‘He’s a natural’: David Ross has been the steadying force the Cubs needed in 2020
David Ross began summer camp by clearly laying out the expectations for the 2020 Cubs: “If they’re passing out a trophy, I want it,” he said.
Well, he’s about to get his chance.
The Cubs kick off the Wild-Card series Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field and it will be the next big step toward that trophy for Ross and Co.
Pick any Ross moment you want from this season — pulling Jon Lester after 5 innings at Wrigley Field; having Javy Báez’s back in Kansas City; benching Kyle Schwarber mid-game one night and sharing a hug with him in the dugout the next.
All those moments add up to one thing: This is David Ross’ team.
He may be a first-year manager trying to deal with a season nobody could have ever imagined, but Ross is very clearly steering the ship.
The Cubs are grateful for that.
As the pandemic has infiltrated clubhouses around the game to varying degrees — including an early-season outbreak for the Marlins — the Cubs went through all of summer camp and the 60-game shortened season without a single player testing positive for COVID-19.
The credit for that goes to the entire organization, but Ross has been the perfect unifying voice to bring everybody together and pulling on the same rope — whether that’s with virus protocols or doing whatever it takes to get a win on any given day.
“He’s a natural,” Theo Epstein said on Marquee Sports Network Sunday. “It was an extremely impressive performance for a first-year manager by any standard. If you set aside for a moment 2020 and the surreal environment everyone was dealing with everyday and just focus on leading the group and running the game on the field. He was excellent as a leader in the clubhouse. He had the full respect of all the players. He was willing to have the uncomfortable conversation when it needed to be had. Willing to make the unpopular move if he felt like it was the right thing in the long run for the group or for an individual player, so showed a lot of courage that way.
“Great job. And then now throw back in everything that’s associated with 2020 and the protocols and separation from family and not having fans in the stands and just the frustrations and stress that players and staff had to internalize day after day after day. Providing the right kind of support and right kind of outlet for that, managing guys’ psyches, managing the collective psyche of this group under these circumstances — heck of a job by David Ross as our leader.”
Ross has to be one of the frontrunners for the National League Manager of the Year and his main competition might be standing across from him this week at Wrigley Field (Marlins skipper Don Mattingly).
In a year where every game took on added importance, Ross is ultra-competitive and shows that edge and passion throughout his daily Zoom sessions with Chicago media. He’s one of the loudest guys in the Cubs dugout every game and consistently helps provide energy for this team to feed off of.
He set a goal for this season to come in as the same person every day — in a light-hearted and positive mood.
“You try to be the same guy and have fun with yourself,” Ross said. “I think good energy and happy people rub off on others. The frustrations are gonna be part of this game always, but being consistent in your attitude is very important.”
He’s also not afraid to admit his weaknesses or when he made a mistake. He’s comfortable in who he is as a person and a leader.
Throughout it all, Ross has kept his sense of humor intact, joking with Schwarber the day after the benching incident and laughing with the media about the second-guessing MLB managers face on a daily basis.
“There’s criticism in this job?” a laughing Ross asked. “You know what, man — they hired me for a reason. I’m gonna come in here, I’m gonna be me, try and do the best I can. I’m not perfect. It’s a hard job. There’s a lot of things going on with it. We’re blessed to have this job, I’m blessed to be a part of this organization.
“I’m gonna mess up. Best thing to do is try to learn from your mistakes. Same thing I ask my players to do. I tell my players when I mess up. I tell my coaches when I mess up. They know. Everybody in the room knows when you make mistakes. They’re not easy decisions, but there’s usually probably 2-3 decisions that you’re working through in each moment that you make a move and then you choose the best one you feel like will set you up for success. And sometimes, it doesn’t work out. That’s just the facts.
“The outcome dictates a lot. If your players have success — even if you make the wrong move, it looks like the right move. And if you make the right move and it doesn’t work out, it looks like the wrong move. It’s kind of a lose-lose in that way and you try to do the best you can and process all the information. That’s all I feel like you can do in this job. Best foot forward and you live with the consequences.”
The Cubs have certainly enjoyed the culmination of all Ross’ decisions to this point.
Despite some atypical seasons from the core group on the roster in an abbreviated season, Ross steered the Cubs to a division title and has found a way to get everybody to buy in to put the team’s performance ahead of any individual goals.
When he took the job, one of the expectations laid out for Ross was to hold this group accountable and help try to coax the most out of the team.
When asked the difference between this team and the 2019 Cubs that faded down the stretch and ultimately missed out on the postseason, Schwarber credited Ross.
“Coming into the season with Rossy and his expectations with us and how he’s held us accountable throughout the year, I think it’s been unbelievable,” Schwarber said. “That’s not a knock on Joe [Maddon] at all. Just being able to have Rossy and know what he’s going to expect out of us and he’s going to hold us true to that. And to have our players hold ourselves to that, as well, where we can really fall back on each other.”
Ross has a longstanding relationship with a lot of the guys on the current roster from his playing days with the Cubs in 2015-16. One of the main reasons he emerged as such an important leader for those teams was his ability to communicate effectively and have hard conversations.
That hasn’t changed.
“He’s the same guy in terms of he can deliver a stern message, but he’s got so much respect for the guys that they take it in the right way and listen,” Jed Hoyer said. “He’s been stern when he has to be stern and he’s been supportive when he needs to be supportive.”
Above all, Ross cares.
The players, this team, the front office, the fanbase, winning — Ross cares about it all.
He feels everything he does, every decision he makes.
“I’ve got a job to do that has responsibilities that I take very seriously and I try to make the best decisions I can for this team that I’m in charge of,” Ross said. “The longevity in this job is not very long, so I would like to do things the way that I feel like sets up success. So I have that in my heart and then I also have these guys that I’m very close to.
“I love these guys like family. When you take Jon Lester out at 62 pitches, it hurts my heart. When I take Kyle Schwarber out of a game, it hurts my heart. It’s tough. You don’t sleep. But I’m trying to do the best I can. The fact that they respect me and give me that respect even in tough situations, I’m thankful for that.
“I’m thankful for the character of the group that I get to manage. It’s a character group — it always has been ever since I’ve been here. It’s a character organization, but the group of players in that room have high character and hold each other to a high standard and I think that’s a benefit for me. I benefit from that. I don’t think they benefit from me — I benefit from their character and the way they act and carry themselves and handle adversity, handle tough moments.”