From the moment I began to stir in bed on the morning of Wednesday, November 2, 2016, my mind was already racing. While most of America was at work, I was finally waking up. After leaving the locker room and winding down, I finally got to bed the night before at 2 a.m. as our Chicago Cubs continued chasing one of the great dreams in all of sports—one that had eluded us for more than one hundred years: winning another World Series.
My wife and two of my three children were with me in Cleveland, Ohio. Our infant daughter, Harper, was in Chicago with my parents, who had traveled from Tallahassee, Florida, beginning with the National League Division Series almost a month earlier. We arrived in Cleveland two nights earlier, checking into a suite at the Westin.
The suite was an exceptionally generous season-long retirement gift from my Cubs teammate Jason Heyward. The gift covered all thirty road trips the Cubs made during the 2016 season and it allowed me to comfortably spend quality time with my family during the season. In my previous fourteen years in the major leagues, I usually stayed in a standard single room provided by the team.
This particular Westin was beautiful, a few blocks from the Lake Erie waterfront and Progressive Field in downtown Cleveland. As I opened my eyes and looked around the hotel room, I saw my wife, Hyla; my seven-year-old son, Cole; and my nine-year-old daughter, Landri. Here I was, with my family, and it was suddenly dawning on me that this would be my final morning waking as a major-league baseball player. I was thirty-nine years old—truly ancient in professional sports—and had been in the majors for fifteen years, the last two with the Cubs.
My journey to this point in professional baseball was an improbable roller coaster—almost too good to be true. I was a catcher who had the talent to make it to the majors. But making it is one thing. After being tapped by the Dodgers in the seventh round of the 1998 draft, I finally made by big league debut in 2002. I would go on to play for seven different teams and spend the majority of my career as a backup. I was never an All-Star. My career batting average was .229—nothing to brag about. When I was released by the Cincinnati Reds in 2008, I thought my career was over. I suffered a series of severe concussions with the Boston Red Sox in 2013 that sidelined me, leaving me wondering if I would ever recover and return to playing.
Every new contract was a struggle, but somehow I kept going, year after year, and teams kept offering me the chance to live my dream.
Truth be told, I wasn’t always the best teammate, especially in the early years. Like a lot of guys, I was seduced by the hype of being a professional baseball player.
But in time I managed to learn a few lessons. I learned how I wanted to treat people—not only on my team, but in life. I learned the importance of accountability and being invested in every one of your teammates. I realized character could be as valuable as a home run, and my behavior and that attitude helped extend my career.
But on that Wednesday morning in Cleveland, all of that was far from my mind. Today wasn’t about me.
Less than ten hours earlier, we had beaten the Cleveland Indians 9–3 in Game Six to tie the best-of-seven series at three games apiece. The first pitch for Game Seven at Progressive Field was ten and a half hours away. It had been 108 years since the Cubs won their last title, and the generations of heartbreak for Cubs fans had little by little over the course of the season transformed from disbelief into real hope that this would be the season.
But that wasn’t on my mind, either. What was?
I needed a Starbucks. Desperately.
I actually had gotten up five hours earlier with Cole because he didn’t feel well. The kids had been battling illness over the last few days and Hyla was exhausted. When I got up the second time, around 9:30 a.m., I tried to go back to sleep but I couldn’t. I turned on the television and channel surfed. I wanted to watch a game show or some reality show, anything that would have allowed me to turn off my brain. I was already beginning to feel nerves about that night’s game.
All the networks were in full coverage mode. It seemed as if every channel or station I flipped on had their reporters in downtown Cleveland and at Progressive Field with breathless “Live Reports.” Everyone had an opinion on Game Seven. The last thing I cared about was anybody else’s opinion on our game. I knew the mindset of our team, what was being said in the clubhouse, and what we needed to do. I turned off the television.
I grabbed my iPhone next and mindlessly flipped through Twitter, but that didn’t help, either. Everyone’s thoughts—even at 140 characters—were on the game, too. Cole was now awake and playing on his iPad, while Hyla and Landri caught a few more winks.
It was still morning in our suite, but my mind was now jackhammer, midafternoon awake. I threw on a T-shirt, sweatpants, and flip-flops and went downstairs to the Starbucks in the hotel. The lobby was chaos. People were everywhere, and the place was loaded with Cubs fans who had come to be part of history. Some of them recognized me and came up to wish the team and me good luck. They marveled at how cool the season-long journey had been to bring us to this place. Everyone was so nice and I loved seeing all the positive energy. But some of the people who approached me wanted to make the day about me, noting my impending retirement. That’s what I didn’t want.
I was humbled—and overwhelmed at times—by all the attention. For most of fourteen seasons, I was a backup catcher. Sure, I signed autographs and hard-core fans would sometimes recognize me on the street. But it was nothing like what happened in 2016. Somehow my final season had turned into a year-long retirement party. I was no longer David Ross, but thirty-nine-year-old “Grandpa Rossy”—to my teammates and fans alike.
I still struggled to believe the series of events that season. It had all started in spring training when a few of my teammates said some nice things about me. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant took things viral when they opened and named the “Grandpa Rossy” Instagram account and the Cubs communications staff snapped a few photographs of me to help them get it started. A year later the site has more than three hundred thousand followers. It still makes me smile!
The Chicago fans read everything and they quickly joined in. I absolutely had no idea why I was so beloved by fans, but it made for an incredible final season. There were so many times during the season I was brought to tears by everyone’s generosity and kind words.
But now, standing in the hotel lobby in Cleveland, the last thing I wanted to hear was something about me. I said it to anyone who would listen: I didn’t want my last day in baseball to be a distraction for anyone, least of all me!
I bought coffee for Hyla and me—and a big ol’ donut for the kids—and headed back to the room. I usually let Landri and Cole split a donut, but I’m not supposed to. Hyla doesn’t want the kids to eat donuts for breakfast. But, hey, I figured since it was Game Seven we could break a rule. Back in the room, Landri nibbled at the donut, and then even though Cole wasn’t very hungry, he accompanied me back downstairs for a second breakfast in a banquet room decked out with a buffet for players and their families.
It was time to go see the team.
DAVID’S iPHONE JOURNAL
I was talking with some friends one night about retiring and how I wanted to take things in much more this year. I don’t want the great moments to be forgotten as soon as the next one comes. They said I should start a journal, so here we go. Knowing this is my last year, the off-season has been like no other. I have been on an emotional roller coaster since Christmas. I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my career and the people I’ve come in contact with over the years. The other night I put on the 2013 World Series video and laughed/cried till I went to bed. I’m feeling way more appreciative for others who have helped in my journey and have supported me through the highs and lows. A guy like Steve Givens who has been throwing BP to me at night anytime I ask since high school. Freezing cold, 10:00 at night, after a full day’s work and an hour car ride, and never asked for anything. He has been my sounding board and giving me great advice many a night.
I grew up in Tallahassee. It’s a nice city, the state capital, and it’s located in the northern panhandle, about thirty minutes from the Georgia–Florida state line. It’s an educational hub, too, with Florida State University, Florida A&M University, and Tallahassee Community College all within five miles of each other. There’s tons to do year-round. The closest beach is thirty minutes away, there’s plenty of hunting and fishing available, and the weather, despite the summer heat, also can be postcard perfect. It’s a great place to raise a family, and I still call it home.
My parents, Jackie and David Ross, were my first role models. Much of how I act and think has to do with my parents and the examples they set. When I saw my mom and dad get up and go to work every day, at the crack of dawn, I understood the importance of hard work and commitment. My dad was one of those guys who believed you needed to be on time. In fact, if you were on time, you were late. Dad spent three years in the navy as a cook, and he believed in those values and has followed them to this day. You showed up for work on time, you worked hard, and you did what you were supposed to do. And repeat it all the next day.
I also learned the importance of humility from them—and to be grateful for what you have. I am the middle child, sandwiched between my older sister, Shannon, and younger sister, Nikki. When my parents married in 1974, they lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home on the south side of town. It was a low-income area, and I bet that house was less than one thousand square feet. My parents eventually enclosed the carport and made it into the master bedroom. Neither one of my parents attended college, but they worked really hard and provided for their kids. That is how I learned to appreciate the value of a dollar.
Dad worked for Livingston Provision Company, a business that processed and delivered meats to area restaurants and schools. He arrived each day to work at 4 a.m. I spent several summers crawling around in those freezers, helping make deliveries and earning one hundred dollars a week—and thinking I was rich. Dad officially retired in 2007 but still works part-time for the same company. Mom worked for the Florida State University athletic department in ticket sales. She later was in charge of ticket sales at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center and also worked for the Department of Highway Safety before she retired in 2014. On top of that, she was a full-time mom.
Every penny counted in our home. That’s why technically I am not a Tallahassee native, though I have lived there my entire life with the exception of my first thirty-six hours or so. My parents saved $1,500 dollars when I was born on March 19, 1977—in Bainbridge, Georgia. The delivery cost at the Tallahassee hospital was $1,700 compared to $200 at the Bainbridge hospital, so they packed up and headed north on the day I was born.
Suffice to say the phrase “humble beginnings” applies! And as an adult, baseball would continue to keep me humble.
Time for a confession: Although I played fifteen years in the big leagues (2002–16) with seven different organizations, played in 883 games, and am blessed with two World Series rings (with both the Boston Red Sox and the Cubs), I was never a big baseball fan growing up. I hardly ever watched baseball. It was boring. I’d much rather turn the TV to a game show or a basketball game. Those involved constant action. My childhood buddy Jason Jackson, still my best friend to this day, and I watched a game show called Supermarket Sweep. It was a show where contestants tried to win a timed shopping spree in a supermarket. Now that was fun, watching people dash around a grocery store, tossing products wildly into their carts.
Other friends of mine were baseball guys and knew all the players on every major-league team. I couldn’t name half of them. That really didn’t matter to me. But here’s the thing: I loved playing the game. What I lacked as a fan, I made up for on the field.
I started out as a second baseman in youth baseball, but I soon discovered I loved to catch. I wanted to be in every play and I took pride in it. My future high school coach, Jeff Hogan, was the person who suggested to my father that I move to catcher. Second basemen were a dime a dozen, he said. Being the guy behind the plate was never boring.
I played on the fields at Capital and Winthrop parks in Tallahassee’s youth league and, back in the day, was known as a power hitter—this from a guy who only hit 106 home runs in the big leagues! I may have been chubby as a young kid, but I had some pop in my bat. Plus, I also loved playing defense, throwing runners out and getting into all that catcher equipment. I was confident in my abilities, even then. I just always believed in myself.
That carried over into high school at Florida High, which at that time was located on the Florida State University campus, near downtown. Our baseball program under Coach Jeff Hogan was a perennial contender for the state title. I learned a lot from Coach Hogan and carried those lessons with me into the majors. I was always a good bunter and that was a skill coach Hogan taught and emphasized to every player. Coach Hogan fostered a good atmosphere on the team, where talented older players helped teach the younger guys how to play the game right. And when Coach Hogan retired, his assistant coach, John Hollenbeck, stepped in and continued to build the program’s tradition.
During my freshman year, our starting catcher, Derek Reams—he later signed with FSU and played in the minor leagues for two years—couldn’t play in a spring tournament game. I was thrown into the fire. I caught a senior pitcher and, if memory serves, we won the game 1–0. My approach didn’t change, whatever the circumstances. I just tried to focus and concentrate on the moment and not be overwhelmed. I wasn’t the best player on the team by any means, but I was confident. I wasn’t afraid to speak up, either. If somebody had a bad attitude in the dugout—no matter if he was a freshman or an upperclassman—I wasn’t afraid to say something. I was willing to do whatever it took to win that day. I was focused on the moment. I didn’t care about how I looked because it wasn’t about me.
Even in high school, I enjoyed the management aspects of being a catcher. I was always observing what was happening with our pitcher and the other team’s batters. I enjoyed talking to the coaches and my teammates, saying things like, “Hey, we’re not getting this pitch today, so let’s stay away from it.” Or “We can’t throw this pitch anymore to that guy.” The coaches would sit down with me and ask, “Hey, what are you seeing today?” I took that part of the game much more seriously than I did my offense. I was never the player who took a million swings in the batting cage. And I guess it showed in my average. But I loved to catch, read the hitters, throw out base runners, and work with the pitchers to get them through the game. Even in high school I loved managing the ups and downs of the game. I am as competitive as anyone—I was tossed from one high school game for arguing balls and strikes—but I also felt it was my responsibility to keep a teammate from boiling over. If everyone else was losing their head, I needed to keep mine on.
Baseball was my game, but I loved basketball, too. It was my favorite sport. I played hoops at Florida High for Al Blizzard. But since my potential was in baseball, Blizzard asked me to promise I’d commit to basketball for the three years after I made the varsity team as a sophomore. Blizzard didn’t want me taking a roster spot from another player who really wanted to play if I planned to quit after one season. Quit? There wasn’t a three-point shot I’d pass up. You have to shoot to score, right? Once it was clear my future was baseball, however—I was being recruited by many of the country’s top college baseball programs by my senior year in 1995—Coach Blizzard told me it was okay for me to quit basketball to concentrate on baseball, if that’s what I wanted.
I told him I loved basketball and made a commitment to play all three years, and that’s what I did. And I enjoyed every minute of it.
DAVID’S iPHONE JOURNAL
Had a chance to go hang with a buddy this last weekend for a super bowl party. My wife and I went to Auburn to spend the weekend with Tim and Kim Hudson. Tim and I played together at Auburn and in Atlanta. He is a guy I have thought of as a great friend and mentor. Tim just finished his last year of a 17 year career with the SF Giants. It was nice to get his perspective on his last year and the things he tried to do. He talked a lot about the things that are becoming more important to me the longer I’m in this game, and that is the relationships. We talked about a lot of special people we have been able to play with and how they made us better players and people. How the bond you create will never go away even long after baseball, that’s what I am most proud of. He also talked about trying to compete when the tank is empty, that’s what I’m most scared of!!! No one enjoys failing, especially when you feel like you are letting down the guys you care most about. I don’t want to embarrass myself. Anyways, it was a great weekend with the Hudson family and just made me even more excited about the journey of this season.
I always tried to take everything in stride, even during my college recruitment. I had shoe boxes and shoe boxes of letters from colleges around the country, and I had made official visits to Auburn, Miami, Tulane, North Carolina State, and Tennessee. FSU was in my backyard and recruited me as well—I peddled soft drinks in FSU’s baseball stadium as a kid—so I had the pick of some of the best baseball programs in the country.
My dad has always had a great and very dry sense of humor. In high school I’d tell him I was leaving the house at 8:45 p.m. for a 9 p.m. movie, and he’d say, okay, be back at 9:15 p.m. One night Jason Jackson and I went out and before we left Dad gave me his standard be back at 9:15 p.m.—and then he surprised me by asking if I had made a decision on college yet. I told him I’d think about it the next day. I’d kept putting the decision off. Dad said, “No, I think you need to start really narrowing this thing down. People are waiting on you.” He was right. So I made the decision on the spot. I told Dad, “All right, I’ll go to Auburn,” just like that, in the snap of a finger. Then Jason and I jumped in the car and went to the movies. FSU fans often wondered why I didn’t attend FSU, but I felt I needed to get out of town and learn to live on my own. I never washed my own clothes or cooked a meal until I went to college.
I had been drafted in the nineteenth round of the 1995 Major League Amateur Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Florida High, but I had decided to go the college route instead. I played at Auburn in 1996–97. That’s when I created my work ethic under Coach Hal Baird that carried into my professional career.
I think players have a mental choice to be either negative or positive in any given situation. Actually, we all have a choice of what we want our attitude to be. The longer I was in baseball, the more I knew one thing about the game: Nobody was going to feel sorry for you. The game moves on and you have to keep working and pushing forward to keep up.
My sophomore year in 1997, we played the NCAA regional tournament in my hometown of Tallahassee, at FSU. Talk about a cool moment. Beyond the left-field fence of the baseball stadium was my alma mater, Florida High. In our game against FSU, I started at catcher only because Casey Dunn had suffered a broken hand in the regional opener against South Carolina. We trailed 7–1 after six innings but managed to close the gap to 7–5 in the bottom of the ninth. I came to the plate with two runners on and immediately fell behind in the count 0–2. After taking a ball, I barely foul-tipped the next pitch. In fact, FSU players had already started to charge out of their dugout, thinking they won the game. Two pitches later, I hit a game-winning home run over the left-field fence. It was crazy. I was just trying to find my way and the next thing you know, I hit maybe one of the biggest home runs in school history.
We went on to win the regional tourney and advanced to the College World Series, where we lost to Stanford twice in the double-elimination bracket. We had a talented team, with guys like Tim Hudson, who pitched and played center field and is now one of my closest friends. He and I reunited in the big leagues with the Atlanta Braves from 2009 to 2012.
With Dunn healthy and returning—and after being asked to move to left field from catcher—I left Auburn on good terms and transferred to Florida for the 1998 season. Even though I was the new guy, I felt at home and immediately connected with the guys and Coach Andy Lopez. Again, it was about fitting into a new situation and being myself, on and off the field. Coach had enough confidence in me behind the plate that I was one of five or six catchers during his thirty-plus-year career allowed to call their own game. That experience helped me throughout my career in terms of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of pitching staffs and opposing hitters. Gators pitcher Josh Fogg also said I was the master of the “two-minute conversation” when I arrived. That was my way of making sure I introduced myself to everyone and letting them know I was going to work to be the best player I could be for the Florida Gators and do whatever it takes to win. And we did it together. Coach Lopez liked to say the ponies got all the attention, but it was the mules that helped make teams successful. It was a fun, talented team with guys like Fogg, Brad Wilkerson, and Mark Ellis. We made it to the College World Series that season as the number-one seed but lost our first two games to Mississippi State and Southern California.
When I reflect back on it, it’s clear to me how fortunate I was during that time of my development, from youth baseball to high school to college. In addition to those teams, I had the chance to travel the country with the 18U Team USA Baseball team and played in the Junior Olympics. I never had any expectations when it came to making any of those teams. I really just enjoyed competing and playing and being part of a big group. I think I’ve always had that quality in me. Do I always want to play? Yes. Just keep doing your thing, just keep working hard.
Following my junior season at Florida, I was drafted again by the Los Angeles Dodgers, this time in the seventh round of the 1998 amateur draft.
Another journey was set to begin.