MILWAUKEE — It was eight years ago Friday in the same Milwaukee visitors clubhouse the Cubs occupy this weekend that the Cubs manager met pregame with the team president about his job, after which Theo Epstein told reporters there were “no alarm bells to ring.”
Two weeks later Epstein fired manager Dale Sveum after just two years on the job while Epstein tanked seasons to build the team that would start winning in 2015.
Fast forward to pregame Saturday in the visitors dugout in Milwaukee, where a different manager working for a different team president talked about the job he’s done against the backdrop of another rebuild and an increasingly restless fan base.
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“Everybody’s under evaluation,” David Ross said. “If I’m doing a good job, then they’ll keep me around, and if I’m not, then we all know what happens.
“I don’t dive too deep into that. Either I’m doing my job or I’m not.”
But what exactly does that mean in the second year of a pandemic, during a season that began with a pitching rotation compromised by the cost-cutting trade of its ace, that included a midseason rise to first place, two double-digit losing streaks, a trade-deadline purge of the championship core, a subsequent seven-game winning streak and that — with Friday night’s loss — is assured of being their first losing season since 2014?
“I can’t think of a more challenging first two years as a manager than what he’s had on his plate, between last year — whatever that was — and then obviously the changes that have Happened this year as well,” infielder Nico Hoerner said. “If there’s learning by experience, he’s definitely gotten every experience so far.”
And despite what some corners of Twitter might desire, Ross does not appear to be on a particularly hot seat as he completes the second year of his three-year contract.
Epstein’s successor, Jed Hoyer, in July called Ross “one of the best communicators and connectors of people that I’ve been around,” adding: “I think David’s a star. He’s done a fantastic job.”
Of course, there were “no alarm bells,” either, for Sveum — who, like Ross, was a hand-picked, first-time manager identified by Epstein and Hoyer years ahead of his hiring.
And while Ross mentioned his “really good rapport” with Hoyer and his plans to join player development staff in Arizona in a few weeks for Instructional League, his predecessor, Joe Maddon, had good rapport with everybody and spent weeks talking about the team’s competitive plans until the moment Epstein fired him at the end of 2019.
That’s only to suggest that unexpected — even unfair — decisions are made regularly by execs when it comes to managers’ jobs in what Ross often reminds people is a “results-based business.”
“I’m always evaluated on wins and losses, right?” he said. “That’s what this chair brings.”
But there was no team president in sight or earshot on this year’s late-September trip to Milwaukee (or any other trip for months), much less any mention of alarm bells to ring or not ring.
“Sometimes in these situations, people look for blame. I wouldn’t point any in his direction,” Hoyer said during that July media session.
If anything, there might not be a stranger two-year stretch of managing for a Cubs skipper..
“I think about that a lot,” Ross said, drawing laughter.
How to make sense of it? How about: Where's the foundation to even evaluate a pandemic-shortened division-champion season last year or this season of 64 different players used — including three with nine All-Star selections, five Gold Gloves and MVP who were traded away in the span of 24 hours in July.
In fact, as easy as it is to thumb-snipe on social media, good luck finding reasons of substance to call Ross’ actual job security into question.
The clock might start ticking next year on what kind of manager Ross is in a more traditional season with more traditional expectations — assuming the sport and this roster gets any closer to normal by next year.
“My job at the end of the day is to try to win baseball games,” said Ross, whose team lost for the seventh time in eight games Saturday — for the 11th consecutive time to the rival Brewers (this time 6-4).
“So I try to win, create a winning culture, make that a priority around here no matter what,” he added. “If we ever lose sight of that we’re not doing ourselves or the team or the organization justice.
“I think when you change some of the personnel, you understand maybe you’re gonna take a step back. but maybe we took a step forward in some areas, too.”
Maybe. Or maybe the roster will be churned again significantly enough by this time next year that it’ll be impossible to know.
One thing Ross knows as his second year in this job comes to a close: “I’ve never had trouble sleeping until I got this job. … Listen, there’s more to this job than I ever knew was part of this job.”
He also knows this: “I love this job. I love this organization. I love these guys. There’s no secret to how much I enjoy being here.”
How long he keeps doing it might have as much to do with the job Hoyer does putting the next roster together as the job Ross does managing it. That’s the nature of the beast, and the man who spent 15 years as a big-league player for 10 different managers knows that much about the job.
“I haven’t had those conversations,” he said of the job status. “There’s a time for that. I think there’s a lot going on in the organization, like where things are going and with a lot of new guys coming in; things are different than they were when I got here.
“I leave that up to them,” he added. “I talk to Jed daily about baseball stuff. We have a really good rapport, and we think a lot alike in terms of where we want to go and do things. If he thinks I’m the right man for the job, and everybody likes what I’m doing, great. If they don’t, that’s the position I’m in. … Some day we’ll find out.”
In the meantime, he said he sometimes notices the visible aging since he took the job.
“I should have taken the ‘before’ [picture],” said Ross, 44. “I look in the mirror some days, and I’m like, ‘Wow’ … I’m good friends with [Dodgers manager] Dave Roberts and [former White Sox manager] Robin Ventura, and I’ve followed [former manager] Brad Ausmus. And it’s funny; they got in this seat and I’m like … It just wears on you.”
Could be worse. Sparky Anderson’s hair was completely white at Ross’ age, making the Hall of Fame manager of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine look 20 years older.
Not that Ross has seen those pictures. “I don’t want to.”
That’s also not a part of the gig he actually plans to lose sleep over.
“It’s a job that comes with a lot,” he said. “Which is great, which is exciting,”
Wait’ll next year.