MESA, Ariz. — Cubs manager David Ross noticed the difference when he started going on drives with daughter Landri, who turned 16 in February. One of their first times out, she hit a curb and sliced a tire.
‘‘Probably the old me would have been a little bit upset,’’ Ross said.
The old him hadn’t managed a baseball team before.
Some of the Cubs’ former managers were famous for their outbursts. Think Lou Piniella kicking his hat or Lee Elia going on his infamous profanity-laced tirade. But for Ross, managing has taught him patience, he said.
‘‘She was upset to the curb,’’ he said, ‘‘but me yelling at her to pay attention, that doesn’t do anybody any good, right?’’
Turning the tire mishap into a teaching moment does.
He and Landri went to the tire store together to walk through the process. Is the tire fixable? How much does a new tire cost? Is it worth it to buy the same kind of tire, or would a less expensive one work just as well? She made the decisions. It was her car, and the money was coming out of her savings.
‘‘Let’s say: ‘OK, well, we’ve made a mistake. What are we doing to correct that, so it doesn’t happen anymore?’ ’’ Ross said, then smiled. ‘‘And now she takes that same roundabout area a little bit slower.’’
That’s not to say Ross has lost his fire. Losses grate on him, which makes for a lot of anguish during rebuilding years. That’s clear in his postgame demeanor and low tolerance for talk of moral victories.
The front office might tout the Cubs’ record after the All-Star break last season — when the team went 39-31, even after selling at the deadline — because its job is to focus on the big picture. But in Ross’ seat, that doesn’t count as success.
‘‘It’s about moving forward,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m not going to try to pull small success stories from a losing season,  games back. We’re nowhere near where St. Louis is. That’s where we’ve got to get to. Now, were there learning experiences and growth that I’m proud of? Sure.’’
But that doesn’t make the Cubs’ 74-88 season in 2022 any less of a disappointment.
This offseason, the Cubs took the next steps to answering the question, ‘‘What are we doing to correct that?’’ With additions such as shortstop Dansby Swanson, right-hander Jameson Taillon and center fielder Cody Bellinger, the Cubs signaled they were coming out of their rebuild.
To start spring training, PECOTA standings projected the Cubs to finish third in the National League Central with 77 victories, only three more than last season. But they also have crept onto ‘‘most improved’’ lists and into debates about potential playoff contenders.
Now, as Ross enters his fourth season at the helm, he’ll be under a microscope more than ever. Why is he the right person to lead this new group?
‘‘He helped bring it together in a lot of ways,’’ Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said in his news conference to kick off spring training.
‘It’s just about being genuine’
Swanson had heard good things about Ross even before they sat down together at a Maggiano’s Little Italy on Dec. 1. Ross, along with Hoyer and general manager Carter Hawkins, traveled to Atlanta to meet with Swanson and his agents.
‘‘He has a really good reputation from when he was playing,’’ Hoyer said of Ross. ‘‘He’s enjoyable to be around, and I think his reputation as a manager is really good. So in those kinds of meetings, he always ends up connecting with the players. I think that means a lot.’’
That reputation had made its way to Swanson, who had heard Ross was easy to relate to, brought the energy and was the ‘‘same guy every day.’’ And Swanson had done his homework. He even knew whom the Cubs’ prospects were.
‘‘It’s important to know that we all represent the same thing,’’ he said.
It wasn’t until that meeting in December, however, that Swanson understood how passionate Ross was about winning.
‘‘That’s what he cares about,’’ Swanson said. ‘‘He cares about his players being able to perform. He doesn’t like to take any credit at all; he wants us to get the spotlight. But that’s what makes him so good at what he does.’’
Swanson, who had won a World Series with the Braves in 2021, wasn’t going to sign up for a rebuild. He wanted to join a team that was committed to competing and could make him better. He challenged the Cubs’ representatives.
‘‘He had real questions, but also like: ‘I’ve heard this, I’ve heard that. What’s your take on this or that?’ ’’ Ross said. ‘‘It was pretty impressive.’’
Ross leaves all the contract negotiation to Hoyer and Hawkins. His role is one that comes naturally to him.
‘‘It’s not even really being a salesman,’’ Ross said. ‘‘It’s just about being genuine to what I believe and what we’re all about here in Chicago. And that’s an easy one for me.’’
He can talk about winning a World Series in Chicago, what it’s like to call Wrigley Field home, the family atmosphere he enjoyed. He can tell stories about how the fan base embraced him, a backup catcher with a career .229 batting average.
‘‘Then just talk about what I’m about,’’ Ross said, ‘‘where we’re going and that belief in our front office and the system that we have in place, that winning is right around the corner when you’re coming off a tough season. That’s all players want to know, especially the good ones.’’
‘‘It was a pretty unbelievable meeting and definitely started the process of being, like, ‘Wow, I think I can see myself in that uniform,’ ’’ Swanson said.
Most free-agent meetings don’t end with the acquisition of a franchise player. Ross also joined in-person meetings with Jose Abreu and Trea Turner right before Thanksgiving, then with Carlos Correa as the winter meetings began. None of them signed with the Cubs. (The team also wasn’t looking to add multiple shortstops or to offer Abreu the contract the Astros gave him.)
Still, the Cubs had their most active offseason in years. And even for those players whom Ross didn’t meet with in person, he played a role in their decision to sign with the team.
Bellinger met with the Cubs over Zoom rather than in person. In his introductory news conference, he finished his list of reasons for choosing the Cubs with: ‘‘I like what Rossy says and who he is as a coach and a manager.’’
First baseman Eric Hosmer talked with Ross over the phone as his deal was being finalized. Afterward, he concluded: ‘‘This was the place that I wanted to be, and I felt like it’s gonna be a good opportunity for me.’’
Good thing, too, because all that was left to make it official were his physical and final paperwork.
Ross spent a lot of time on calls. He recorded video clips for the recruitment videos the Cubs sent to free agents. And at the very least, each player considered what it would be like to play for Ross.
‘‘I played against him when he was with Boston, played against him when he was with the Cubs,’’ catcher Tucker Barnhart said in his introductory news conference. ‘‘And I’ve always appreciated the way he goes about his business as a player and as a manager.’’
Some friendly advice
If Ross could travel back three years and advise the guy who just had signed on to be the Cubs’ manager, it would come in three parts:
1) Continue to hold on to your core beliefs about the game.
Ross thinks there’s still a place for small ball, despite baseball’s shift to three true outcomes. Fundamentally sound play delights him, even while he makes fun of himself for being ‘‘old-school’’ in some ways. He emphasizes adjusting the system to the personnel, not the other way around.
2) Have patience.
Don’t expect perfection all the time.
3) Never lose sight about the importance of growing and getting better.
‘‘I think I do a good job of that,’’ Ross said. ‘‘But always understanding that never ends. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in first place or last place, you want to continue to push that.’’
Ross thinks part of him knew all those things as he signed his first contract as a manager, but he hadn’t sat down to think about them yet.
Once the job began — on a bizarre note, at that — there wasn’t time to ponder.
Ross showed up to manage his first spring-training game Feb. 22, 2020, but the medical staff sent him home sick. His bout with the flu got so bad that he went to the hospital to get fluids through an IV. He missed three games.
Maybe it was an omen. A couple of weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down spring training. And Ross fell back on a concept he had learned growing up: ‘‘When adversity hits, you should go to work.’’
Ross’ father was a butcher when Ross was growing up. The elder Ross would get up at 4 a.m. to be at work by 4:40. Ross even worked for his father for a little while. When Ross went off to the minor leagues, he’d come back home to Tallahassee, Florida, for the offseason. And his dad would ask: ‘‘Don’t you have something to do? Shouldn’t you be getting better?’’
So when the pandemic halted baseball in 2020, Ross got to work. He knew communication was going to be pivotal, so the team got organized via Zoom. He connected with the research-and-development department to run through simulated games, practicing his decision-making.
‘‘Sulking is not how I was raised,’’ he said.
When the Cubs finally did get to take the field in Ross’ regular-season managerial debut, nothing was normal about it. There were no fans in the stands. Interviews were conducted via Zoom. The possibility of a positive COVID-19 test hung over every day, revealed with dreaded 8 a.m. phone calls.
Restless nights were a common theme for Ross. Players can lie awake mulling over only so many plays, even the perfectionists. But for a manager, those limits dissolve. No matter how well a game might have gone, there was no way all 26 guys on the roster — all under Ross’ purview — had great days. And there was always a competitive advantage to uncover for the next day.
He has gotten better at turning off those thoughts when he gets home. There are situations he wishes he had handled differently, such as when he benched Kyle Schwarber in the middle of a ‘‘Sunday Night Baseball’’ game after he misplayed a ball in left field. And even though the Cubs won the division in 2020, playing a regional 60-game schedule, and Ross was a Manager of the Year finalist, there are a handful of games he would like to replay with a different move here or there.
But he said he wouldn’t change his managerial journey so far, even with three bizarre years complete with the shutdown, health-and-safety protocols and a lockout.
‘‘I’m a better person, manager, friend, dad because of the years I’ve put in right now,’’ he said. ‘‘So I don’t wish it was any different.’’
Back to normal
On the first day of spring training this year, Ross could have walked to the group chatting at the corner of the agility field: Swanson, outfielder Ian Happ, second baseman Nico Hoerner and bench coach Andy Green. Instead, he bounded.
‘‘I don’t have four things on my plate I need to be doing,’’ he said later. ‘‘I can just sit out here and watch these guys get ready and actually hang with the players, interact with them, get to know some of the new guys.’’
As pitching coach Tommy Hottovy put it, the coaches were hitting their stride as a staff. The players were entering camp ahead of schedule.
For a manager who had experienced three condensed spring trainings — and last year couldn’t even talk to his players for much of the winter because of the lockout — it was a foreign feeling.
‘‘I don’t know any different,’’ Ross said, ‘‘because all I know is training starts and craziness hits for me.’’
For what feels like the first time in Ross’ managerial career, between his prep work in the early morning and meetings later in the day, there’s a lull in his responsibilities.
‘‘I get out there some days, and it’s like, ‘I’ve got nothing to do,’ ’’ Ross said, incredulous.
There will be challenges. Seiya Suzuki’s oblique injury, for example, called for adaptation. And Ross points out this spring wasn’t normal. He maneuvered around the World Baseball Classic, which pulled a handful of players out of camp and into meaningful games.
This season, he’ll have to navigate outside expectations, a factor that wasn’t present in the same way during the pandemic or the rebuild years. But just as it has been for the last three seasons, talking about external projections is a non-starter for Ross.
‘‘We’re going to make the playoffs and be the best version of us if we focus on the day-to-day process,’’ he said. ‘‘I know that wholeheartedly.’’
Realistically, the Cubs might need good fortune and a little help from the Brewers and Cardinals to win the division. But the scenario doesn’t seem nearly as far-fetched as it did this time last year.
This roster at least should be able to close the gap in the NL Central that for the last couple of years has separated the Cardinals and Brewers from everyone else.
Who knows how the old Ross, the one who might have fumed about a sliced tire, would have handled the stakes of this season. Or even a Ross whose first three years on the job hadn’t included a global pandemic, a roster teardown or a lockout.
‘‘I’m a better manager than a guy that would have started with just a normal flow,’’ Ross said, ‘‘because I’ve learned to adjust, I’ve learned to adapt, I’ve learned to figure out how to do some things with shortened spring training.’’
Hoyer agreed, with one caveat.
‘‘He was always going to be really good,’’ he said. ‘‘I think it’s made him better quickly.’’