Doug Glanville

Old players make young managers: How the Cubs' hiring of David Ross reflects both an organizational and league-wide culture shift

Old players make young managers: How the Cubs' hiring of David Ross reflects both an organizational and league-wide culture shift

Whenever a new manager is chosen to lead a team, there are questions, but new Cubs skipper David Ross is far from an unknown. He was, after all, a key piece in the 2016 run that led the Cubs to their first championship in 108 years. Now, he will have to follow the success of Joe Maddon, the man who led that 2016 team.

Grandpa Rossy as he is affectionately known, paid his dues over a long playing career and since retiring after the 2016 World Series, has had the opportunity to work as a special assistant and commentator. In that sense, Ross represents a shift in how managers are chosen. Once the analytics world became a fixture in how major league organizations evaluate, develop and project talent, the leaders tasked with implementing these new approaches in-game evolved, as well. 

This change in Chicago represents how the past hands off to the future in major league baseball. From Maddon to Ross. 

Maddon hit every station in the Angels system to reach his first managerial job in Tampa Bay: hitting coach, minor league player, scout, player development, bench coach, you name it. He became a manager after seeing the game from every perspective. Ross will emerge from what has become the path of today: groomed in the Cubs system off-the-field, educated in algorithms and team methodology, untainted by the gut of bias, comfortable with blending the will of the front office with the stubbornness of big league egos to get results.

These days you must be a communicator, and not just to your players, but also as a bilateral through line that connects the decisions of the administration with those enacting said decisions between the lines. Players must believe in you first and foremost, and now they must also believe in your information and its value to their performance. Ross will be armed with a whole host of personnel to make that easier. 

In his interview, Ross was tested by his ability to handle press conferences in addition to being assessed on his ability to run a team. That distraction is a real thing, and reconciling it means possessing the skills to buffer the team from infiltration and preserve trade secrets, while simultaneously engaging the press to maintain fan interest and access. And, on top of all that, he’ll have to produce winning results. 

You no longer need ‘experience’ in the Maddon sense of the word to be a big league manager. To a large degree, experience now can be trained, calculated, bought, engineered and imitated. Players know Ross well, and his biggest challenge may actually be transitioning from respected elder and fun teammate to a boss, someone who you must defer to when your name is not in the lineup.

How easy is it to go from teammate to boss?

Looking around the major leagues, the formula has worked fairly well thus far. The league is now full of managers with little managerial experience before their current jobs that laterally moved into their roles after being exposed to the recipe for success. Their age is closer to that of their players, they’re nimble, open, flexible and possess the energy for the marathon that is a MLB season. All without the baggage of recalling managerial success from a time that has long past. 

Ross, it should be mentioned, also brings the perseverance of a warrior back-up catcher, a station that provides little in the way of job security. He endured knowing he was perpetually one day, one pitch, one failure away from a minor league assignment. By the time Ross retired in 2016, it had been 10 years since he saw a season with over 200 at bats. He was efficient, with strong leadership skills, pitch-calling abilities and game management senses. Any player with substantial time on the bench and in the bullpen, who took the time to observe and absorb the calculations of running a game, can gain great insight into being a manager.

I spent a good chunk of my big league career as a starter and it wasn’t until I rode the bench for a big part of the 2002 season that I started really thinking ‘with’ the manager. What situation would he put me in? When would he double-switch or get the setup man up? What pitches was he calling? It was a front row seat to how to run a game. 

The relentless spirit it took for Ross to continue to carve opportunity out in the big leagues is a trait that can translate well. He left no stone unturned and became well-acquainted with the struggle of the day-to-day that makes up major league baseball. He knows the marathon well.

He will inherit a challenging environment of talented players who are more comfortable (since 2016) in who they are as players. El Mago, KB, Contreras and Rizzo have hit the highs and lows of their games. Still hungry, but more settled — yet as a unit, heading in the wrong direction in relation to the goals set up by Cubs leadership. 

With change comes a culture shift, and this shift will now come from an entirely different in-the-field leadership profile than the Cubs have had in quite some time. In getting used to gelling around someone who is familiar as a teammate, but not necessarily as the guy making the lineups, there will be a steep learning curve, and Ross will have to set the tone. There is plenty of unknown.

For Theo Epstein and company, this is a departure from the leadership he has worked with in the past. In sparking the revolution he brought into baseball that ended two long streaks of championship futility in Boston and Chicago, Epstein has often leaned on experienced managers. 

Epstein has thrived in being the youthful voice, acting as the GPS of a ship with a steady captain — one with ample experience, patience and sound instincts. When I showed my 10-year old daughter a picture from when Maddon was let go with Theo Epstein in the photo, she first assumed Maddon was Epstein and Epstein was Maddon because of their age difference, saying, “I thought the older person would be the boss.” 

Now, Epstein will continue on as the Cubs’ GPS, but will have to add some automatic functions and trust those around him, as the team’s new captain (that Epstein hired) puts the keys in for the first time. This is a new ocean for him, providing him the chance to set all kinds of cultural markers and train within his methodology. The drawback for Epstein is he will be more exposed since, should the Ross era turn out poorly, the accountability may start shifting to the system itself instead of the guy on the dugout steps.  

There is less cover now. Ross will not fall short from leaning on stodgy norms built from decades in the dugout, but he could prove to be the wrong fit at the wrong time for the system. Managers are now disposable assets, surrounded by potential replacements in the dugout or fluttering around the front office as special assistants. They can be plugged in and unplugged as needed. If the system is sound, many can have success in it. But the question is, who can win it all?

As we sit here today, the Washington Nationals are on the cusp of shocking the world. They currently hold a 2-0 lead over the near-flawless Houston Astros in the World Series and have already knocked off two Cy Young caliber pitchers with relative ease. It all goes to show that having a dynasty is a fleeting concept when, at any time, a team can emerge and disrupt destiny. It turns out it is not easy to run the table multiple years in a row. Someone gets in the way as the rule, not the exception. The Cubs found this out after the 2016 season. And now, new culture has arrived.

Soon we will find out what the new Cubs culture will be like. Ross will set some of that tone as he gains a feel for what works. The “player’s manager” label will be connected to Ross in a different way than it was with Maddon. They both shared the trait of likeability and maybe they will both be known to give the players free reign to be themselves. 

A manager with that label, when he wins, is often  framed as having just the right touch of anti-establishment. Quirky and self-confident. They go against the grain, and have both the respect of their players and command of the locker room. But when a manager of the ‘likeable’ description loses, he’s called too cozy, out of touch and too worried about what the players think about him. It’s a fine line. 

These days, the managers who are young and recently retired like Ross are automatically player’s managers in part because they probably could still play. They are extensions of the dugout and locker room, voices who can bring high level information and deliver it to players in a relatable way. 

Current and recent managers such as Aaron Boone, Alex Cora, Mike Matheny, Robin Ventura, Craig Counsell, Walt Weiss, Gabe Kapler and many others have arrived in such a way. Many have had immense success. Ross could join in that success in Chicago.

The culture has shifted in Chicago towards youth, modernity, infrastructure, connectivity and nostalgia. The Cubs can still win with the talent in that locker room. 

They will just have to learn to do it in a way that is different than what ended 108 years of an empty trophy case.

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The biggest hit of your career and how you got there

The biggest hit of your career and how you got there

During the post-game interview of Game 3 of the NLCS in 2003, I was asked the question that is often asked when a player has a special moment on the big stage.

“Was this the biggest hit of your career?”

The 2019 Cubs are down to crunch time. Every pitch, every relay throw, every call to bullpen gets more consequential every day. The cliché of taking one game at a time carries more weight, even when you are peeking at what the other teams in the race are doing.

In 2003, we were watching the Astros and the Cardinals, like our brothers were playing on those teams. This season, it is the Cardinals and the Brewers.

Even though it is natural to look ahead or even over your shoulder, a player’s arrival to these moments is the sum of the moments from the past.

Nothing brought that into focus more than my journey to the 2003 postseason by way of the Texas Rangers.

When I was traded to the Cubs by the Rangers in 2003, it was at the end of July. Before that, I was playing in the American League for the first time, head buried in figuring out new stadiums and opponents in the AL West and light years away from knowing what was going on in the NL Central.

By the time I was traded, the Rangers were dead in the water, even with a lineup that was loaded with great bats. I spent a good chunk of the first half recovering from a torn hamstring, the first serious injury of my big league career. Wrigley might as well have been on Mars.

The cliché of taking one day at a time gets reinforced when you are working on an underwater treadmill hoping your hamstring will be the same as it was before the injury. One day at a time becomes one minute at a time, and life slows down. Even as you are counting down the minutes left on that treadmill, at 32 years old and fully dependent on a game based on speed, you are wondering if this countdown is actually a timer on your career.

I had already tried to choose a different path than the linear one I was offered during free agency the previous offseason. The straight-line choice would have kept me in Philadelphia. The safe choice where I had been for five years already. I lived there, I went to college there, my Mom lived less than two hours away. They even offered a better contract. But I left in the spirit of betting on myself because the Marlon Byrd Era had started in Philly, and the Doug Glanville Era was coming to a close, at least the one that made me a starting centerfielder.

I was determined to sign with a team that would see me as a starter even as I was approaching my 33rd birthday. That was what Texas represented. I could bounce back from a tough year and play for many more years. That was the plan. A torn hammy was not in the plan.

When I finally returned to the Rangers lineup, I was coming off my first minor league rehab assignment, battling Double-A and Triple-A pitchers with a limp. Within six weeks of finally getting healthy and back to my best baseball, I was traded to the Cubs.

When I arrived, the Cubs were a .500 team. No guarantee of postseason glory was offered. But we scrapped and battled to a division title and my first (and only) postseason appearance. My one at bat in the NLCS came after Dusty Baker asked me if I could play infield after we clinched the NL Central, correcting my negative answer to help me understand that being the emergency infielder was the only way I could make the playoff roster. Since I hadn’t played infield since I was 11, I wondered… How did I get here?

The big hit finally came on that big stage against the Marlins, in the form of a triple. It makes sense that it was the biggest hit in my career in terms of audience, but then I remembered all of the steps along the way.

I had to leave Philadelphia to arrive. I had to be far from the game during my rehab program to get close. I had to limp through hamstring exercises before I could run again. I had to learn to exist without my father who had passed away the last game of the previous season to be my own man. Just getting in the batter’s box seemed miraculous.

When I signed with Texas, there was no reason for me to think I would end up in Chicago in a batter’s box that I had stood in tens of times as a member of the Phillies. But here I stood.

Today, in my line of work as an baseball Insider, we are often required to make predictions, to weigh the information in front of us and make our best guess as to what will happen. A ballplayer knows the impossibility of such forecasting because of experiences like mine that tells us how little control we have in what comes next. We can do our best to be prepared and ready for opportunity.

A team is often the sum of these personal journeys. Nico Hoerner was drafted barely over a year ago, fresh off of a college experience, trying to adjust to life as a professional and then suddenly, he was in Wrigley Field, 22 years old and a key part of the Cubs chances. Javy Baez had to get hurt, Russell had to get hit in the head, the front office had to do their scouting. All of it mattered to the realm of Hoerner’s opportunity. And now, he could be a difference maker. Ask him if he expected that on draft day.

When Andrew Benintendi, the Red Sox first round pick in 2015, was called up in a similar fashion in 2016, I talked him before batting practice at Fenway Park. I asked him, “Did you think you would be here so quickly?”

He looked at me in the middle of a stretch and just shook his head with this look on his face that said “not a chance.” He was good enough talent-wise, but there is nothing like actually being in the reality of the dream. It still surprises, yet now he is a world champion.

The Cubs are here as the sum of all of their stories. Ben Zobrist had to return, Yu Darvish had to find his best game and get healthy, Nicholas Castellanos had to be the best version of his game, Jason Heyward had to struggle in the leadoff role to thrive lower in the lineup. It all mattered.

In this roller coaster season for the 2019 Cubs, we saw a team with high expectations. A talented team that had one goal. A world championship. By this standard, they declared that they had underachieved last year even after winning 95 games.

In a blink of an eye, a division that the Cubs were struggling to hold on to, looked lost as the Cardinals got hot in August. But all of a sudden it is in reach again. It was not the path planned, but it still has a path to where they want to go. Unscripted, improvisational, and in the final stretch.

And somewhere in these final two weeks, a Cubs player may be asked the same question.

“Was that the biggest hit of your career?”

And I would like to offer this answer.

Yes, because I am here now and that was never guaranteed.

Enjoy the ride and don’t forget to look out the window.

Ben Zobrist - The Immeasurable Big League Life

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USA Today

Ben Zobrist - The Immeasurable Big League Life

Last night, Ben Zobrist returned to the Chicago Cubs after an interrupted 2019 campaign. Personal reasons shelved him for nearly 4 months and in a triumphant return to action last night, he looked like a step ahead of his competition. At 38 years old, he has defied age throughout his consistent career, and now he has the new challenge of having to rev up an engine that had been out of competition for nearly an entire season.

During my playing days, I knew there would be a time when I would be the old guy in baseball. An age that in other industries would be the first step to hitting your stride, not the last. Downhill comes quickly in major league baseball. Quicker than you realize. Soon you are entering that period when you have less years in front of you than behind. And then it ends.

I always thought it would be the usual reasons that my career would disintegrate. The ones that always creep up as a player enters their early 30s. Injuries, skill decline, technology, analytics, youth. As a young player in the big leagues, you see it in real-time by watching the veterans.  I recall when Shawon Dunston had back surgery and the impact it had on his speed and health. Or when Kevin Tapani was trying to recover from the effects of having a great splitter, which had contributed to his being on the injured list. Age is unfriendly, especially when you are on a team that is not in contention. Note to self.

Then it happened to me, after a game in San Francisco against Giants, my bat speed publicly came into question, I knew this was possible, but never knew what it would look like to the outside world. Has my bat slowed down? I feel fine.

Baseball is a game that constantly measures and compares. The decline of a player’s skills are inevitable, it is the “when” that an organization wants to understand, and for the player, he wants to be in denial for as long as possible, hoping results are still in his favor.

This has been always true of Zobrist’s game, the situational guru, the fundamentally sound producer that combines excellent mechanics, with good decision-making and balanced high level skills. He embodies Joe Maddon’s philosophy to a tee.

Yet skills often live in the world of the measurable. Bat speed, pop time, home to first, velocity, spin rate…. A change in these quantities can be easy to note, but Zobrist is a qualitative player that takes layers of stats to unpack. If you can unpack his value at all.

In describing his game last night, he was critical of his timing, knowing that the last thing to return from such a long hiatus is timing. The stride, the hands, the triggers, everything that comes naturally to hitting a baseball, has to be synchronized again in the big league world, Wrigley Field is a tough place to be back in spring training with the stakes that exists for the Cubs at this juncture.

He still found other ways to have a positive impact, as he always has. A decoy on a would be base stealer to create double play, running first the third on a ball hit in front of him, laying down an immaculate bunt for a hit, playing solid defense. He clearly kept his core instincts sharp and now, he can work towards re-mastering the rhythm of big league games that come at him every single day.

There was criticism of Zobrist early in the season because his power game seemed to have escaped him. He had no homeruns, one extra base hit before he played in his last game (May 5th) before last night. Yesterday, we saw what a player can bring without hitting the ball over the fence or even out of the infield.

His return also reminded me of another lesson from my career. Your life off the field matters significantly to everything you are as a player. Your ability to focus, to have peace, to feel supported, to endure. So much of it connects to the relationships around you. In my case, the decline of my father’s health over a three year period during my career brought it all into focus like no slump could ever do.

Learning that he had a major stroke was the moment I realized that it is not just the measurable skills that age us, it is life coming at us like the nasty down and away slider that it can be. Bliss is a big part of enjoying major league life. The candy store of tasting the rainbow of big league life gets a sobering gut-check when your father checks into the hospital. Where did my childhood go?

It is the invincibility that we associate with a kids’ game, the innocence, the fun, the big money and big stage. You play as long as you can, for as long as you are productive and healthy, independent of the rest of the world. Nothing can hurt you in that bubble. But the world has other ideas, humbling us with the great reminder that the world continues to revolve, long before you realize that you lost a step from home to first.

Then, when you stop to get off the big league ride, it is disorienting. Your family has changed, moved, aged, died, got married during that stellar 15 year career. They learned to live in your absence, learned to not depend on you, learned to not distract you from the self-centered focus that is required to be a major leaguer, often at their own expense.

In an interview with long-time Washington Redskins’ head coach, Joe Gibbs, he was honest about all the time he missed in his childrens’ lives. Then he described the moment when he decided to make a career shift. I will slightly paraphrase but he said…“I bent over to kiss my son good night……and there was this….beard.”

It is not unlike coming home from a long cruise. We spend so much time adjusting to the open water and navigating potential seasickness on the party ship that we forget that we must adjust again when we return to land. Imagine doing this after being in big league oceans from nearly two decades.

A career is short in the grand scheme. Even shorter when we take away the “just learning as a rookie” or “battling age on the back end,” stages. The sweet spot is sweet and as the late Ken Caminiti once said to me in spring training “this is the greatest game in the world…..when you are playing well.”

Maintaining that production feels like it is in our hands, like the bat itself. An extra session in the cage, a workout, a massage therapist, a dietary change will do the trick. Sometimes this is true, yet other times, it is just life that refuses to be measured by wins above replacement. Then it stops you in the middle of your hitting streak like a brick wall.

Ben Zobrist’s return was inspiring, playing the game in the most complete fashion, a style that can get lost in the Launch Era. He also serves as a subtle reminder of what is at stake in these games. Not just the post-season or the wild card, a batting title, or a empty leadoff slot. It is the quiet sacrifice of your inner circle, the heart and soul of a player, and a player knows deep down that no amount of bat speed or spin rate can replace it.

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