David Ross was certainly an unconventional choice for Cubs manager for the next three years (at least!), even as he was a popular selection by Theo & Co.
Ross has no managerial experience. There have been several managers hired with no previous credentials in recent years, with mixed results. Robin Ventura did all right for a year or so with the White Sox, then the team collapsed and he was let go. On the other hand, Aaron Boone stepped right in with the Yankees and did a spectacular job mixing and matching players to replace a large part of his roster who were injured.
Before I tell you more about Ross, a little history lesson.
Hiring a manager who was a popular former player was something done frequently by many teams — more than half a century ago. As baseball is a reflection of society, that is what happened in many businesses. There are many stories of people who started at a company in the mail room and worked their way up to become company president. That doesn’t happen now. If you start in the mail room and are good at your job, maybe you wind up running the mail room. Companies now hire MBAs and others with similar degrees to run their businesses, regardless of whether they know that company or not. It’s the same in baseball now, especially in front offices, not so much in field management.
The last Cubs manager who previously played for the team (save an interim stint by Bruce Kimm in 2002) was Don Zimmer. But Zimmer didn’t fit the profile of player, then coach, then manager without leaving the club. He left the Cubs in the 1962 expansion draft and played for and managed several other teams before returning to the Cubs in 1988.
But from the 1930s through the late 1950s, almost all the Cubs managers were guys who had played for the team: Rogers Hornsby, Charlie Grimm, Gabby Hartnett, Phil Cavarretta, Stan Hack and Bob Scheffing. The only exceptions to that run were Jimmie Wilson (1941-44) and Frank Frisch (1949-51). Other teams did this too; except for Leo Durocher’s eight-year run there from 1948-55, the Giants had a homegrown manager every year from 1903 until 1977, when they hired Joe Altobelli.
The point of this little history lesson is to say that the hire of Ross is kind of a throwback to that era. Most of the men I mentioned as Cubs manager had no such experience when first hired. Granted, the job of managing is far different now than it was then, but I think Ross’ experience as a player and as a front office special assistant, five years in the Cubs organization, gives him a good grasp of what the requirements of a modern manager are.
One way you can find out what kind of manager Ross will be is to read his book. Seriously, read it. It’s a great insight into Ross the person, and how he made himself a better teammate after being told, when the Reds released him and the Red Sox picked him up in 2008, that he’d developed a reputation as sort of a malcontent. As I wrote in my review of “Teammate” two years ago:
This chain of events made Ross think quite a bit about what it meant to be a good teammate, and he resolved at that time to work hard to do everything he could to achieve that goal. The description of how he went about this is one of the most fascinating things about the book, and indeed about the career of a man who was a backup catcher, but who became an important figure in the history of two baseball teams.
Theo and the Red Sox quickly found out how baseball-smart Ross was. From the foreword Theo wrote in Ross’ book, quoted in this Sun-Times article:
“The third-string catcher was not usually present, let alone vocal [in those meetings]. Except David,” Epstein wrote. “He spoke up early and often, in a strong and authoritative voice, making insightful points about every opposing hitter.
“ ‘That was impressive,’ I remember telling assistant general manager Jed Hoyer. ‘We should keep an eye on him . . . might make a scout or coach when he’s done playing.’ ’’
This is exactly what’s happened with Ross. He showed those insights in his two years as a player with the Cubs, and this week Patrick Mooney quoted Ross in this article in The Athletic as to what sort of manager players might expect in 2020:
“I hope there’s a little bit of shock for the players,” Ross said. “I’m kind of relying on that. I want to be different. As much as Joe brought to the table — and I respect all that he’s done. I’ll keep a lot of the music on, I like the vibe that he created. (But) I think I’ll mix up some things early on.”
“After five years, I think (change) is a good thing,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Sometimes that change may be shocking a little bit. Maybe it creates different awareness. When you go through the same routine over and over, sometimes there can be a sense of staleness. I think the fact that he’s going to do things differently is great. He gets a chance to be the manager of the Cubs. He’d be crazy just to do the same thing.”
What does Ross want to change, exactly?
“There’ll be a little bit more structure,” Ross said. “I want some guys working together. Not guys on their own plan. I want to do things together and recreate that bond.”
The lack of “structure” is something the front office mentioned several times during the 2018 and 2019 seasons and again after replacing Joe Maddon with Ross. This doesn’t diminish anything Maddon did as Cubs manager. Personally, I will always be grateful for the culture change Maddon brought to the Cubs clubhouse, the winning attitude instilled there, and of course the World Series ring.
But what Hoyer and Ross say above is absolutely correct. It’s been said that Maddon was exactly the right hire for that particular moment in Cubs history. I can’t help thinking that David Ross is exactly the right hire for this moment in Cubs history. As Ross said in Mooney’s article:
“My goal is to win,” Ross said. “I think the guys, as the roster stands right now, this is a group that is expected to win. I think we’ve got a chance to win the division and the World Series. There’s a lot of talent in this group and my expectations will never falter from that. I won’t ever not expect to win the World Series, that’s for sure.”
Amen. I wish David Ross all the luck in the world. Who knows, maybe there will be another scene of Cubs players carrying him off the field in some not-so-distant October or November