Grandpa Rossy, Grand to the End

There was no outbreak of fan excitement when David Ross signed with the Cubs. No grand press conference where dozens of cameras flashed as he put on his new uniform for the first time. The Cubs Shop didn’t offer a sale on authentic number 3 jerseys for Christmas of 2014. And even if they had, the fans who received them would have asked “Why the hell did you get me a Bill Mueller?”

At best, most of us knew him as the part time catcher with the Red Sox who grew a scraggly beard with a huge streak of gray down the middle—the kind of facial hair that usually indicates that your ZZ Top cover band is probably not going to make it after all.

Even couldn’t figure out how to stoke the fanbase for Ross. The most enthusiasm they could muster was “Catcher who works well with left hander inks two year contract.” Despite handing him a two year $4.5 million deal, it seemed that the best thing the Cubs could say about Ross was “He’s Jon Lester’s Oates!”

Which makes what happened over the past two years all the more remarkable. Nobody knew it at the time, but it turned out that on December 20, 2014, the Cubs had signed a folk hero.

Even Ross’s first year with the Cubs held only vague hints of what was to come. His slash line of .176/.267/.252 was the source of much sturm und drang among the members of #cubstwitter who believed with all their hearts that a 97 win team’s season could be derailed by the hitting of a back-up catcher.

Instead, Ross proved his worth in the field last year, contributing 4.4 FRAA in part time duty. His two biggest highlights of 2015 both ended games–the walk-off single where he strategically blooped a pop up into the 1.3 square inches of space that couldn’t be covered by the 2015 Royals defense and the walk-off pickoff of Washington’s Clint Robinson which triggered Ross’s spot-on impression of “every Pantera song ever in three seconds.”

It was the latter moment that gave fans the first hint that in spite of replacement-level offensive numbers, there was something special about David Ross. And the reaction of Ross’s teammates to this bolt of lightning from their catcher’s arm indicated the esteem in which they already held him after a grand total of two months together.

This admiration society between the Cubs roster and Ross continued to grow with the passage of time. Eventually, it flourished so much that his teammates ended up  showing their regards by contributing a lot of work in him becoming such a fan favorite. Indeed, Ross’s current stature is at least partly a tribute to the collective will of his friends to demonstrate how impressive they think he is.

It began in the spring when Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant established the now famous Grandpa Rossy Instagram. As Bryant explained:

“So…me and Rizzo were out at dinner one night before the season started. And thinking how it was Rossy’s last year and all, we were like, ‘We should make Rossy an Instagram account and dedicate it to his final season.’”

And just like that, a nickname and t-shirt empire were born. Bryant and Rizzo had created a new image and public persona for their teammate and 146 thousand followers later, it was clear the fans were on board. As Ross noted in May, “I run in the outfield before the game and… all I hear is ‘Hit a homer, Grandpa. Nobody even knows my first name anymore.”

With one social media account, Bryant and Rizzo proved they were better at promoting David Ross than Major League Baseball was in marketing Mike Trout. While Trout may have had the upper hand on getting his own pair of Nikes, his agent will definitely receive an angry phone call when he sees which player is about to become the face of “Visit Branson!”

Viral videos of Grandpa Rossy’s reenacting The Straight Story on his Rascal Scooter were only the start of his teammates’ contribution to the #YearLongRetirementParty. As the season continued, Jason Heyward revealed that he had paid for Ross to have a hotel suite on every road trip to say thanks for being so helpful when he was a rookie.  Later on, Lester stumped for fans to write in Ross on their All Star ballots.

And while Ross was too modest and self-aware to let his newfound popularity go to his head, it seemed everyone in the Cubs’ locker room was determined to make sure that his acclaim would only continue to grow. Between the Grandpa Rossy persona and the constant songs of praise, the Cubs were telling their fanbase, “This is a very valuable member of our team. You should celebrate him.” And when that message came from a group that won 103 games, it was easy for the fans to respond by saying “Sounds good to us.”

Then to cap it all off, in the last home game of the regular season, this unlikely lovefest culminated in one of the unlikeliest dramatic home runs of all time.

During this past weekend, several big names stepped up to hit clutch homers in their final series with their respective teams. MLB highlights were filled with heroics from All Stars like Ryan Howard and Matt Holliday to a future Hall of Famer in David Ortiz. Each rose to the occasion to thrill their home crowds one more time.

Yet because of the great careers each of these players has had, at a certain level the home runs in their final series were just meeting the expectations they had set for themselves through years of star performances. For comparison’s sake, David Ross has a career ISO of .195. Which would make for the second-worst season of Big Papi’s career.

That’s a big part of what made his moment so special. Any given David Ross homer felt like a rare and precious happening. The fact that he of all people was able to summon up the power to hit one on a night where he was earning ovations just for appearing on the Jumbotron made you wonder if Tom Ricketts had secretly sold the Cubs to Disney.

Then consider this: Ross hit his homer off of Carlos Martinez—the Cardinals’ 98 MPH flamethrower sporting a 3.04 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 8.0 K/9. The degree of difficulty of the final home run of Ross’s career was a far cry from that of his first one off of noted control artist Mark Grace (9.00 ERA/15.96 FIP and 10.6 Marlboros/9. In a twist worthy of O. Henry, when it came to pitching, Grace was the biggest slumpbuster of all time.).

When Ross hit his hundredth homer back in May, he reflected on his curtain call by sheepishly admitting “I’m not used to those,” adding “When the fans are in it, there’s no better feeling in the world. When they bring that energy and they’re cheering for you, there’s no better feeling than that.”

During the last home game of the season, it felt like the fans were trying to get David Ross used to curtain calls by making him take all of them in one night. The raucous expression of pure joy that followed his homer in the fifth felt like the natural response to a genuine baseball miracle.

And then when Joe Maddon went to the mound in the 7th inning to inform Lester that he was getting a new personal catcher, that curtain call was a three minute way of saying “Thank you.” It was appropriate that Maddon would make such an unconventional move to pay tribute. Because as his career came to a close, Ross had become a beloved Cub in the most unconventional way possible.

Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports.

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1 comment on “Grandpa Rossy, Grand to the End”

The CHI Sports Fan (@TheCHISportsFan)

Brilliant write up. “made you wonder if Tom Ricketts had secretly sold the Cubs to Disney” had me in stiches.

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