‘What is normal anymore?’: Cubs are counting on David Ross to lead organization into new era
Less than an hour after the Cubs put the finishing touches on their Opening Day victory, the media was gathered around Willson Contreras’ locker.
As the catcher was discussing how proud he was of the Cubs’ offense, David Ross strolled into the clubhouse to talk to Nico Hoerner — the only other player in an otherwise-empty locker room.
Ross and Hoerner chatted for a couple of minutes and the Cubs manager confirmed the next day it was about the team’s long-term plan to keep everybody healthy and fresh all season.
Hoerner had just hit a homer to help lead the Cubs to victory but Ross was planning on starting Jonathan Villar at shortstop in Friday’s game and wanted to explain the reasoning to Hoerner.
“It’s about communicating to those guys and making sure I’m getting ahead of that,” Ross said. “I try not to do one of my things — if you go deep the day before, you’re not sitting the next day. So I told him that: ‘Like, hey, you hit a homer today and I’m gonna go against everything in my gut but it makes the most sense long-term.'”
That situation is a perfect snapshot of who Ross is as a manager and why he has been so effective as a leader early in his coaching career. In March, the Cubs showed their faith in Ross by giving him a 3-year extension through 2024 with a club option for 2025.
It helps that he played in the big leagues for 15 years, won a pair of World Series and can relate to players in so many different ways.
He played in big markets (Chicago, Boston, L.A.) and small markets (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati). He was a starter and a backup and a personal catcher. He can talk hitting and catching but also worked closely with pitching staffs.
So when he talks to a player like Hoerner and explains why the young shortstop was going to be on the bench the day after hitting a homer, he can empathize with the situation on a very real level.
“I used to get pinch hit for and even though I knew I was probably an out, it still sucks getting pinch hit for. It’s the same concept,” Ross said. “Just communicating with those guys and let them know I can relate to how they feel and here’s my thinking and if they have a problem, they’re free to address it.
“I have a lot of decisions like that to make throughout the season and so the more I try to let them into my thought process, I always like transparency and I try to be that way.”
It was also impactful how Ross chose to have the conversation with Hoerner — at his locker, in the clubhouse.
Every manager has his own unique style and standard operating procedure. Some skippers avoid going into the clubhouse at all and prefer to have conversations in their offices.
Yet there was Ross again Sunday morning, strolling through the clubhouse and interacting with players.
It feels refreshing and notable — and not just because it has been over two years since media was allowed into the clubhouse.
Ross’ focus is all about communication and in some regards, his style has not changed much since he was a player and leader inside the clubhouse in 2015-16 when he helped guide a young Cubs team to an NLCS appearance and a World Series title.
“There definitely are some small differences but by and large, it’s the same guy,” Kyle Hendricks said. “He was doing the same things, walking into the clubhouse like, ‘what’s up boys? Good morning.’ Same thing coming in as a manager.
“Obviously there’s just so much more responsibility in what he has to deal with on a day-in and day-out basis. Other than outside forces, the way he carries himself and the way he is around players is very, very similar.”
Some things, however, are different.
Ross’ leadership style as a player has translated well to his time as manager but there have still been new experiences he wasn’t anticipating.
“The thing that I didn’t recognize about a manager is just how much you need to communicate with so many different areas and different departments,” Ross said. “And make sure you’re on top of getting everybody’s voice and listening to that. Having the tough conversations if you need to to help out in certain areas.
“The other thing is players deal with a lot off the field as well. Having some tough conversations where guys are going through certain things at certain times — that stuff stays pretty private for a manager and I see why. You get different conversations of stuff that I had no idea the manager dealt with.”
While Ross’ communication style and leadership skills have been evident since his time as a player, he is always looking to hone his skills. So when he had the opportunity to meet with Mike Krzyzewski in January, Ross jumped at the chance.
The legendary Duke basketball coach was in the midst of his final season at the helm and two months before he led his team to a storybook Final Four run, Krzyzewski met with the Cubs manager in Tallahassee, Fla. — Ross’ hometown. Duke was in town to play Florida State University and the two coaches share a common link in Don Yaeger.
Yaeger wrote Ross’ book, “Teammate,” and attends Duke’s fantasy camp every year, forming a relationship with Krzyzewski in the process. “Coach K” is also a Chicago native and Cubs fan, as is Jon Scheyer, Krzyzewski’s heir at Duke.
“Any time I get to hang around somebody like that and pick their brain about what their messaging is, how they go about teaching, what their communication style is with players — all that stuff,” Ross said. “I try to take from every aspect and see if I can’t pick up a nugget or two that would help me in my career.”
Hendricks believes Ross’ vast experience in the game serves him well as a manager. From managing the media and expectations in big markets to a long list of teammates and coaches he has learned from.
For example, Ross has a good feel for what Seiya Suzuki is going through as he transitions from Japan to Major League Baseball. Ross played alongside such players as Hideo Nomo, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Koji Uehara and managed Yu Darvish.
He also can relate to what Clint Frazier has gone through. The Yankees released Frazier in November after the outfielder spent years dealing with vertigo and vision issues that stemmed from a concussion.
The Cubs scooped up Frazier on a 1-year deal in December and Ross — who has plenty of experience with concussions from his playing days — has talked at length with the slugger about how to deal with scary head injuries.
“He’s just a special guy,” Hendricks said. “He’s one of those guys that everyone can look to — everyone wants to look to. Not many people want to take on that responsibility but he’s totally cool with it and fine with it. He knows how to do it.
“You can tell how much he cares, putting in the time with each individual guy. He gets to know you. He knows what makes you tick and so it becomes pretty simple when he knows which buttons to push. He knows when a guy has to be pushed a little bit or when he needs to back off.”
Ross is ultra-competitive and wants to win every game but he also knows how to strike the balance between being serious and having a good time.
“It feels like it’s gonna be a really relaxed environment,” said Frazier. “You’re coming here to work but you’re gonna have fun in the process too.”
Yan Gomes signed with the Cubs just before the lockout, reaching an agreement on a 2-year deal to stabilize the team’s catching depth. He is a 10-year MLB veteran and has seen plenty of winning in his time, too, with 5 separate trips to the playoffs in his career including the 2019 World Series championship with the Nationals and the 2016 Fall Classic with Cleveland.
Gomes is obviously still fresh into his Cubs career but his impression of Ross has been as advertised.
“We all see from the outside — even playing against him for a while — he’s just an easy guy to like and an easy guy to play hard for from a manager’s standpoint,” Gomes said. “Really just an easy way of communicating. He’s done it for so long that he knows how to come up to guys and just chit-chat or tell them something.”
Hendricks holds a special place in his heart for Ross, who caught the right-hander for 5 games between 2015-16 and helped mold Hendricks into the pitcher and person he is today.
In all 3 seasons Ross has been at the helm for the Cubs, he has tasked Hendricks with taking the ball on Opening Day to set the tone for the team.
It’s that same confidence and belief Ross has instilled in Hendricks from Day 1.
“There probably aren’t enough words to even say what he means to me, honestly,” Hendricks said. “The impact he’s had on me. … He’s always been there for me. He’s always had confidence in me.
“I can’t thank him enough for how he’s handled me and our relationship through this whole time — playing and managing. It’s been a seamless transition and the respect level is massive.”
When the Cubs hired Ross in October 2019, it was those communication skills and his breadth of knowledge on the game that made the team feel like he was the right choice to lead from the top step of the dugout.
Nobody could have imagined what was coming next with a worldwide pandemic and a four-month shutdown. Ross’ first game as a manager was in an empty Wrigley Field in late July to kick off a strange sprint of a season.
He captained the ship during all that turmoil and uncertainty and led the Cubs to the NL Central title and a trip to the playoffs in 2020.
Last year, Ross endured a long, grueling season that saw ever-changing COVID protocols, a never-ending injury list and nearly half the schedule was in the books before Wrigley Field returned to full capacity. Of course, there was also the Cubs’ trade deadline sell-off where several of his former teammates and franchise cornerstones were dealt away.
“He’s had to deal with real adversity, real uncertainty and he’s done it really smoothly,” Jed Hoyer said after the Cubs signed Ross to the extension in March. “Players love him, as they should. Coaches love working with him.
“He’s a great representative of the organization. The manager, in a lot of ways, has to be the face of the franchise. Talks to [the media] twice a day, is on video twice a day. I can’t imagine anyone representing us better than he does.”
As this past Spring Training came to an end, Ross stood outside the Cubs’ locker room in Arizona and pondered a question about how 2022 will be more “normal” than his first two seasons as manager.
“What is normal anymore?” Ross said, laughing.
He’s right. 2022 won’t be “normal” after a shortened spring and a bunch of new rules in place, including the universal designated hitter.
But he was quick to give a shoutout to his coaches for helping to put the team in a position to deal with all the twists and turns.
“I gotta be honest, my coaching staff makes my job really easy as far as adjusting and planning,” Ross said. “I’m very fortunate in that regard.”
Through all that adversity and uncertainty, Ross has put his stamp on the organization at every level.
Take last fall, for example.
It would have been completely understandable if he wanted to get away from the stress and recharge after the regular season ended, but instead he chose to immediately head to Arizona for the instructional league.
Ross wanted to get his eyes on some of the organization’s top prospects but he also wanted to chat with the Cubs front office and coaching staff to make sure everybody was on the same page with little details in development with baserunning, fielding, etc. He has seen a lot of winning over his career and wanted to instill some of those concepts and that culture with players while they’re young and coming up through the Cubs’ system.
“He [wanted] to make sure he’s down there and delivering that message,” Hoyer said last September. “As much as other people can say it, when the major league manager says it and the guy you desperately want to play for, I think that resonates in a different way.
“I love the fact that he wants to do that. All of our conversations about building the next great Cubs team, he’s totally on board. He’s into imprinting it in the right way and I love that passion.”
In February as the MLB lockout dipped into the typical Spring Training schedule, Ross roamed the backfields at the Cubs’ complex in Mesa, Ariz., evaluating young players and getting to know some of the young prospects.
“If I can go back to my minor league days a long time ago, the big league manager is like this daunting figure — somebody you don’t know and you see him on TV and stuff,” Ross said. “I just wanted to go down there and ask them where they’re from, introduce myself, tell them where I’m from. Anything we can relate to — talk catching, talk hitting.
“Just engage in their personalities. Just get to know them as humans. They’ve got a long road ahead of them to get to the major leagues and a lot of adversity and good and bad things are going to happen to them.
“The more I see them in the weight room, I can say, ‘hey.’ I think that’s just kinda my thing. I like to engage everybody and make sure they know I’m just a redneck from Tallahassee.”