On Sunday, two unexpected and seemingly unconnected events happened in the world of baseball.
In Chicago, Cubs pitcher Jon Lester, last year’s runner-up for the Cy Young Award, had the shortest outing of his major league career. He didn’t make it out of the first inning, giving up 10 runs (four earned, two on homers) in two-thirds of an inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field. Never in his 12-year career had the three-time World Series champ and four-time All-Star failed to pitch at least four innings, let alone fail to get out of the first.
Meanwhile, in the Twitter world, a few hours later, retired catcher and former Cub David Ross tweeted that he was “un-retiring” to play for the Kansas Stars, an independent team of former major-leaguers. They’ll begin play in the National Baseball Congress World Series on July 29 in Wichita.
What ties together these two hardball happenings is of course the players involved.
Before retiring at age 39, Ross had been Lester’s personal catcher. For the last four years, the two had been almost inseparable. The career backup catcher began catching for Lester in Boston in 2013. When the Cubs brought in Lester before the start of the 2015 season as their new ace, Ross came with him. It seemed odd if not extravagant at the time. The Cubs didn’t seem to need another catcher – they already had Miguel Montero, who has since become persona non grata in Cubland after his unforgivable sin of publicly speaking the truth – along with a couple of highly touted catching prospects in Wilson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber. A sardine would have had trouble finding room in the Cubs’ backstop position.
Ross proved that the Cubs needed him much more than anyone, even Theo Epstein, would have ever imagined. In his two years in Chicago, before his retirement at age 39, Ross became affectionately known as “Grandpa Rossy,” one of the most unlikely heroic figures and beloved Cubs of all time. He even had the storybook ending, dramatically belting a home run in his last at bat, in Game 7 of the World Series, and then having his teammates carry him on their shoulders during the victory celebration.
The legend of David Ross has only grown since his retirement with a book about his baseball life, his own breakfast cereal (Grandpa Rossy Crunch), a broadcasting gig for ESPN, and a surprising second place finish in Dancing with the Stars.
Where Ross has flourished, his former batter mate, Lester, has wilted. Sunday’s shellacking left him dazed and confused. But let’s be frank, he hasn’t seemed quite right all season-long. After the best season of his 12-year career in 2016, in which he posted a 19-5 record and 2.44 ERA, he has, like all the Cubs starters, scuffled in 2017. At the break, he has a 5-6 record and an ERA of 4.25. Not since 2012 has he had a season with an ERA over 4.00.
Lester, like the rest of the Cubs, has been in a deep funk all season long. Unlike Kyle Hendricks, Lester can’t blame it on injury. At least not a physical one.
But perhaps there is a mental explanation for his pitching struggles. We all know of his “yips” in throwing the ball to first base. He’s far from immune to mental lapses on the pitching mound.
That brings us back to Ross, who, for the first time in five years, hasn’t been there for him. And it begs the question: What if Lester is suffering from a case of separation anxiety? It would certainly explain why he just doesn’t look all that comfortable on the mound this season. He’s missing the one thing he could always depend on the last four years, his trusted battery mate.
Think about it. Lester and Ross go together like Bogart and Bacall. Starsky and Hutch. Gilligan and Skipper. Astaire and Rogers. They’re better together, or at least Lester is.
That brings me to my dream scenario. What if – just what if – all that Lester needs to reset and regain that pitching magic is for Ross to put on the catching mask once again. He’s already doing it in Kansas. Why not in Chicago?
Yes, it seems unlikely to happen. But maybe – just maybe – the last chapter in Ross’ baseball career has still yet to be written. Maybe he has one last dance left in him. Stranger things have happened. Lester and the Cubs desperately need a spark. Who better to bring it than Grandpa Rossy?
Dance the thought it your head a little. It fits, doesn’t it? Just like a sequined Cubs uniform.
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation