David Ross might have felt like he aged enough during this high-stress baseball season of safety protocols and quarantine road conditions during his first year as a big-league manager to feel like somebody’s grandfather by the time it was over.
“The mental side of this doesn’t get talked about enough,” the Cubs manager said several times during the three-week summer training camp and nine-week season when talking about his players and staff
But make no mistake: As he promised when hired long before the realities of the COVID-19 crisis landed in the middle of his job description, it was no affable, happy-go-lucky Grandpa Rossy who managed the Cubs during the historically trying 2020 season.
Whatever side of the Joe Maddon debate anyone might have argued a year ago — should he stay or should he go — one thing became clear by the time the Cubs’ ad hoc, late-summer 2020 season was underway:
If the Cubs were going to bring in a new manager, they got the right one.
Whether existing relationships within the organization, an uncommon power of personality or his credibility and insight as a recent player played the biggest role, Ross struck a balance between discipline and looseness, between focus and diversions to help facilitate a hot start, squeeze more out of a pitching staff than even any of them probably expected and wound up becoming the first Cubs manager since Lou Piniella in 2007 to win a division title in his first year running the club.
And on Monday night he was able to add finalist for the National League Manager of the Year Award to his resumé, joining Miami’s Don Mattingly and San Diego’s Jayce Tingler. The winner will be announced Nov. 10.
“What we saw, what we experienced, was a very successful first year for someone who’s going to be a great manager here for a long time,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said a few days after the Cubs were eliminated by the Marlins in the first round of the playoffs. “We feel really good having Rossy at the helm of this group — of any group — moving forward.
“If you set aside all the unique circumstances of 2020 and dealing with the coronavirus and the remarkable challenges that everyone in the industry faced because of what was going on in the country this year, he still had an outstanding season.”
Ross drew occasional criticism this season — including in this space, for inexplicably pulling Kyle Schwarber from a game in September after a fielding gaffe and again during the Game 1 playoff loss for leaving starter Kyle Hendricks in the game for at least one high-stress batter too many.
But it’s hard to imagine a better leadership performance, start to finish this year, by any manager, much less a first-year skipper, dealing with the health, testing and protocol challenges of the coronavirus, sobering internal discussions about systemic racism that sparked protests across the country and forced MLB to look in the mirror, as well as the easy-by-comparison task of winning a 60-game sprint in major league sports.
“I can’t speak from experience, because this is my first one as a manager,” Ross said after the season, “but talking to some other managers and GMs this has been one of the most difficult seasons in baseball history. So I’m proud of these guys for that and being responsible and being accountable to one another.”
Underscoring that point, along with the leadership of the front office team and field staff, was the fact that the Cubs finished as the only team without a player testing positive for the virus once intake testing began in late June.
Maybe a veteran core of players who had been together for most of the last six years should get a lot of credit for that. Certainly pitching coach Tommy Hottovy deserves some credit for what an unheralded pitching staff was able to patch together.
But the tone was set by Ross from the time the team got to spring training in February, throughout the Zoom culture of a pandemic shutdown and into a season like nothing anybody had ever before seen or thought to prepare for.
Publicly and privately, players and coaches raved about the job Ross did keeping spirits and focus afloat throughout.
And if he thought that first year was tough, wait until he sees whatever’s left of his roster by the time he gets to whatever next season might look like.
“We’re in extremely good hands with Rossy going forward,” Epstein said.