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From buddy to boss? It’s the big ol’ ‘but’ that comes with Cubs’ hiring of David Ross

Even in their brief statements released to the media — which typically are handled with sunshine, rainbows and praise — both Theo Epstein and Ross clearly felt there was an elephant in the room that needed to be addressed.

Chicago Cubs Victory Celebration
It wasn’t long ago at all that David Ross (far right) was just one of the guys.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There were no “buts” when the Cubs hired Joe Maddon nearly five years ago. Team president Theo Epstein called his prize catch “one of the very best managers in baseball,” and it was the plain truth.

Doubts? Zero. That goes for the views from outside the organization looking in, too.

It’s different with David Ross, whom the Cubs officially announced Thursday as Maddon’s successor. How to put this?

Ross has a big ol’ “but.” Well, a couple of them.

One, he has never managed or coached before. Two, he played with — and is friends with — members of the team.

His lack of experience is an obvious issue, yet it’s the latter “but” — the buddy-turned-boss dynamic — that clearly is of greater concern to the Cubs.

Even in their brief statements released to the media, both Epstein and Ross invoked this “but.” Ideally when a sports team hires a manager or head coach, there isn’t any such explaining to do; it’s all sunshine, rainbows and praise.

So the fact that each man felt there was an elephant in the room that needed to be addressed kind of stood out.

“David’s connection to the organization and his relationships with his former teammates could be assets initially, but they are not factors in our decision, nor will they be critical to his long-term success in the role,” Epstein said. “He earned the job on the merits, and he will move the team forward in a new and different direction.”

Ross addressed his relationships with Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward, Jon Lester and other Cubs players even more directly.

“A lot has been made, and rightfully so, of my connection to the 2016 World Series team and the notion that I’ll now be managing players I once counted on as teammates,” he said. “Having those relationships going into this will be a bonus, no doubt about it, but those guys know I’ll be the first to hold them accountable, the first to demand their best daily effort and the first to let them know about it if they give anything but their best.

“I never had a problem dishing out a lot of tough love as their teammate, and that won’t change as their manager. We’ll have our fair share of fun along the way, but working hard as a team, playing fundamental team baseball and winning a lot of games will be our top priorities.”

At only 42, Ross is the youngest Cubs manager since Jim Riggleman, who also was 42 when he was hired in 1995. Ross agreed to a three-year deal — two fewer years than Maddon got — with a club option for 2023.

Whatever doubts exist about Ross, there can be no mistaking his history as a winner. In a 15-year major league career, he played on seven teams that reached the postseason and won World Series with the Red Sox in 2013 and the Cubs in 2016.

He also played for a who’s-who of managers including Bobby Cox, Bruce Bochy, Terry Francona, Dusty Baker and Maddon.

There’s a lot in the sunshine-and-rainbows column. There are a couple of “buts,” too.

Epstein has his guy, though, and there’s no looking back.

“David is as gifted a leader as I’ve ever come across, and I expect him to become a great manager,” Epstein said. “He is a natural connector with a high baseball IQ and a passion for winning. David has always stood out for his ability to cultivate the ingredients of a winning culture: accountability, hard work, hustle, competitiveness, trust, togetherness and team identity.”