Influential Ross enjoying sunset of playing career
Cubs catcher, hoping for one more ring, reflects on 15 years in big leagues
By Doug Miller
CHICAGO -- The moments are slowing down as the days get shorter. It's late July, the morning of a Friday day game, and David Ross is riding Jake Arrieta's fancy electric bike down Waveland Avenue beyond Wrigley Field's left-field bleachers.
The fans gathered by the players' parking lot double-take Ross as he coasts by in a T-shirt and shorts. Right before he wheels in and offloads his loaner, he gives a slight wave to his onlookers, who had him pegged once they saw the gray in his beard.
"Good morning, Grandpa," one fan yells, and Ross smiles, heading over for an autograph stop on his way into the office. Once inside the old ballpark, Ross waves to the security guards and food-service employees by the back entrance, making every second of their small talk count prior to ducking into a corridor, finding an unlabeled door and winding his way to the Cubs' clubhouse.
Ross is 39 years old and in his 15th season in the Major Leagues. He has been a member of the Cubs for less than two seasons and still somehow seems to know everyone around here. Maybe it's because Ross knows there are only so many mornings like this left before it's all over.
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Ross is always the first to remind you that he's "just not a very good player."
At the moment, Ross' season batting average is .232, and that's more or less in line with his career numbers. He'll occasionally run into a homer, but he's a longtime backup catcher. That's his calling. He's learned how to live it every day and he's learned how to embrace it.
But now it's embracing him. As soon as Ross declared that 2016 would be his last season as a player and he would then dedicate his future to his family, the yearlong retirement party began. Ross had decided to sign a two-year deal with Chicago prior to the 2015 season because it was a club brimming with young talent, had a wise and innovative manager in Joe Maddon, and had signed Ross' friend and confidant Jon Lester. The two had done famously well together in 2013, when Ross served as a de facto personal catcher for Lester and the Red Sox ended up winning the World Series, with Ross catching all four wins in the Fall Classic and squeezing the final out.
The Cubs' signing got sweeter still when the club brought in right fielder Jason Heyward on a huge-money, long-term deal. Heyward was a 20-year-old phenom when he broke into the bigs with the Braves in 2010, and his lockermate was Ross. Ross might not have had the high-Draft-pick pedigree, but he had some years in The Show behind him, and Heyward was green and in need of guidance.
"It started in L.A. [in 2002] with guys like Dave Roberts, Shawn Green, Paul Lo Duca," says Ross, who broke into the Majors with the Dodgers. "Those guys, I kind of owe the world to. Just because I look back at that and they were such a good example, and I've been fortunate enough to stay in the game that I'm trying to just emulate how they helped me, and hopefully I can pass along some kind of little nugget to these guys.
"And what's cool about that is that these guys were established big league players -- very, very good players, really good careers -- and they treated me just like I was, you know, not a veteran on the team, but just like I was everybody else. They talked to me, they always were pumping me up, they got on me, as long as I was doing my thing, they didn't rip me too bad, and they're good human beings and they treated me with a ton of respect and they were great for how young and naïve I was."
Ross passed it on to Heyward, and when the two were reunited before this season, Heyward paid it back in his own way, contacting the Cubs' traveling secretary, Vijay Tekchandani, and informing him that he would pay for Ross to have a suite at every hotel on the road during his old friend's final season.
"It's just one of those things that just came to me," Heyward says. "It was an opportunity to do something nice for somebody who did a lot for a lot of people, but for me as a young player coming up in Atlanta. He's somebody that means a lot when it comes to helping you feel your way through as a young guy, and then, also, as a teammate.
Entering his final Spring Training in Mesa, Ariz., in February, Ross didn't quite know what to expect in a new desert setting and new teammates, but young stars such as third baseman Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo made sure he wouldn't be forgotten. They started the now-famous Grandpa Rossy Instagram account to document the already legendary final season of Chicago's latest working-class folk hero.
"He just has an energy to him," Bryant says. "And usually the ones with the energy are the younger guys, the ones who, you know, are just excited to get up and get going and it doesn't take them a while to get ready, but he's like the youngest guy on this team.
"He's been my favorite teammate, my best teammate so far. We're definitely going to miss him."
Mentioning these gestures is almost too much for Ross. He was never one for attention. He still can't believe it when fans approach him while he's ordering a sandwich or walking down the street. He sometimes asks them if they've got him confused with a more accomplished teammate. But this is Chicago. These are Cubs fans, who haven't seen a World Series title since 1908 or a World Series appearance since 1945. They're well aware of who Ross is.
They know Ross received the most write-in votes of any National League player for the 2016 All-Star Game, because they're the ones who wrote in those votes. They're the ones who forced Brad Rosen, partner at the Sports World Chicago souvenir store across the street from Wrigley, to triple his order of Ross shirts and jerseys once the season started.
"It just shows me that all fans want are that they want you to play hard," Ross says. "That's all they want. They want to know that you're giving your all out there for the group. And for the betterment of the group. And that you're unselfish and that you're there … doing the best you can for the Chicago Cubs and the city of Chicago.
"And they treat me so nice. I get so many people coming up to me telling me they love to watch me play or they love to watch the team play, how much fun we're having, and that they're big fans of me. It makes me laugh. I'm like the worst player on the team. What are you talking about?"
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Ross is in the dugout now, looking out at the ivy and replaying the whole deal. It's hard not to start with his first big league home run, an amazing story all in itself.
It was Sept. 2, 2002, and Ross' Dodgers were routing the Diamondbacks in Phoenix.
"I think it's like 17-0 or 1 or something, and they tell me I'm going in in the seventh, I get my first hit earlier in the game and I'm like all jacked up, the guys are all fired up for me and I've got another at-bat coming around," Ross says.
The pitcher wouldn't be a pitcher at all. It would be veteran first baseman and fan favorite Mark Grace.
"The crowd's laughing and all that stuff, and I'm over there thinking, 'This guy's grooving first-pitch fastballs to everybody at like 80 miles an hour, you know?' So I'm like, 'I'm going to swing. I'm not waiting around.'"
Ross ran around those bases with his head down, like a rookie's supposed to do. Fifteen years later, he's still doing what he's supposed to do.
"I just know that he's won some championships, he's done very well for himself, I know he's very well-liked and respected around the league and in his own clubhouses," Grace says. "When you play for double-digit years in the big leagues, you've had a great career. And he's had a great career."
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Ross hopes 2016 ends up like 2013, although the road to October could be a bit smoother. He was hit in the mask with a foul ball in May of that year and got a severe concussion, came back, had the same thing happen a few weeks later and missed two months of the season. Ross credits concussion specialist Dr. Michael "Mickey" Collins in Pittsburgh with familiarizing him with the symptoms and treatment and, in essence, "saving" his career.
The whirlwind of those 2013 Red Sox coming together in the late months of that season, growing unruly beards and beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series -- with Ross getting the game-winning hit and then catching the last out -- are priceless memories alongside brothers such as David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Lester. It all seemed to happen so fast. Ross would love to join the long-starved Cubs nation and this group of teammates in seeing it again this time around.
And while Ross won't want to admit it, he will play a huge part in wherever the group winds up. He already has.
"Here's a guy that has played for many years, his numbers, you know, are solid, but he's a really good catcher," Maddon says. "But my point is … it's about him and what he actually does in the clubhouse within a group is, are leadership qualities. That's the unusual component. Because I've been with groups before and they talk about a player, because he's had some really good numbers and a couple good years, that he's a leader in the clubhouse. Could be the furthest thing from the truth, man.
"There's no connection whatsoever except for what people believe from the outside looking in. But David is. He is a leader. He's done a great job on the field for us, he does a great job inside, and he's definitely a future manager, I believe."
Future manager, another notion that makes Ross laugh. Again, he's flattered by the notion, and he knows he wants to stay in the game in some capacity. But right now -- or, more accurately, once the Cubs' season ends -- he's going back home. Ross is going back to his family, to his wife, Hyla, and their three young children. He's going to the beach next summer. He's going to start skiing over the winter because he'll finally be permitted to.
The rest of it can wait.
"I've gotten to live my dream, and now it's time for me to fill my family's life," Ross says.
"To just go home and not do anything in baseball, I think, is selfish on my part, and not to give back some of the information I've learned. So hopefully I'll find a balance that works out for everybody. But family's going to be first. Being a dad is important to me. It really is. And I want to be the best dad I can be."
Spoken like a true "Grandpa."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.