David Ross being officially named the 55th manager in Cubs franchise history did little to change the public discourse around his fitness for the role. If anything, it merely shifted the context from its previously hypothetical bent and placed more urgency on the concerns some people had with the hire. Hey, haven’t the Cubs been talking for a while about increasing the sense of urgency? Problem solved.
When it comes to problems with the team itself, though, the solutions are many and varied. One of those is the widely-held perception that the Cubs lacked a sense of focus and accountability, something Ross’s detractors believe he’ll be unable to correct. Largely a function of his dick-bumping celebratory antics and public persona, Ross has been miscast in some corners as a more permissive Joe Maddon retread.
After all, skeptics like ESPN’s Mike Wilbon are quick to point out, it’s tough to “go from drinking with the guys at 4am to being their boss in three years.” Is it, though? I mean, that’s kind of the way adult relationships function in many different industries. It’s not at all uncommon for one member of a group of colleagues to be promoted to a position of authority and to still maintain friendships with their subordinates.
This is the only thing that gives me pause about the Cubs hiring David Ross… pic.twitter.com/f6CASRJWVC
— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) October 25, 2019
The dynamics of the interactions may change, but the trust that was established previously can and should afford the new boss greater insight into what drives his charges. Rather than shy from that, Ross addressed it head-on in the press release announcing his hiring.
“A lot has been made, and rightfully so, of my connection to the 2016 World Series team, and the notion that I’ll now be managing players I once counted on as teammates,” Ross said. “Having those relationships going into this will be a bonus, no doubt about it. But those guys know I’ll be the first to hold them accountable, the first to demand their best daily effort and the first to let them know about it if they give anything but their best.
“I never had a problem dishing out a lot of tough love as their teammate, and that won’t change as their manager. We’ll have our fair share of fun along the way, but working hard as a team, playing fundamental team baseball and winning a lot of games will be our top priority.”
Assuming that Ross is just there to be a buddy who pats guys on the back rather than kicking them in the ass would be a mistake. He’s actually likely to do both, but many seem to see only the former without realizing how much of the latter he did. That too is part of a healthy relationship. As a result of his friendships, Ross has the credibility to get on guys and to have them understand that he’s doing so with their best interests at heart.
And how did we get to this idea that a little partying was a bad thing? One of the key features of the Cubs’ redesigned clubhouse was a literal party room, complete with disco ball and smoke machine, in which they could celebrate wins. Maddon himself lamented the team’s lack of socialization as one of the factors responsible for their diminishing returns during their late-season swoon.
“I’m not accusing them of going out at night, because I wish they would,” the former manager said. “That’s the one part of this game we’re missing is that guys don’t go out and have a beer and talk about stuff.
“That’s not old school or anything. That’s just social. Everybody is more (comfortable) wanting to stay in their room and play video games… And I’d just love (if) our guys interacted a little bit more away from the hotel at night.”
Now, this isn’t to suggest the manager should be the one at the bar ordering rounds for his players the night before a day game on the road. But there’s merit to the notion that chemistry is important to the function of a team, since trust is built in more ways than just knowing a guy will be able to turn a double play cleanly once you flip him the ball. The Cubs understand the value of those incremental advantages gained from good chemistry, which no doubt played a role in the decision to hire Ross.
Of course, that brings us around to the idea of the winner’s trap and whether they’re just falling back into it by trying to recreate the 2016 vibe. Theo Epstein talked about not letting the successes of the past dictate moves in the future, yet he turns around and hires a manager whose Cubs career is solely comprised of that bygone success. However, Ross is actually indicative of the things from those 2015 and ’16 teams the Cubs desperately need to recapture.
What Epstein and the rest of the club have admittedly fallen prey to is the allure of a style of roster construction that grew stagnant far too quickly The Cubs stockpiled too many of the same kind of hitters and failed to adequately develop pitchers, which forced them to pour boatloads of money in veteran arms. Whether by choice or necessity, that strategy simply wasn’t built for sustained excellence.
At the same time, there was a corresponding emotional stagnation as a result of the departures of Ross and Dexter Fowler. What was once organic and fun became forced and sterile, much of which was likely due as much to winning the World Series as anything else. Bringing back one of the motivation linchpins and the proverbial glue guy of those early Maddon teams is not simply a matter of being slaves to the past.
Finally, Ross’s familiarity with members of the current team likely gave him a leg up on someone like Joe Espada, who realistically had a better resume. All things considered, we’re looking at two years for the Cubs to make the most out of what they’ve got. If they follow David Kaplan’s suggestion to punt in 2020, which I don’t agree is a good strategy, they’d be left with just one year.
This isn’t a situation like the one Maddon walked into and the Cubs can’t treat it as such, which means they need to maximize the value they’ve got left with some of their core players. One of those is Jon Lester, whose diminution became painfully obvious at times last season. Then there’s Anthony Rizzo, who leaned heavily on Ross for support when he was in a glass case of emotion.
There’s not as much of a learning curve with Ross when it comes to pushing these guys’ buttons, nor will he have to familiarize himself with the machinations of the front office. Some might categorize that as lazy, but the Cubs don’t necessarily have the time to bring someone along have them learn the ropes over any significant period of time. Does that mean they’re going to end up with a microwave burrito that’s molten on the outside and frozen in the middle?
Let’s hope not. That’s where the rest of the staff will come into play, particularly the bench coach. If Ross has someone to act as his right hand and help with some of the day-to-day operational aspects of the gig, the management side of things becomes about putting people in the best possible spots to succeed.
Exactly how that plays out is clearly yet to be seen, but preemptively condemning Ross on the basis of his history with the Cubs seems short-sighted at best. So let’s just put the pitchforks down until the first time he pulls a dealing Lester in favor of an untested young reliever who proceeds to give up a game-tying homer.