When the Cubs delivered the long unthinkable almost three years ago, about-to-retire veteran catcher David Ross couldn’t be found when the celebration moved to the clubhouse. He’d ducked into the visitors’ weight room in Cleveland’s Progressive Field to repose with his wife and his two children.
A reporter found Ross anyway. And, asked the man known affectionately as Grandpa Rossy whether having been big enough in the Cubs’ century-plus-overdue return to the Promised Land had him re-thinking his intended retirement. “Oh, God, no,” Ross replied. “How can I top this? If I come back, it’ll be to get my [World Series] ring and maybe yell at [Anthony] Rizzo from the seats.”
The storybook Cub season gave Ross his happy ending. As for how he could possibly top that, the former catcher who’s worked since 2017 as an ESPN colour analyst may get his answer, perhaps sooner than he thinks. Perhaps as soon as this off season. If not sooner.
With the Cubs’ continuing collapse ramping up speculation that manager Joe Maddon won’t be offered a new deal to stay with the team he shepherded to that Series triumph and kept in contention since, the list of prospective successors has come to include Ross himself.
September began with the Cubs having a grip on the second National League wild card. A critical four-game set against the National League Central-leading Cardinals in Wrigley Field began with the Cubs a measly three games behind them with an excellent shot at overthrowing them for the division lead. There went that idea.
That series is on the threshold of ending with the Cardinals taking the first three at minimum and the Cubs taking in the possibility that any postseason hope they had this time around is all but over. All three were one-run losses. Two out of three were lost in the ninth inning. Saturday night especially.
After the Cubs had four deficit comebacks they handed an 8-7 lead to Craig Kimbrel. The same Kimbrel who owned one of the game’s most dominant relief resumes before he made closing postseason games for last year’s World Series-winning Red Sox exercises in cardiac crash cart alerts. The Kimbrel who only thought he was going to shoot the moon in free agency last winter anyway, and ended up shooting barely past the antennae atop Willis Tower when he finally signed a three-season deal with the Cubs in June.
The same Kimbrel who returned from the injured list (knee) Thursday and surrendered Matt Carpenter’s tenth-inning bomb that proved the winning run. Saturday night Kimbrel saw and raised. With a lot of help from Cardinals catcher/leader Yadier Molina and shortstop Paul DeJong.
Saturday night he opened against Molina, starting Molina with a climbing four-seam fastball. And, watching it fly into the left field bleachers. Then DeJong checked in at the plate. Kimbrel opened with another four-seamer that didn’t climb quite so high. DeJong had an easier time sending that one over the center field wall. And the Cubs had no answer in the bottom after Kris Bryant opened with a walk off Carlos Martinez.
Thus the first time they’ve lost four straight one-run games since 1947. Overtake the Redbirds for the Central? Second wild card? Not when they’re skidding while the Brewers are on a 13-2 run that began with sweeping the Cubs the weekend of September 6. It put the Brewers three behind St. Louis in the Central and three up on the Cubs for the second wild card.
This is one hell of a way to play the final regular season series at the Confines. Not even Rizzo’s unexpectedly early return from an ankle sprain Thursday—or his opposite field home run in the bottom of the third—proved inspiration enough. And Maddon wasn’t even aware Rizzo would be ready for duty until he heard it from president Theo Epstein after a pre-game press confab.
Which suggests to a lot of observers that Maddon’s days on the Cubs’ bridge really are numbered. No matter that he’s led them on their most successful run since the years of Frank Chance; or, that he kept them in contention, somehow, some way, despite this year’s battle between the injured list and the bullpen over who could do more to sink the Cubs deeper.
And Ross’s name was thrown forth as a prospective successor by none other than USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale, in a column whose headline began by noting not one major league manager was executed yet—four days before Padres skipper Andy Green got pinked after a grotesque 9-0 loss to the Diamondbacks Friday night. “The biggest surprise in Chicago this winter,” Nightengale wrote, “will be if David Ross is not named their next manager by Thanksgiving.”
The Cubs have been preparing Ross, who helped lead them to the 2016 World Series championship and four consecutive division titles, to the heir apparent, and although bench coach Mark Loretta can’t be completely ruled out, they believe Ross will be the perfect fit.
Epstein himself added to the sense of Maddon’s impending non-renewal, never mind that he can be faulted almost as easily for some of this year’s issues by way of a couple of signings here and a dubiously-retooled bullpen there, for openers. “Honestly, we’ve been essentially a .500 team for months now,’’ he’s quoted as having told the Cubs’ flagship radio station. “If you go back twelve, thirteen months, it’s just been marked by underachievement and uninspired play.”
If Grandpa Rossy’s tires are being kicked as a Maddon successor, the “uninspired” portion of Epstein’s comment looms a little more profoundly.
Ross was a journeyman major league catcher respected for his knowledge of the game, his handling of pitchers (some of whom made him their personal catcher, including Jon Lester with the 2013 World Series-winning Red Sox as well as the 2016 Cubs), and his mentoring of younger players. He’d been one of the Cubs’ clubhouse leaders in his two seasons there, and among the more audible whispers coming from the Cubs’ arterials has been how much his leadership has been missed in the Cubs’ clubhouse since his retirement.
The latter came into very close focus during that 2016 Series. When Ross had one horrible moment in the bottom of the fifth, throwing Cleveland’s Jason Kipnis’s squibbler away and into the seats, opening a door for the Indians to shrink the Cub lead to 5-3. And, when he atoned for it in the top of the sixth, hitting a 2-2 service from spent Indians bullpen star Andrew Miller into the left center field bleachers.
Because the television cameras soon enough panned close enough up to Ross and Rizzo at the dugout railing, where Rizzo gripped the rail almost like he was clinging to dear life onto a skyscraper’s fortieth-floor ledge. “I can’t control myself right now,” Rizzo said. “I’m trying my best.”
After Rizzo admitted he was an “emotional wreck,” Ross replied, “Well, it’s it’s only going to get worse. Just continue to breathe. That’s all you can do, buddy. It’s only gonna get worse . . . Wait until the ninth with this three-run lead.” At the Cubs’ championship rally Rizzo’s voice almost cracked a few times while he credited Ross with teaching him how to be a winner.
A lot of speculation has had former Yankee manager (and one-time Cub catcher) Joe Girardi succeeding Maddon if Maddon isn’t offered a new deal. But Girardi’s Yankee exit came under the same circumstances that might block a new Maddon deal. His young Yankee team still underachieved. He, too, lost touch with his front office and clubhouse. And he, too, had a recent run of head-scratchers.
None more head-scratching than his failure to call for a review at once on a hit batsman ruling for Indians outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall with two out in the bottom of the sixth, Game Two, 2017 American League division series. Every television replay showed the pitch hitting the knob of Chisenhall’s bat. A Yankee review would have meant strike three.
Girardi fiddled and got burned. Now the Indians had the bases loaded. And the next batter, Francisco Lindor, hit one off the right field foul pole near the second deck. Turning a potential blowout into a one-run deficit. The Yankees would survive to be pushed home by the eventual World Series-winning Astros in that American League Championship Series, but Girardi’s non-review call still stung.
Reaching for Ross would be the Cubs’ way of gambling as the Yankees did hiring Aaron Boone to succeed Girardi, with a similar lack of managing experience. How has that worked out for the Yankees? Boone’s managed them to back-to-back 100+ win seasons and a division title this year plus a second straight trip to the postseason. Despite leading baseball in the injured list.
He’s not exactly a strategical genius but if managing is 70 percent or more keeping your players on task regardless of onslaughts such as injuries, Boone should be a Manager of the Year candidate. By the Baseball Writers Association of America and the American Red Cross.
When Ross retired, there was speculation enough that managing might be in his future. All other things considered, it might not be that great a shock, even if it might send Cub Country to protracted spasms of joy, if that future proves to be this offseason, if not a little sooner. And if there’s speculation about him taking a team’s bridge, Grandpa Rossy isn’t exactly in a big hurry to shy away from it. He recently admitted as much to FanSided: yes, he’s got the itch to manage.
“That has definitely crossed my mind, with all the rumors that fly around,” he told FanSided‘s Mark Carman last week, referring indirectly to the Cub speculation, though he also said he wasn’t in that big a hurry to see Maddon’s days on the bridge expire. But Ross is still “flattered” by the thought that people think he’s managerial material.
Former catchers are often the first thoughts teams have when it comes time to name a fresh manager. With good enough reason: their game knowledge is often a given, and historically they win often enough.
Four former catchers now managing have division, pennant, and/or World Series rings on their resumes: Maddon, Bruce Bochy, A.J. Hinch, and Ned Yost. Bochy’s retiring from the Giants after this season; Yost is often rumoured departing Kansas City after this season, too. Their predecessors in triumph include Connie Mack, Al Lopez, Ralph Houk, Yogi Berra, Gil Hodges (who converted to first base early in his playing career), Johnny Oates, Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, and Girardi.
Put Ross on the bridge of the right team and he could join that company. Whether the Cubs prove the right team, however, may not be entirely within his control.
“It’s a huge honor . . . People think that you’re the best guy to run an organization . . . [but it’s] one of those things that it’s gonna have to be the right opportunity to come back,” he continued. Especially if it’s one of the teams for whom he played.
“I’ll tell you, my heart definitely itches to get into the dugout at times and to be part of something special that I’ve been a part of before, so there’s a push/pull for sure,” he said. “It’s gonna have to be a unique opportunity to pull me away from my family and the sacrifices you make to be in the major leagues.”
The Cubs have been accused of many things in their history. Lacking uniqueness isn’t always one of them.