Hit hard on the personal front, Cubs’ David Ross keeps managing with a positive outlook

Underneath his endearing smile, his warm demeanor and his determination to remain successful in the big leagues, the new skipper has been wearing the pain of a divorce. Says Ross: “I don’t know if I could’ve taken this job without some of the things that happened in my life.”

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David Ross leads a drill at Cubs spring training in Mesa, Ariz.

David Ross leads a drill at Cubs spring training in Mesa, Ariz.

John Antonoff/For the Sun-Times

MESA, Ariz. — David Ross tried to look on the bright side. What else was there to do? Positive thinking is baked into the rookie manager’s bones.

He was home with the flu, and that meant missing what should’ve been his first game as Cubs skipper. And his second. And his third. It was only spring training, but still. What kind of twisted feel-good narrative was this?

Again, though: the bright side. There was one. There always is.

“I didn’t have to talk baseball with anybody,” he said. “Literally, it was just me and my dog. The more I’m doing this job, you’re having a lot of conversations with different people, whether it’s small talk or being interviewed or talking to players or front office or training staff. You’re just always having conversations. Some quiet time was really nice.”

Quiet time often surrounds Ross when he’s at home. It’s just a 42-year-old man and his puppy, Maya, a bernedoodle Ross bought in August. That’s a Bernese mountain dog and poodle mix, in case you were wondering. Ross sometimes wonders what the heck he was thinking.

“You can’t travel with a dog [in] baseball,” he said. “When is there a good time to get a dog? It’s really never.”

But then he always remembers. There was a reason, a mighty good one.

“My kids wanted a dog my entire career,” he said. “And I promised them they’d get one when I was done playing.”

The ex-Cubs catcher spoke often in 2016, his final season as a player, about winding things way down and spending more time with his family in retirement. But he has stayed quite busy — “Dancing with the Stars,” an ESPN gig, now managing — as many people, and perhaps he, too, simply are wired to do.

Time goes by. Things change. No, we’re not talking about having or not having a dog.

Ross’ marriage is over, his divorce from Hyla Ross, the high school sweetheart whom he married in 2005, finalized. Landri, Cole and Harper Ross continue to live in Tallahassee, Florida, their parents’ hometown, with their mom.

Underneath his endearing smile, his warm demeanor and his determination to remain successful in the big leagues, Ross has been wearing the pain of this. He hasn’t discussed it publicly until now.

“It’s not really the storybook ending I think my baseball career had,” said Ross, who was carried off the field in Cleveland after Game 7 of the World Series. “It’s definitely tough to swallow. Your ego takes a hit, your pride takes a hit and who you are — your plans, your dreams, all the things that you thought you had set up and were working for — [takes] the biggest hit.

“But I also have a faith base where I feel like God has a big plan for me and has a bigger picture for me that sometimes I don’t understand. My biggest failures in life, or the biggest trials I’ve overcome, have lifted me up on other platforms that I wasn’t expecting. So that’s the way I’m looking at it.”

There it is: at least the hint of a bright side.

“I try to learn from every experience,” he said. “I could definitely be a better person, a better dad, a better husband, a better brother. There’s a lot of room to improve and just another lesson for me in some areas, some hard lessons that I’ve got to learn from.

“I don’t know if I could’ve [taken] this job without some of the things that happened in my life.”

At the top of his list of concerns is, naturally, his children’s happiness. As long as they know Mom and Dad love them, the center should hold. They all came to Mesa for the long Presidents Day weekend. They’ll be back for spring break, and there are stipulations in Ross’ contract with the Cubs related to seeing them during the season.

Ross FaceTimes with the kids every night, hears about Landri’s travel volleyball, Cole’s baseball games and everything else from serious to silly. He makes sure Maya gets to say hello, too.

“I got the dog,” he said. “Now they’ve got to come see me to see the dog. Collateral, right?”

•••

Ross easily could play the “no respect” card with the 2020 Cubs. He could drill into their collective psyche the fact that a whole lot of people expect them to be run-of-the-mill, nothing-to-see-here, yesterday’s news.

“But that wouldn’t be me,” he said. “I’m just not a negative person. This is a negative game, but my heart is to try to find the positive in a negative situation.”

Ross’ eyes were opened in a fateful manner in 2008, his last of three seasons playing for the Reds. Frustrated about his playing time, he walked into manager Dusty Baker’s office in early August and “said some things that I shouldn’t have said.”

He was put on waivers and released. -After the Red Sox picked him up for the final month of the season, general manager Theo Epstein hit Ross right between the eyes.

“Your reputation is that you’re a bad teammate and you only care about yourself,” -Epstein told him.

Hello, dark side.

“I don’t think that was my intention, but surely it was true,” Ross said. “I was consumed with my career and still learning how to be a big-leaguer. When you’re sitting at home on waivers, you’re like, ‘It’s pretty good to be in the big leagues, I don’t care what your role is.’ ”

A month in Boston helped Ross learn to value winning above all else. The ensuing four years with manager Bobby Cox in Atlanta helped mold him into a positive thinker.

There was the night Ross took the golden sombrero — four strikeouts — from the great Roy Halladay. As Ross dragged his bat back to the dugout, certain he wouldn’t get to play for a while, Cox patted him on the butt and said, “Man, that guy looks nasty today.”

“I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, maybe I don’t stink so bad,’ ” Ross recalled.

When Ross beat himself up for calling a pitch turned on by a batter for a homer, Cox sat with him and asked if maybe the pitcher had simply failed to execute it.

“It really changed my outlook on just figuring out what the mistake was and learning from it,” Ross said. “Find the positive.”

Ross was the backup to Brian McCann — one of the game’s most respected leaders — and gleaned little things from fellow teammates Chipper Jones, Eric Hinske and others that were all about word choices and subtle interactions.

“I was like, ‘Why am I not doing that to people?’ ” Ross said.

When Jason Heyward arrived in 2010, Ross took him under his wing. Six years later, Heyward repaid Ross by upgrading his hotel rooms to suites every night the 2016 Cubs were on the road to make it easier for Ross’ family to enjoy his final lap around the league.

The affect Ross’ personality and leadership had on the curse-busting Cubs was real. To know that, one must simply remember Anthony Rizzo’s tears from the podium in Grant Park. Getting carried off the field after Game 7 — but we’ve mentioned that already, haven’t we? — kind of says it all, too.

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven

Teammates carried Ross off the field after Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

But let’s recall one turn of events in the World Series against the Indians, anyway. After the Cubs lost Games 3 and 4 at Wrigley Field to fall behind 3-1 in the series, Ross — Jon Lester’s personal catcher — knew at least that Game 1 hadn’t been the final start of his career. He’d be strapping on the gear for Game 5, and he was jacked sky-high about it. When a pissed-off teammate threw his glove in the clubhouse after Game 4, Ross’ voice took over the room.

“No, no, no! No, no, no! Daddy’s playing tomorrow! Don’t you rain on my parade!” he boomed. “Do you know how many dudes would give their right legs to play in a World Series game at Wrigley Field tomorrow?”

As Ross warmed up Lester in the bullpen the next night, Jason Aldean’s “Gonna Know We Were Here” roared through the stadium. Ross was so amped up, he screamed the lyrics right there in his squat. Then he took the field and steered Lester through another clutch postseason outing, drove home the winning run with a fifth-inning sacrifice fly and nailed Francisco Lindor — the potential tying run — on a steal attempt to end the critical sixth.

“Talk about a positive mindset,” Ross said.

No chance the Cubs fly that banner without him.

•••

Ross hasn’t managed a regular-season game, but the rave reviews are already in.

“He knows exactly how to push some buttons and get the most out of people, too,” Kyle Schwarber said.

“He’s exactly what we needed,” Yu Darvish said.

“He’s perfect for the job,” Kris Bryant said.

All the Cubs’ star players have Ross stories. Take Schwarber, who has a penchant for obsessing over batting practice when he’s struggling at the plate.

“Dude, you’re a really good hitter,” Ross has encouraged him. “Try to remember that and relax a little.”

When Ross was still playing, Javy Baez — just beginning to assert himself as a full-fledged member of the Cubs’ core — peppered Ross with questions. Not that Ross minded dispensing advice, but finally he advised the young, ultratalented infielder, “Don’t ask too much. Let the experience teach you.”

“He makes us relax,” Baez said. “He teaches us how everything is, step by step.”

Ross’ big bet on Bryant — batting him leadoff — could be just what the doctor ordered for a superstar whose own positive nature has sagged at times over the last two seasons. Maddon was unable to figure out what to do at the top of the order after the organization cut ties with Dexter Fowler. A large part of the problem was, of course, what Epstein and company gave Maddon to work with. But Maddon never went all-in on Bryant as a possible solution.

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’m super excited about it,” Ross said. “I would hate to be on the other side and look at that big boy step in the box to lead things off. This is one of the best players in baseball. [Him] at the top of the order and how he goes about his business, I want that representing our team night in and night out.”

Chicago Cubs v Seattle Mariners

Ross intends to have Kris Bryant in the leadoff spot this season.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After one conversation about it with his new manager, Bryant — already under a glaring spotlight, his future with the Cubs in doubt — bought in.

“He has a way of communicating, a way of going about his business that really gets the best out of you, the most out of you,” Bryant said. “And he’s just a really positive person.”

Also, there is the unique and potentially delicate case of longtime workhorse Lester. It might simply be that the lefty’s best days are behind him, and not because his former personal catcher hung up the mask and chest protector. Time waits for no man, not even the starting pitcher who rolled the dice on the Cubs as a prized free agent in 2015.

“Don’t take any of this for granted,” Ross has told him. “When you’re done, these guys won’t talk about your numbers. They’ll talk about what kind of teammate you were and how you affected them. Think about the weight you carry when you walk into this locker room, how much your voice means and matters. It matters a ton.”

That’s one hell of a bright side.

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