Put him in a room full of strangers and he will make friends. Place him in a new clubhouse and he will have a positive impact on the dynamic.
David Ross knows how to fit in. It is a skill he developed as a child and one he has carried with him through his 13-year major league career. Adapting to his settings and those around him has become second nature by now.
For Ross, it’s all about making the most of whatever situation he is in. For those who spend an entire baseball season with him, it’s about enjoying the magnetic catcher and his unique personality.
At the core of a unified Boston Red Sox ballclub is a man with an unmistakable knack for bringing those around him together and creating a supportive environment where everyone feels like they belong.
All because, “I kind of liked to fit in.”
Playing outside was more fun than kicking around the house. There was always some type of sports-related activity going on and Ross wanted to be part of it. Just be home in time for dinner, his mother instructed. Ross would hop on his bike and set out for the day.
That bike, though, would have to replaced about once a year. Ross didn’t grow up in a storybook picket-fence setting. Things were different where he lived in Tallahassee, Fla.
“I grew up kind of in a bad neighborhood where all the kids around me were older,” Ross said. He went on to explain, “The way I describe the neighborhood I grew up in, I got a bike every year for Christmas because mine got stolen. It was kind of the way it was. But I didn’t know any different.”
For the early years of his life, Ross and his family resided in what he described as a low-income area. His parents worked hard to provide everything they could for their three children (Ross is a middle child with two sisters), including the popular trampoline in their backyard. Ross’ father owned a meat company that processed meats for restaurants and school, his mother ran ticket sales at the civic center.
Together they lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home, which his parents expanded by enclosing the carport and transforming it into a master bedroom to give them as much space as they could stretch. He estimates the 840 sq. ft. home cost $18,000.
“I came from basically nothing,” he said. “My parents worked their entire lives. Neither one of (them) went to college and they worked really hard to get to where they are, stable middle class. You see that hard work and then they give us as kids whatever we needed, so I appreciate the value of a dollar.”
Wherever he went in the neighborhood there seemed to be a large group of peers. Ross says it wasn’t a situation where there was a lot of fighting between them, but being one of the younger children forced him to act more mature at an earlier age.
“You were around other people a lot, and that’s why I can fit in in a lot of situations,” he said. “My personality fits in well wherever I go because I’ve always had to fit in. But I like fitting in. I let people know who I am and be me.”
When Ross was 11 his parents had saved up enough money to build a home in a nicer part of Tallahassee on the north side. Even though Ross attended the same school, getting acclimated to a new neighborhood was a transition. Like he had done so many times before, Ross had to fit in again.
From one neighborhood to another, Ross graduated from Florida High School and enrolled at Auburn University, later transferring to the University of Florida. From there he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the seventh round of the 1998 amateur draft. He made his Major League debut in 2002.
Ross was on his third organization in as many seasons by the time he became teammates with Jake Peavy on the San Diego Padres. Although he was 28, Ross was still relatively new to the big leagues and finding his voice. The verbal leadership may not have been there yet, but the magnetism was.
“He always was the same guy,” said Peavy. “When you’re young, it’s hard for you to be as vocal as he can be now. … David’s got a great personality. He’s a little bit of everything. I think he encompasses and touches all personality types. He can be as serious as you ever could be, he can be as loose and joking and playful as you could ever be. I think when you have guys like that on the squad who have a little bit of everything, it really goes a long way. You have certain types of people in the clubhouse but not all people can really reach out and be friends and touch basically everybody in the clubhouse. I think David is one of those guys.”
Ross, 37, bounced around baseball, playing for the Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Padres, Cincinnati Reds, and Atlanta Braves before joining the Red Sox (for a second time), signing with them as a free agent in November 2012. He had experienced highs and lows throughout his career, playing for both winning and losing teams, being a starter and a backup. The unpredictability of baseball grounded him and heightened his desire to enjoy the ride while he was still on it.
“I don’t take myself too seriously,” he said. “I like to have fun. It’s one of those things where now that I’m so comfortable, I can be a little bit off the wall. I like being off the wall because I like for everybody else to know it’s ok to be off the wall, we’re going to make mistakes. I like to make fun of people’s mistakes. If you can make fun of somebody’s mistakes in a joking matter, I think it’s funny and you can kind of forget about it rather than harping on it or everybody’s quiet.
“Everybody,” he observed with a characteristic laugh, “thinks I’m probably a jerk, to be honest with you.”
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Ross’ personality was embraced when he joined the Red Sox last season. He had a natural ability to make his teammates feel at ease. When they talked, he listened. When the mood got heavy, he lightened it. Ross had a knack of saying the right thing at the right time to lift his new teammates.
“He’s awesome,” said John Lackey. “He’s hilarious, first of all. He’s perfect. He’s just what you need in a locker room. He’s fired up and ready to go when it’s time to play, and he’s ready to have fun and joke around with the boys when he’s not playing. “
He was the down-for-whatever guy. Regardless of who he was with, he made an effort to understand their interests and participate in things they liked to do. It is easy for pro athletes to get set in their own ways, but Ross was the opposite.
“He’s a chameleon,” said Jonny Gomes. “He relates with everyone. He’s a guy who will throw on some jeans and a cowboy hat and (sit by the) campfire, know all the country (music) and then he’ll just get down to some late 90’s rap. He kind of relates to everyone, which is an awesome quality. You would think everyone can do it, but not really I guess.
“It comes across as really organic, it’s not fake. You know when someone comes up to you and tries to talk to you about something that you have passion about or enjoy like they do too, but by the end of the conversation that guy has no idea what he’s talking about? He does. On that same token, if it’s something that you have passion about or enjoy or have knowledge about, he’ll ask you about it. He’s not on his high horse. He asks for advice from old guys, young guys, anything.”
Ross finds it easier to be an open book than to put up walls. He lets people get to know him; in turn he gives the same attention. Be real with him and he will be real with you.
“You recognize fake people really fast,” Ross said. “I’ve learned more as I’ve gotten older, if you be yourself people are going to respect that more than if you try to fit in. If you try hard to fit in, you’re not going to fit in. I just try to be myself and have a good time. I like being around people, I like talking baseball, I like having a good time. I have a good time coming to work. I don’t need to stay out until 5 a.m. to have a good time either. But I can, if that’s what the skit is. I kind of roll with the punches.”
This type of chemistry translates into the games. As a catcher, having a solid working and personal relationship with the pitchers only strengthens the partnership on the field. The Red Sox pitchers know if Ross has their back away from the ballpark, he is giving them his all behind the plate.
“(The best thing about pitching to David is) the trust factor,” said Lackey. “He does his homework on the hitters, he knows what he’s doing, he’s been back there a ton of times. He just makes it easier. Whatever pitch he throws down, you feel confident because he did the work and research to do it.
“Sometimes he’ll come out there and just slow things down a little bit. He’ll throw in a joke on the mound every now and then, that sort of stuff. Then if you’re really fired up, he’ll go out there and kind of hang out and give you a second to breathe. He reads situations well and he’s good at that sort of thing.”
Last season the Red Sox captured the 2013 World Series with that balance of having fun while winning. Ross played a key role in keeping the team loose in stressful situations. Even though the unified team did not have a specific leader, seeing him remain unaffected gave them confidence.
“To be able to see a catcher calm, cool, and collected, kind of lets us breathe a little bit following his lead,” said Gomes. “It’s amazing how intense and serious and passionate during the game (he is), but yet he can crack a joke and keep everyone loose. The guy’s got his life on the line, he’s catching in the World Series, and yet he’s able to find time for a joke to loosen up the group.”
Watch carefully and Ross is a source of entertainment during games. Mike Carp laughed as he recounted one of his favorite activities: yelling at his teammates. Ross often calls out comments to the dugout when he is running to first base. Other times he can be heard loud and clear from the plate.
“He’ll yell at someone about defensive positioning, if they’re in the right spot, it’s pretty hilarious,” said Carp. “If you keep an eye on him there’s a lot of antics going on (when he’s playing). He’ll blurt out something to the bench, to us as he’s running by, backing up first. He’ll always have some comment. It’s pretty funny. … It definitely keeps us loose around here and keeps us on our toes. He’s very quick-witted in things he says and you have to think about it for a second — oh man, that’s pretty funny.”
No, Ross isn’t afraid to speak up.
“I’m always yelling at these guys,” he admits. “(Third base coach) Brian Butterfield sits down here (in the dugout). Me and him play these little games just pushing each other, he makes me better, challenging me. I go all the way down. On the days I’m not playing I’ll yell at A.J. (Pierzynski), ‘All the way down! Don’t half it!’ There’s games we play and yell at each other, keep it fun but make guys better. That’s my thing. I like to have fun but I also want to win.”
There are instances, though, when Ross’ inviting personality doesn’t resonate with everyone. Back in his early days with the Dodgers, he started a habit of offering a hello to each teammate, trainer and coach when he entered the clubhouse. There were some days when Milton Bradley was less than enthused.
“I’m a hard guy to ignore,” said Ross. “(I’d say), ‘Hey good morning. How are you doing? How’s it going today?’ It’d be about four or five days in a row, Milton wouldn’t say anything to me. He wouldn’t say anything back. I was like, ‘OK, I’m done with this guy. I’m done.’ Sure enough, the next day he’d be like, ‘Hey Rossy, what’s going on?’ So it was one of those, I can’t get a read on this guy. There are people that are harder to read, but I think there are guys that just aren’t talkers and that’s fine.”
Ross encountered a similar situation last season. Even though the Red Sox were on board with his demeanor, not everyone wanted to chat it up every game.
“Jacoby Ellsbury last year here — great guy, great teammate, but he’s not an outgoing, outwardly spoken guy,” said Ross. “So you say hey to Ells, how’s it going? And when he talks to you, you talk back, but it’s not a lot of conversation. I don’t think he talks a lot with too many people. It’s just one of those things. I’m going to be me.”
He lets it roll off his back, smiles, and moves along. He believes he is “too fortunate” playing baseball for a living to take it too seriously. Ross will go about his business, trying to make as many people happy as possible while doing so. He will continue to say his hellos, get to know his teammates, and gel with the vibe of the clubhouse.
The little kid from Tallahassee who wanted to fit in is still a part of Ross today. Instead of getting along with children in the neighborhood, he is using his people skills to bring together professional ball players … and win a championship along the way.
Said Lackey, “He’s just great to have around.”