THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
Cubs Spring Training preview
As a new season begins for the Cubs and White Sox, Joe Maddon’s shadow looms large over managers David Ross and Rick Renteria.
It was Maddon’s unexpected availability five years ago that made Renteria expendable on the North Side, leading to his second act as manager of the rebuilding White Sox.
And it was Maddon’s shockingly short shelf life after the 2016 championship that led to his departure in September, paving the way for the remodeling Cubs to hire Ross.
Now Renteria and Ross are hoping to replicate the success Maddon enjoyed in Chicago in a 2020 season that poses great challenges for both.
They’re two different personalities who share the same goals and a similar message of unbridled optimism, trying to manage their teams in an environment of changed expectations.
For Renteria, it’s a win-or-else season with a Sox team ready to contend and a fan base tired of waiting for the turnaround.If it doesn’t happen now, many fingers will be pointed in his direction.
“That’s my goal right now,” Renteria said. “Not to miss this opportunity.”
For Ross, it’s a wait-and-see season with the usual challenges faced by first-year managers with no experience, along with the unusual challenge of managing some of his former teammates. But with gloom-and-doom predictions from both the analytical experts and the old-fashioned dinosaurs, his first task may be to persuade Cubs fans to be as excited as him.
“It’s new,” Ross said. “New is always exciting to me. New adventures … I can’t wait to get started. There’s a lot of (negative) talk that goes around. I don’t feel like in general we’ve had that nice (offseason) excitement. I’m excited as heck. I hope the fans are. We’ve got a chance to put another banner up there in 2020.”
If you can get past the fixed smiles on the faces of Ross and Renteria, you may notice each has a basketball-sized chip on his shoulder.
As much as Sox honchos have insisted Renteria is the right man for the rebuild, he never has been given a team this talented, so it’s impossible to know exactly how good a manager he is. Renteria’s strength has been building relationships with his players, who swear by him and insist he won’t change, even if the pressure to win has been turned up a notch or 10.
“He’ll be the same,” left fielder Eloy Jimenez said. “He was always pushing us to get a spot in the playoffs. Last year he pushed us, but at the end we struggled a little bit. This year we’ll be better with a better lineup and more starting pitching.”
The additions of free agents Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel have Sox fans thinking big for the first time in years. And the players are talking big as well.
“The door is wide open for us,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “All we’ve got to do is show up and go out and take it. We have the right guys to do it and the right guy in charge to lead us.”
That guy is Renteria, who said he’s “not afraid of talking about high expectations and winning,” though he won’t go overboard and make any predictions or guarantees.
“I know most people, they don’t talk about it because you think you’re putting your own head in a noose,” he said.
Renteria’s head won’t be in a noose if the Sox don’t make the playoffs in 2020. General manager Rick Hahn is unlikely to pull the plug, barring another season of 90-plus losses. But Renteria’s moves will be more scrutinized, particularly with the bullpen, if the Sox are in contention.
“It’ll be up to everybody to decide whether we did the job we were supposed to do as coaches and managers,” he said. “I can’t worry about that. Never have, never will.”
Ross, meanwhile, should receive a honeymoon with Cubs fans in his first year running the dugout. He was the odds-on favorite to replace Maddon because of his close relationship with Cubs President Theo Epstein, so it was no surprise he got the job over the more experienced Joe Girardi, who wound up with the Phillies.
But replacing the popular Maddon won’t be easy, especially if the Cubs get off to a poor start. Honeymoons don’t tend to last long in Chicago.
Either way, Epstein believed the time was right for a change.
“If it wasn’t right now, I think it’d be in a couple years no matter what,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said of the Cubs hiring Ross. “His knowledge of the game, his leadership skill set, the way he can talk to guys and communicate as a player … even when he (stopped) playing, I’d talk to him every couple weeks just to run stuff through him. He’s been managing games a long time being a backup catcher.”
It may feel a bit strange at first to have an old buddy become your boss. But left fielder Kyle Schwarber said the players won’t treat Ross any differently and don’t expect him to go easy on them.
“I don’t think it’s going to be weird because there’s a level of respect that he was given in that clubhouse when he was here,” Schwarber said. “Obviously he’s going to be our boss and he’s going to be making the decisions. We’re going to back him. He’s going to back us. He’s going to get the ultimate level of respect.”
Ross already is dealing with the awkwardness head on, letting Rizzo know at a recent dinner who the boss is.
“I asked him a lot of fun questions,” Ross said. “It’s nice to hold it over his head that I’m dictating his work and what he has to do. I still like to have fun with them. I think I’ll walk that line really well between being their friend and being their boss.”
The time for talking isn’t over. We’ll have six more weeks of rosy outlooks from the two managers before the Sox and Cubs begin their seasons March 26. Then it gets real.
And that’s when Renteria and Ross will have to prove to fans they were the right guys at the right time.