When David Ross signed with the Cubs two days before Christmas, 2014, few expected him to bring much to the table with his bat in the new season. That’s good; low expectations have thereby saved thousands of fans from disappointment. Ross has put up a .211 TAv over 168 plate appearances in 2015, which is the 11th-worst mark among the 353 players with as much playing time, and the fourth-worst among catchers in the same category. But Ross wasn’t brought to Chicago for his bat. And although his defense has been consistently above average at catcher—Baseball Prospectus has him stealing strikes for Cubs pitchers at a prodigious rate—he wasn’t brought in for his defense, either. Ross was brought in for what he could do in the clubhouse.
And what is that, exactly? Well, I can’t pretend to know what goes on in the clubhouse on a day-to-day basis—I just haven’t been here that long. I don’t know what Ross says or does when he’s working with pitchers on the field before the game, or sitting next to an Addison Russell or a Javier Baez in the dugout of a 12-inning slog. And I don’t know if Ross is the kind of guy who takes the rookies on the team out to dinner on a regular basis, and makes sure to pick up the check every time. He might be. He might not be. I don’t know. But I do know what I saw with my own eyes in the clubhouse this week, and that’s this: Ross is the guy who talks to everybody.
He’s the guy who’s walking down the narrow aisles on either side of small plastic folding tables, dispensing pats on the backs and hands on shoulders as he goes. He’s the guy who settled in to the folding chair next to a seated, towel-clad Anthony Rizzo, leaning forward on his elbows as he quietly went over Rizzo’s last few at-bats with him. He’s the guy who bowed over the table where Pedro Strop, Javier Baez, Manny Ramirez, and Starlin Castro were having breakfast, and grabbed a tortilla from the pile in the center of the table. I’m guessing he’s the only man allowed to do that in front of Manny Ramirez.
As I watched him go about his business, I started to wonder: how do you get to this point in your career? When Ross hit the majors with the 2002 Los Angeles Dodgers, he was only 25 years old. That was a team full of established veterans: Kevin Brown, Marquis Grissom, Eric Karros, and Paul Lo Duca were all there to set the squad straight when it needed it. Surely Ross wasn’t the ‘glue’ guy of the team then, with so many other leaders—but, then, maybe he was. I decided to ask him: is the role he has on these Cubs one he’s always filled, or is it something that grew over time?
“I think it’s something that grew gradually,” he said. “I think as a veteran role player you pull from your experiences to help out other guys. So you need experience, and each environment that I’ve been in I’m able to pull from those moments in my career, to kind of help me along and give advice or say stuff in the dugout or during the game, or whatever it is. I pull from all those experiences.”
So here’s Ross, today: the product of his experiences. Aren’t we all? Of course, the potential has always been there—you don’t just become a good guy out of nowhere, and by every account Ross is the consummate good guy—but the respect that comes along with his years in the game has gone a long way to making him the player and contributor he is today. His success on the field last year (with the Boston Red Sox) doesn’t hurt either.
“Winning always helps; when you’re on winners and can talk about winning,” Ross told me. “Obviously winning a championship, that’ll put a little something on the resume.”
That’s something this Cubs front office was almost certainly looking for when they brought Ross in this offseason. As my colleagues have pointed out on numerous occasions, this 2015 club is a very young team—and their success at this age is almost unprecedented. Entering spring training, it wasn’t at all clear that the team would be able to come together at the start, or thereafter maintain the pace they set through the grind of a long season. That’s where someone like Ross comes in and becomes invaluable. I asked him if it was difficult to come into an environment this spring where almost nobody—save Jon Lester and a few others—knew him.
“I think when you’re in the same organization for a long time, you gain a respect from the people that you’re around the most,” Ross said. “I think every time you go into a new clubhouse you have to earn that respect—you have to earn that. I don’t know if one’s harder than the other [coming to a new team versus staying on one team your whole career]. It’s harder to be consistently a leader, and a good guy, and do the right thing.”
There was a pause here, as I considered my next question, and Ross took the opportunity to flash a smile and drop a wry quote: “It’s a little easier to pretend to do it [be a leader] like I do when I go to new teams.” I laughed when he said that, but maybe I shouldn’t have. These young Cubs might have taken the league by surprise this year, but they aren’t pretending any more. All that stands between them and immortality are 10 regular season games and 12 games in October. If they manage to get to the top of the mountain—and believe me, every single person in that clubhouse is working as hard as they can to make it happen—then David Ross will be a big reason why. Leadership wasn’t something he was always able to contribute to the men around him. He can do it now, and it’s paying off in a big way for the Chicago Cubs.
Lead photo courtesy Steve Mitchell—USA Today Sports.