A three-month hiatus from baseball? Managing a team under strict health and safety protocols? Setting a lineup amid regular COVID-19 testing?
“There weren’t any questions about this in the interview process,” Cubs manager David Ross jokes with president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer.
The Cubs hired Ross eight months ago. The interview process is even further in the past. And still, the former Cubs catcher has yet to manage a big-league game. If all goes to plan – and little has in 2020 – Ross will check off that milestone in less than a month. But he’s facing a set of circumstances that no rookie manager has battled before.
Ross’s Spring Training managerial debut was almost prophetic. He was supposed to coach the Cubs’ Cactus League opener on Feb. 22, but the flu sent him to the Osborn Medical Center and kept him out of the Cubs’ first three games.
Now, a virus sweeping the nation has delayed Ross’s regular season debut as manager.
“It’s just a whole lot of hurry up and wait,” Ross said Monday, in his first video conference with the media since Major League Baseball finalized its restart plan. “I think the hardest part for us that have been in baseball for so long, and the players and the coaches, we just never had a real date that we were going to start back for so long, or that we were shooting for.”
Now, the questions are flying at him quickly.
Some, he couldn’t have predicted eight months ago that he’d have to answer: Who will be your designated hitter?
“We’ve got some depth in that area,” Ross said, “whether it’s Kyle (Schwarber) and (Steven) Souza, or Vic (Caratini) and Willson (Contreras) and managing that dynamic.”
And others he would have assumed he’d have answered months ago: Who will start on the mound opening day?
“I haven’t even seen my players,” Ross said, laughing.
He’s spent the past three months in a balancing act: Staying prepared but bracing for a long time off. Making sure his players feel supported, but not checking in so much that it’s overbearing.
Ross met with bench coach Andy Green, who spent the last four seasons as the Padres manager, and tech-savvy pitching coach Tommy Hottovy. He started a simulated season with the Cubs research and development.
Hoyer applauded Ross for his initiative.
“He would excuse himself from conference calls with us to go play his simulated season with the R&D staff,” Hoyer said. “I think it’s important. He took a few months and tried to make the most of it knowing that he hasn’t managed in the big leagues and he has a lot that he can learn. We all still do. To be a lifetime learner is a good thing. David used this time as well as possible.”
Soon, it’ll be real. A pang of discomfort will hit as he steps out of the dugout and the usual swell of energy will be replaced by either silence or pre-recorded crowd noise. He’ll step into the coach’s box and look up at empty stands.
“It’s mind boggling,” Ross said, “but it’s the time we’re in.”
His competitive nature has already kicked in. Ross’s route to manager, starting behind the plate and traversing through the broadcast booth, set him up for a big transition even in a normal season. In a 60-game season that timeline is expedited. But that didn’t stop Ross from aiming high.
"If they’re passing out a trophy,” he said, I want it.”