The nerves kicked in for David Ross heading into this week as he flew home to Tallahassee, Fla., after a couple of hearty days and nights celebrating dear friend Jon Lester’s retirement and birthday in Georgia.
These were the good kind.
“The nervous excitement, the nervous energy,” he said, “starting to organize my thoughts, starting to write down lineups.”
Ross’ fourth season as Cubs manager — and his first with a team that will look vastly different — is close enough that he can smell it, taste it.
“There’s been so much good about this offseason,” he said. “In my eyes, it’s go time.”
Ross will be back in Chicago at the end of the week for Cubs Convention, which opens on Friday, and on another plane Saturday to Orlando, Fla., where he’ll grab a car and head an hour-plus to Ocala to watch daughter Landri play in a volleyball tournament. She’s a few weeks shy of 16 now, a 5-10 left-handed setter and outside hitter who’s starting to talk to colleges and has a good bit of the old man’s fire in her belly.
“If practice starts at 2,” Ross said, “she wants to be there at 1 and stay until 5. She’s got the itch to stay and do extra and all that. It’s fun to watch her really take hold of something.”
Soon, Ross will be in Arizona to take hold of a Cubs team that has added shortstop Dansby Swanson, center fielder Cody Bellinger and first baseman Eric Hosmer, among others, and seemingly is on the uptick. What he does with it will go a long way in shaping his own reputation as a skipper.
“I have optimism in everything that I do and have gone in with the highest of expectations every single year that I’ve had this job,” he said. “But are those expectations more realistic now? Probably like that.
“We still have to have a lot of things go right. I don’t get as excited, maybe, as the fans might with the names we’ve brought in because I know how much work we still have to do, the holes we still need to fill. I’ve learned so much every year as a manager — and I’m definitely getting better — but I’m constantly looking at, ‘Where are we going to get better?’ ”
But before Ross fully plugs into the 2023 season, he wanted to get unplugged. It started almost as soon as last season ended in Cincinnati, where most of the exit interviews with players were completed. A few days later, he was watching Landri’s high school playoffs and eighth-grader Cole in middle-school football — and fretting only a bit about a knee in need of meniscus repair, surgery he’ll try to put off for at least another season .
Ross, divorced in 2020, lay low for the holidays in Tallahassee with Landri, Cole and younger daughter Harper. They stayed up late watching movies, playing board games, waging ferocious Uno battles. It was a break he wanted and needed.
That went for his personal time, too, when he didn’t have the kids. He got himself into better shape, the knee being one reason. Before baseball’s winter meetings in December — and after meeting with Swanson to pitch him on the Cubs — Ross spent most of a week in Las Vegas, taking in country music and playing golf with ex-Cubs Kris Bryant and Dexter Fowler and former Red Sox teammate Shane Victorino.
After the kids returned to school from winter break, Ross — the damn knee barking at him — went skiing in Beaver Creek, Colo., with his agents. From there, he high-tailed it to Lester’s shindig, where he ate, drank and swapped baseball stories with a motley crew of World Series pals from Boston and Chicago: Dustin Pedroia, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Kyle Schwarber, John Lackey, Travis Wood, Eric Hinske, Mike Borzello.
“Oh man,” Ross said. “Such a good time.”
Ross made time in December to check in with another friend: Willson Contreras, newly signed by the Cardinals. Ross’ phone rang almost before he’d pressed “send” on a text.
“We’ll be competing our butts off against each other,” Contreras told him.
“I told him how much I’m going to miss him and thanked him for everything,” Ross said. “That’s a World Series brother for me. I’m happy for him. He’s going to a good organization, a place he has a chance to win. But that guy and myself are connected for life. That, to me, trumps anything he can do over there.”
And Ross always had the plug handy, because he was there for face-to-face meetings with all the free agents who would become Cubs — and some who wouldn’t — as well. President Jed Hoyer and general manager Carter Hawkins saw to the nuts and bolts. Ross contributed to that, of course, but with the personal touch that is his gift.
“I believe my passion came out,” he said, “my love for Chicago and our group of guys, the coaching staff. The stuff I start talking about, man, it just pours out of me.”
Baseball is coming. Ross’ nerves are tingling.
“How much more am I going to appreciate rolling out the Dansbys and the Bellingers, and Nico [Hoerner] at second and the Hosmers? seiya [Suzuki] is going to be better, and [Ian] ‘Happer’ took a huge step forward last year being a consistent All-Star and a Gold Glover. There’s just so much to be excited about.”
All that and Wrigley Field, too.
“Just wait ’til it warms up and that sun comes out there,” Ross said. “There’s no place better.”