issues.”

Once his professional playing career launched, he evolved into a player with multiple positions.

“I don’t really have a say in it,” Russell said. “I’m used to it at this point.”

Russell, who’s from the Charlotte suburb of Huntersville, said returning to the Triangle is rewarding. His brother lives in Raleigh and he has had family or friends attend Bulls games regularly the past couple of weeks.

“I’m so happy to be back (in this area),” he said. “I’m just making the most of the opportunity they’re giving me.”