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Cubs rookie manager David Ross has given the team just what it needed: Himself

It was never going to be about Joe Maddon-style petting zoos and pajama parties. The expectation was that Ross would be closer — realer — with his players than that and that they, in turn, would be the same with one another.

David Ross on Opening Day, his first game as Cubs manager.
David Ross on Opening Day, his first game as Cubs manager.
Justin Casterline/Getty Images

A sound night’s sleep? Not at playoff time. Not a chance.

Maybe Joe Maddon was wired that way — relaxed, self-assured, imperturbable. But David Ross? The Cubs’ rookie manager is wound up and ticking, almost bouncing off the walls, a 240-pound bale of enthusiasm and nervous energy.

“Of course I get nervous,” he said. “The first day taking my kids back to school, I get nervous. That’s just my personality. And I think it helps me prepare and be ready.”

Ready for Game 1 against the Marlins and all the games after that as the Cubs seek their first World Series title since 2016, Ross’ final season as a player. So ready, in fact, that Ross didn’t get much shuteye Monday night. It felt too much like the eve of the postseason, even though the Cubs don’t take the field until Wednesday afternoon.

“You’re having to kind of say over and over in your head, ‘The game’s not tomorrow, it’s not tomorrow,’ ” he said. “You’re anxious to get started. That’s what all the hard work’s for.”

As the Cubs take on the Marlins at Wrigley Field, Maddon will be behind the wheel of his RV on a four-day drive to his home state of Pennsylvania. His offseason has already started, Year 1 with the Angels having come apart at the seams early. Maddon never had Mike Trout in Chicago, but he never woke up to a 9-22 record there, either.

After their regular seasons ended, Maddon reached out to Ross to congratulate him and let him know he’d made his former skipper proud. That’s class. As for the job Ross has done in succeeding perhaps the best manager in Cubs history, it has been pretty classy, too. Not a copy of Maddon’s approach — not even close — but impressive from the start.

Before Ross managed his first game, Cubs team president Theo Epstein called him one of the most gifted leaders in the game and promised he would become “great.” Skeptics wondered if Ross’ friendships with players would be a drawback, if he’d listen too closely to the front office and not to his inner directives, if inexperience would be his undoing.

But imagine how much Ross must have soaked up from the managers he played for while reaching the playoffs seven times in a 15-year career: Bobby Cox, Bruce Bochy, Terry Francona, Dusty Baker. Maddon, too, of course. Remember that Ross hit .176 for the Cubs in 2015 and became a beloved figure anyway, that he was carried off the field by teammates after Game 7 of the World Series, that Anthony Rizzo couldn’t pay tribute to him at a parade without dissolving into tears.

Ross, 43, isn’t a “Grandpa.” He’s just a rookie. But what he has brought to this Cubs team above all is something it needed. He has been himself. It needed him.

“It’s just the way he comes into the ballpark every single day, just the guy that he is, honestly,” said Kyle Hendricks, who will start Game 1. “You guys know him so well — his energy, the energy he brings every single day, man. . . .

“It’s been unbelievable to play for him and [feel] the trust he has in all of us to take care of our business and do what we need to do. But I think, at the end of the day, the biggest thing is just his energy, energy and passion, how much he loves baseball. You can just see it every day.”

Ross’ time as manager was never going to be about Maddon-style petting zoos and pajama parties. Actually, the expectation was that he would be closer with his players than that — realer, in a sense, and more direct — and that they would become closer and realer with one another, too.

Ross did, indeed, have that effect on the Cubs as a player. He was a mentor to Rizzo, to Jason Heyward, even to crusty old Jon Lester and others. On the regular-season-ending road trip in 2016, Ross was at his best off the field. In Pittsburgh and then Cincinnati, he dragged teammates out of the team’s hotels to greasy spoons for breakfast or lunch. He got in their grills about what a climb to ultimate glory would require. They got whatever off their chests they’d been carrying around. It meant as much as anything that would happen between the lines.

This is the guy the Cubs have in their dugout again. The role has changed. The influence only grows.

“Numbers don’t matter. Stats don’t matter. Mistakes don’t matter,” Ross said. “It’s all about getting the ‘W’ at the end of the game. This is a group that knows about that really well, and, from a manager’s standpoint, it’s nice to be going into this environment with a group that I know really well.”

He’s nervous as all get-out, but it’s a good nervous. And a good manager. They go together.

“Is this something I’m good at? I have no idea,” he said. “You guys judge me on that. My bosses judge me on that. I just try to be myself, learn from my experiences, value the opinions of people around me and communicate with the players what I’m thinking and why I’m thinking those things. I feel like that’s all I can do in this seat.”

So far, it’s working well. The playoffs are a different animal, so we can reconvene when the Cubs are finished playing and see how we feel about their manager then. He’ll probably be taking a well-deserved nap.