Any manager who’s been in Major League Baseball long enough will have some crazy stories to tell. Cubs coach David Ross didn’t even make it through a full spring training before things got weird.
Ross’s first 21⁄2 years on the job featured a 60-game season, a trade deadline that dispatched a third of its opening-day roster, and the second-longest work stoppage in MLB history.
What a way to start a new chapter in a career.
Ross received rave reviews from his employers for the way he handled the circumstances. He was a National League Coach of the Year runner-up in his first season on the job in 2020. But 2022 will be the first season he is expected to manage under, if not completely normal, circumstances with the season delayed, something close to the usual.
The season should shine a light on the 45-year-old manager’s potential.
“He’s already a great manager,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said at the end of last season, “and he has a chance to be really special in this job.”
The return to normal could have several effects. Ross could thrive with his focus devoted to baseball, rather than being pulled right and left by health protocols and dramatic turnover. Or a closer look — too many bigger factors were at play over the past two seasons to put Ross under a microscope — might reveal blind spots. Some of the two could also turn out to be true.
One thing is certain: Ross knows how to adapt to the unexpected. When navigating the COVID-19 shutdown and associated protocols became a big part of his job in 2020, Ross joked that it wasn’t mentioned in the interview process.
Ross, who had played for the Cubs in the last two seasons of his career (2015-16), was with a familiar organization and managing former teammates in his first season at the helm. But the job would have been an adjustment even without a pandemic halting spring training, banning fans from baseball fields and shortening the season.
He was hired, in part, to hold his team – and his former teammates – “accountable”. And during his introductory press conference, he got to work dismantling the “Grandpa Rossy” narrative, which painted it in a softer light.
“I think the biggest thing with Rossy is just his energy,” pitcher Jon Lester said of baseball’s 2020 comeback. “The presence he brings when he’s in a dugout or in a clubhouse “He demands respect. He demands attention to detail. And guys know that when you show up every day.”
“So when we’re doing our job, you feel like he’s always watching you. Not in a bad way, but you want to do the right things to keep the line moving offensively or keeping the line moving as far as our rotation.
When the Cubs brought in Ross, little did they know they were also hiring him to guide his team through an unprecedented season affected by a global pandemic. But he also got high marks for it, leading the Cubs to the NL Central title and a 34-26 record.
“The mental aspect of this season is something that I don’t think we talk about enough, with what these guys have to go through every day,” Ross said at the end of the season. ”It definitely takes a toll.”
The Cubs looked good on the field, for the most part, until a slippage in late September and an offensive meltdown in the playoffs. The veteran team, with its championship core still intact, was swept in a three wild card streak by the Marlins.
The Cubs offense fell flat. But the same thing had happened to the same group under Joe Maddon, Ross’ predecessor, suggesting a problem in roster construction. When the punching power dried up, the production also worked.
In its second season, Ross faced a whole new set of unexpected challenges.
The Cubs front office had made it clear that the team was heading into a transition phase. So many of its stars were approaching free will that a core breakdown was inevitable. But at the start of the season, it was unclear whether the Cubs were headed for a sellout at the trade deadline.
Ross basically managed two teams in one season.
To start the season, he had a veteran group that included Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez, all 2016 World Series champions. Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera, opening player Joc Pederson, fast outfielder Jake Marisnick and starting pitcher Trevor Williams.
A late June/early July slump, which featured an 11-game losing streak, was the writing on the wall. It was marked by an unstable launch at the start.
Ace Kyle Hendricks often starts the season slow, but he had his worst performance of April in 2021. The veterans the Cubs thought they could get the most out of in a new environment — Jake Arrieta and Williams — posted superior ERAs at 5.00 before the deadline. And Zach Davies, the only big player the Cubs traded in from Yu Darvish the previous offseason, had the worst season of his career.
Still, the Cubs had a chance to tie the Brewers for first place in the NL Central when they visited Milwaukee the last week of June.
Instead, the Cubs lost all three games. Adding insult to injury, in the final game of the series, they lost a seven-point lead in the first inning.
The following week in Philadelphia, the Cubs’ losing streak extended into double digits, and Ross was ejected from a game for arguing over balls and strikes.
“When you’re going through what we’re going through right now,” Ross said then, “not hitting our abilities and things aren’t going your way and you can look back on them, there’s some frustration. ”
The Cubs’ action against the trade deadline bolstered their farm system, which they had exhausted during their championship window, but those moves did little to replace losses on the big league side.
Ross faced the final months of the season with an inexperienced team plummeting in the standings. And, on the personal side, he has just said goodbye to his former teammates and friends.
“There was a moment where I shifted gears to say, ‘OK, let’s see what we have,'” Ross said after the trade deadline. “Let’s see who can impact us. Let’s see who’s going to make their name and start impacting this uniform – this organization – in a positive way to get back to where we want to be and play championship-caliber baseball.
The Cubs haven’t returned to playing championship-caliber baseball. They went 21-37 after the deadline and failed to qualify for the playoffs for only the second time since 2015.
Even so, the second half of the season had its feel-good stories. Third baseman Patrick Wisdom, who had been in the rookie of the year conversation for a while, continued to show his power, finishing with a team-leading 28 homers. First baseman Frank Schwindel, who was taken off waivers before the deadline, achieved cult hero status, thanks to a torrid August and September.
Although the Cubs went on another double-digit losing streak in August, they pulled off a seven-game winning streak in September and won four of their last five games.
“David has done a fantastic job as a manager,” Hoyer said after the season. “He learned a lot on the job. Even while learning, I think he excels. He kept his spirits up. He manages the staff very well. I love having him as a partner. Our hope is certainly that David has been here for a long time.
Hoyer clearly expects the experience of the past two seasons to pay dividends for Ross. Either way, whether it turns out as Hoyer hopes or not, Ross already has a wealth of managerial stories to tell.