Any manager who has been in Major League Baseball long enough will have wild stories to tell. Cubs manager David Ross didn’t even make it through a full spring training before things got weird.
Ross’ first 21⁄2 years on the job have featured a 60-game season, a trade deadline that sent out a third of his Opening Day roster and the second-longest work stoppage in MLB history.
What a way to start a new chapter in a career.
Ross has received rave reviews from his employers for the way he has handled the circumstances. He was a National League Manager of the Year finalist in his first season on the job in 2020. But 2022 will be the first season he is set to manage under, if not entirely normal circumstances with the season delayed, something approximating the usual.
The season should shed light on the potential the 45-year-old manager has.
“He is already an excellent manager,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said late last season, “and he has a chance to be really special in this job.”
The return to normalcy might have several effects. Ross might flourish with his attention devoted to baseball, rather than being pulled right and left by health protocols and dramatic turnover. Or sharper scrutiny — too many larger factors were at play the last two seasons to put Ross under a microscope — might reveal some blind spots. Some of both also might prove true.
One thing is for certain: Ross knows how to adjust to the unexpected. When navigating the COVID-19 shutdown and related protocols became a big part of his job in 2020, Ross joked that it hadn’t come up in the interview process.
Ross, who had played for the Cubs in the last two seasons of his career (2015-16), was with a familiar organization and managing former teammates in his first season at the helm. But the job would have been an adjustment even without a pandemic halting spring training, banishing fans from ballparks and shortening the season.
He was hired, in part, to hold his team — and former teammates — “accountable.” And at his introductory news conference, he got to work disassembling the “Grandpa Rossy” narrative, which painted him in a softer light.
“I think the biggest thing with Rossy is just his energy,” pitcher Jon Lester said when baseball returned in 2020. “The presence that he brings when he’s in a dugout or in a clubhouse, he demands respect. He demands attention to detail. And guys know that when we show up every day.
“So when we’re out doing our work, you kind of feel like he’s always watching you. Not in a bad way, but you want to do the right things to keep the line moving offensively or keep the line moving as far as our rotation.”
When the Cubs brought in Ross, they didn’t know they also were hiring him to guide his team through an unprecedented season altered by a global pandemic. But he earned high marks for that, too, leading the Cubs to the NL Central title and a 34-26 record.
‘‘The mental aspect of this season is something that I don’t think we talk about enough, with what these guys are having to go through every day,’’ Ross said late that season. ‘‘It definitely takes a toll.’’
The Cubs looked good on the field, for the most part, until a late-September skid and an offensive collapse in the playoffs. The veteran team, with its championship core still intact, was swept in a best-of-three wild-card series by the Marlins.
The Cubs’ offense fell flat. But the same thing had happened to the same group under Joe Maddon, Ross’ predecessor, suggesting an issue in roster construction. When power hitting dried up, so did run production.
In his second season, Ross faced a whole new set of unexpected challenges.
The Cubs’ front office had made it clear that the team was heading toward a transition phase. So many of its stars were approaching free agency that a breakup of the core was inevitable. But it wasn’t clear as the season got underway that the Cubs were heading toward a sell-off at the trade deadline.
Ross essentially managed two teams in one season.
To start the season, he had a veteran group that included Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javy Baez, all 2016 World Series champions. After the deadline, all three were gone, along with closer Craig Kimbrel, setup men Andrew Chafin and Ryan Tepera, leadoff man Joc Pederson, speedy outfielder Jake Marisnick and starting pitcher Trevor Williams.
A late-June/early-July tailspin, which featured an 11-game losing streak, was the writing on the wall. It was marked by shaky starting pitching.
Ace Kyle Hendricks often starts the season slowly, but he put together his worst April performance in 2021. The veterans the Cubs thought they could bring the best out of in a new environment — Jake Arrieta and Williams — posted ERAs of higher than 5.00 before the deadline. And Zach Davies, the only big-leaguer whom the Cubs got back in the Yu Darvish trade the previous offseason, had the worst season of his career.
Still, the Cubs had a chance to tie the Brewers for the top spot in the NL Central when they visited Milwaukee in the last week of June.
Instead, the Cubs lost all three games. Adding insult to injury, in the last game of the series, they blew a seven-run lead in the first inning.
The next week in Philadelphia, the Cubs’ losing streak stretched to double digits and Ross was ejected from a game for arguing balls and strikes.
“When you’re going through what we’re going through right now,” Ross said then, “not hitting up to our capabilities and things don’t go your way and you get to look back at them, there is some frustration.”
The Cubs’ trade-deadline action bolstered their farm system, which they had depleted during their championship window, but those moves didn’t do much to replace losses on the big-league side.
Ross faced the final months of the season with an inexperienced team free-falling down the standings. And, on the personal side, he just had said goodbye to former teammates and friends.
“There was a moment there where I switched gears to, ‘OK, let’s see what we’ve got,’ “ Ross said after the trade deadline. “Let’s see who can impact us. Let’s see who’s going to make their reputation and start to impact this uniform — this organization — in a positive way to get back to where we want to be and play championship-caliber baseball.”
The Cubs didn’t get back to playing championship-caliber baseball. They went 21-37 after the deadline and failed to make the playoffs for only the second time since 2015.
Even so, the second half of the season had its feel-good storylines. Third baseman Patrick Wisdom, who was in the Rookie of the Year conversation for a while, continued to show off his power, finishing with a team-leading 28 home runs. First baseman Frank Schwindel, who was claimed off waivers before the deadline, reached cult-hero status, thanks to a red-hot August and September.
Though the Cubs had another double-digit losing streak in August, they pulled off a seven-game winning streak in September and won four of their last five games.
“David has done a fantastic job as a manager,” Hoyer said after the season. “He’s learned a ton on the job. Even while learning, I think he’s excelled. He’s kept morale good. He’s run the staff very well. I love having him as a partner. Our hope certainly is that David’s here for a long time.”
Hoyer clearly expects the experience of the last two seasons to pay dividends for Ross. Either way, whether it pans out the way Hoyer hopes or not, Ross already has a trove of managerial stories to tell.