David Ross reflects on magical season, career with Chicago Cubs

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Former Chicago Cubs catcher turned manager David Ross relived the magic of the 2016 World Series championship for a large crowd of avid fans Sunday at the Purdue University Northwest Sinai Forum lecture series.

Less than a handful in the Westville crowd admitted to being White Sox fans.

“I’ve got stories for days,” Ross told former MLB pitcher Dan Plesac in their conversation on stage.

“The buzz in the city when we won the World Series was palpable,” Ross said. “It’s a unique stadium, the neighborhood, the city, it’s a special place.”

“The fan base, how they treat you when you walk down the street,” is incredible, he said.

Ross got a standing ovation when fans recognized him as he walked into a restaurant. “You guys know I suck, right?,” he said he felt.

In 2016, Ross was one of the team’s heavy hitters. As catcher, he watched the games unfold from a perspective few players get. Catchers get to see the whole field. Plesac asked if that’s what makes catchers such good managers.

“I’ve touched mentally and physically every part of the game, pretty much, except outfield,” Ross said. “Those guys are out there by themselves, pretty much. All they think about is hitting.”

In game 5 of the 2016 World Series, the Cubs were down three games to one. The Cubs hadn’t won a World Series in more than a century and were at risk of being eliminated in game 5.

The mood in the locker room was tense, until it wasn’t.

“We walked in after losing game 4,” Ross said, with Ben Zobrist urging the team to focus on tomorrow. Zobrist won the World Series MVP award that year.

“There is so many people that would give their left you-know-what to be playing in the World Series here in Chicago,” Ross said. “We get to do something special at the historic museum that we play at every day, and this place is going to be packed with rocking fans. Let’s go and enjoy that.”

Like other sports, much of baseball is unpredictable. Statistics can determine probabilities, but baseball is played by humans. A lot can happen that would change the outcome of a game or a series or a season.

So much is out of the control of a single player. But the energy and work ethic, that’s what Ross could control, he said.

“You never know in sports. That’s why we love it. That’s why we go,” Ross said. “It’s not played on paper. It’s played on the field with athletes, with human beings.”

Ross reflected on his role in the World Series itself.

“Game 5 is my favorite game that I got to play in,” he said. It was the final game at Wrigley Field that year.

Ross was starting catcher, walking onto the field as a song by country music star Jason Aldean was on the loudspeakers. Ross was in tears with the emotions of that day, noting he had the catcher’s mask on, which hid his face.

John Lester was the starting pitcher that day.

“I wish I had a video of it. He is warming up, and I’m singing this Jason Aldean song at the top of my lungs,” Ross said.

That Cubs won that game, of course, leading to games 6 and 7 in Cleveland and the World Series championship.

Ross will be known for that magical year. But it wasn’t the only thing he’ll be known for.

After watching players exchange high fives, Ross wanted some other high-energy way to celebrate.

“I invented the cup bump. We’re going to bump our cups together when good things happen,” he said. Other players loved the idea.

Ross hit a home run that game, and as he finished running the bases and was heading to the dugout, he heard, “Cup bump! Cup bump!”

“That year, that’s what we did when I did something,” he said.

Ross had a stint on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” in 2017, having retired after playing 15 years as a Major League Baseball player at the end of 2016.

“My agent called and said ‘Dancing With the Stars’ called. They really want to talk to them. Do you want to talk to them? And I said no.”

But the show’s staff was persistent.

“I said yes, I’ll be on there a week, two weeks, get voted off and then I’ll go home. That didn’t work out, thanks to you guys,” Ross told the chuckling crowd.

After the show aired live on Monday night, he took a redeye flight back home so he could take his kids to school the next morning. Afterward, he would train for the dances after dinner to midnight, then practiced while they were in school. On Saturdays, he would go to his kids’ intramural games before preparing for the show again.

“I did that for 10 weeks. It was grueling,” Ross said.

He could see his abs for the first time, noticing he had a six-pack, he said.

Fifteen million people watched the shows live. “The band’s going to keep playing, you’ve got to keep dancing,” even after noticing you’ve made a mistake, Ross said.

Waiting for the votes to come in was miserable. “It’s the scaredest I’ve ever been, no doubt, hands down.”

“I have rhythm. I like music,” he said, but ballroom dancing wasn’t one of his skills prior to the competitive show. “My idea of dancing was like riding up on my wife after a couple of cocktails.”

In October 2019, Ross was named manager for the Cubs.

“It’s fun to compete, and you hold onto losses,” he said. “Maybe it doesn’t sound like a lifestyle that’s enjoyable, but it fuels you every day.”

Ross’ experiences as a player shaped his philosophy as a manager.

Ross remembered his time with the Atlanta Braves, when manager Bobby Cox walked through the locker room and told him, “Way to go!” Ross hadn’t played in seven days but appreciated that affirmation.

“Maybe I don’t suck so bad. Maybe he’s really good. You need that from your manager,” Ross said. “I try to impart those feelings that other managers had.”

“I feel like it’s my obligation to pass that along,” Ross said.

Ross gave his job description for managers: “Take all the blame, give all the credit.”

There were hard moments, including releasing Jake Arietta and taking John Lester out of the game in the fourth inning after throwing 63 pitches, after all Lester had done for Ross and his family.

“The planning’s fine. It’s actually fine until you have to get up out of that chair and take that guy out of the game,” Ross said.

Ross said he tried to stay tuned to what the players wanted and how they felt.

“A guy doesn’t like to hit in the leadoff spot, that matters to me,” he said.

A closer’s back is killing him, and he’s getting treatment every day and trying to push that envelope. He wants to play, but is he ready?

“I’m not a control freak,” Ross said. “I wouldn’t want the pitching coach coming out and telling me how to catch.”

“I rely on my coaches. There’s like fundamental things I stand on, and they know that.”

During the game, strategy is what being a manager is all about. “I love the cat and mouse. I love the game calling,” Ross said. It’s knowing not just your own team’s players but the opponents as well — who’s coming up, who’s in the bullpen, what your strengths are.

Ross agreed during spring training to speak at the PNW Sinai Forum event, the final one of the season, long before he was released from the Cubs.

“My mindset right now is so many great things have come to me and opportunities,” he said.

“Something else goodwill come,” he said.

Despite the MLB thrills he has had, it came at the cost of time with his children. The divorced dad is trying to make up for lost time. His oldest daughter is in her senior year of high school. He also has a 14-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.

Ross has time to wait for the next career opportunity. “I’ve been blessed enough to make good money. I have saved money,” he said.

Doug Ross is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.


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