Cubs manager David Ross opens up about a job he loves and doesn’t want to lose

“I know I’m not great,” Ross told the Sun-Times. “But I want to be great.”

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Chicago Cubs v San Diego Padres

Cubs manager David Ross takes in a game in San Diego in early June, when the Cubs were nearing the end of a 14-29 stretch.

Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

David Ross could do no right. The Cubs were in a vexing backslide, floundering through a 14-29 stretch from April 22 to June 8, and Defendant No. 1 was their fourth-year manager — once a beloved member of a World Series championship team, but now the focus of fans’ frustration and ire.

Having Patrick Wisdom bunt with two on and nobody out in the seventh inning with the Cubs trailing the Reds by one run? Letting Michael Fulmer pitch to the Dodgers’ David Peralta with men on second and third and two outs in the ninth, and the Cubs desperately clinging to a 1-0 lead? Ordering Eric Hosmer — with three sacrifice bunts in a 13-year career — to lay one down with two on and no outs in the ninth and the Cubs trailing the Nationals 2-1?

None of it worked.

It was all too much.

Get lost, Grandpa.

Or no? Is it possible Ross isn’t such a bumbling, out-of-his-depth skipper after all? Might he even be — brace yourselves — cut out for this line of work?

It turns out the Cubs aren’t half-bad. After winning a rubber match against the first-place Brewers 3-2 Wednesday at Wrigley Field, they are 11-1-1 in their last 13 series and 29-15 — second-best in the National League and fourth-best in the majors — since the All-Star break. They’ve turned down the heat around Ross as they’ve turned it up on the rest of baseball. Maybe Ross even had a little something to do with it.

Are the Cubs a playoff team? It’s looking good.

Too soon to start planning the World Series parade? Uh, yes. One never knows — get into the dance and anything could happen — but this 2023 team might already be pretty close to its ceiling.

“I’ve been around, and I know what championship-caliber teams look like,” Ross said. “We’ve got a little ways to go to get there.”

Is a manager supposed to admit that?

“Is that politically incorrect?” Ross asked.

Nah, it’s just being honest.

Ross was in the mood for candor Tuesday in a conversation with the Sun-Times about a job he loves and — signed through 2024, with a club option for 2025 — doesn’t want to lose.

There are some, he understands, who still doubt he’s the right manager to take the Cubs over the top and would prefer to see president Jed Hoyer seek out a star — the next Joe Maddon, if you will — if and when the World Series window opens wide.

“I don’t have fear of losing my job,” Ross said. “That’s for other people to judge. I have confidence that I am a good manager and I will continue to get better.”

Ross the skipper is no different than Ross the player: competitive as hell, demanding of others but eager to build relationships, and mindful — yet unashamed — of his shortcomings.

“I know I don’t have it all figured out,” Ross said. “I know I’m not great. But I want to be great.”

He has navigated through a pandemic season, through the breaking up of a World Series core and, so far, through a don’t-call-it-a-rebuild that quickly sparked a regeneration of hope on the North Side. There’s more to be done, of course, and Ross’ voice rose as he addressed the topic.

“Am I the right guy to lead this group to a World Series? I damn sure hope so,” he said. “I hope so because I’m here, I give a lot of time and effort, and we all sacrifice stuff to get here, and there’s nothing I want more. I don’t have this life because I just want money or the prestige of being the manager of the Chicago Cubs. I want to give back to the people who have given to me, and that’s Tom [Ricketts], that’s Jed and that’s these players.”

Ross’ relationships with three of those players offers a window into his managing style and disposition. Recurringly, he has asked for feedback from left fielder Ian Happ, shortstop Dansby Swanson and second baseman Nico Hoerner — as he used to ask from ex-Cub Jason Heyward — about what he’s doing wrong and how he can do those things better.

“They’re the guys that shoot me straight,” Ross said. “I can tell when a guy is just fluffing the manager. You know, ‘He’s just being nice to me.’ That’s not how it is with those three.”

Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs

Dansby Swanson (left) and Nico Hoerner have been sounding boards for manager David Ross.

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

For example, Hoerner advised Ross that he was having too many conversations in his office and needed to share more stories and experiences about winning as a player in the open, relaxed space of the locker room. Ross, who views the clubhouse as the players’ domain, didn’t want to come off as an old guy holding court, nor did he want young players to hear his anecdotes as directives about what they should be doing. That had happened before, such as earlier this season when Christopher Morel doused a rally by attempting a bunt — a total gaffe — and then explained himself to Ross by citing a story he’d heard Ross tell a year or two before.

“Just talk baseball with us,” Hoerner told him. “It’s no big deal. We like doing that as much as you do. Don’t always pull those conversations into the office, because it feels like the principal’s office.”

In Pittsburgh during the Cubs’ last road trip, Swanson advised Ross on how to dig in on the topic of game management with catcher Miguel Amaya. Ross had been discussing Amaya — what he was doing well, what he wasn’t — with pitcher Kyle Hendricks and veteran catcher Yan Gomes but wasn’t sure it was a good time to throw too much at the rookie. Swanson gave Ross a supportive nudge.

Ross can be gruff — a red-ass, in baseball jargon — contrary to his warm persona. It surprised him when one of his former Cubs coaches apologized for having moped around for a while after taking something Ross had said during a game personally. Ross hadn’t noticed any of it.

“I was like, ‘You’ve been carrying that around for three days? Why didn’t you come talk to me?’ ” he said. “I feel like I’ve got a good touch for people, but that’s why I’ve got to ask.”

Ninth-year Brewers manager Craig Counsell has a demeanor Ross admires. Ross marvels at another of his favorites, the Rangers’ Bruce Bochy, and the way the three-time World Series winner with the Giants “keeps his emotions like there’s nobody behind the curtain.”

“I wear mine on my sleeve,” Ross said. “I don’t know whether that’s good or bad. The only people who are going to tell me that are the players.”

Would the Cubs be better off with their own Bochy? Should Hoyer try to steal Counsell, who’s in the last year of his deal? Hey, Joe Girardi is available. Aaron Boone and Bob Melvin soon could be, too. These are all just names. It’s easy to drop them. At this point, it’s also kind of silly.

“David Ross is the manager of the Chicago Cubs,” Happ said. “The players have a ton of respect for him. I think the front office does, too.”

“Rossy has done nothing but help us improve in his time here,” Hoerner said. “I think we need him.”

How much does the manager matter, anyway? That’s a big discussion. For what it’s worth, most of the things Ross has been ripped for — from lineups to bullpen use — were products of collaboration with Hoyer and his golf-shirt-clad minions.

“Look,” Ross said, “do I know it all? No. Am I perfect? No. Do I rely on my coaching staff and the players? Yes.

“It’s not about me and [if] I’m the right manager. It’s us as a group, the organization. I’ve been on two World Series championship teams, and I don’t believe the manager is the one that took us to the World Series. I don’t think [Boston’s] John Farrell did it. I don’t think Joe Maddon did it. Joe Maddon was a great manager. John Farrell was a great manager. But it takes everybody.”

Is Ross certain he’s equal to his share of the task?

“I didn’t know I could be a World Series champion until I was,” he said. “How do you know? …

“Every experience I go through, every situation I go through — good or bad — it’s just more affirmation that I’m doing the right things or I have to change. And I’m going to keep doing that the best I can.”

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