By Jon Weisman
Baseball’s magnum opus, Game 7 of the World Series, takes place tonight — the Cubs and Indians taking their 176 combined years of bridesmaiding to a final contest.
Among other storylines, this will be the final night as a player for David Ross, who has received about as grand a farewell tour as a backup catcher will ever find. Of course, most of that has focused on his years as a Cub, but he spent a plurality of his professional career in the Dodger organization.
The Dodgers signed Ross 18 years ago, days after he was taken in the seventh round of the 1998 draft out of Florida. Only three of the 50 players the Dodgers drafted that year played for the team: first-rounder Bubba Crosby, fifth-rounder Scott Proctor and Ross. At age 21, Ross signed with the Dodgers 15 days before 19-year-old Adrián Beltré made his MLB debut with the team.
Ross would make his MLB debut on June 29, 2002, pinch-hitting for Shawn Green (and striking out) in the ninth inning of a 7-0 loss to the Angels. Beltré played third base, while the Dodgers’ starting center fielder that night was Dave Roberts. Another player in that game, pitcher Terry Mulholland, is now 53 years old.
Ross also happened to be the last Dodger to make his big-league debut before I founded Dodger Thoughts about three weeks later. That might well have been the most noteworthy fact of his first season in the big leagues, if not for the night of September 2.
If you know one thing about David Ross’ Dodger career, it’s probably this: With Arizona first baseman Mark Grace pitching the ninth inning of what would be a 19-1 loss to the Dodgers, Ross came up and hit his first career home run.
From Mike DiGiovanna of the Times:
… Grace complained he didn’t have a scouting report on Ross.
“He can obviously hit a 65-mph fastball,” Grace said. “That poor kid hit his first home run, and it’s off Mark Grace. I feel sorry for him.”
There was one benefit for Ross.
“I’m going to tell everyone, my kids and my grandkids, that I hit my first home run off a future Hall of Famer,” Ross said. “I just won’t tell them who it was.” …
Ross actually reached base three times in that game. He got his first MLB hit two innings earlier — batting for Roberts — with an RBI double to left that scored Wilkin Ruan, who himself had singled for his first hit in the Majors. In the same inning, after Ruan got his second career hit, Ross was hit by a pitch, extending the inning so that Tyler Houston could double home the Dodgers’ seventh and eighth runs of the inning.
In 2003, Ross would log 40 games and 140 plate appearances as the Dodgers’ primary backup catcher (to Paul Lo Duca), with a strong .336 on-base percentage, .556 slugging percentage and .892 OPS. He hit 10 home runs that year (one as a pinch-hitter), and he remains the last Dodger catcher with at least 100 plate appearances to slug above .500.
This was a prelude to the most significant moment of Ross’ Dodger career. On July 30, 2004, the Dodgers traded Lo Duca (along with Juan Encarnacion and Guillermo Mota) to the Florida Marlins for Brad Penny, Hee-Seop Choi and minor-leaguer Bill Murphy. The so-called “Heart and Soul Trade” roiled the Dodger fan base like nothing we had seen in the new century. (As a relative footnote, Roberts would be sent to the Red Sox the next day.)
Though the trade could be explained in the immediate aftermath and would ultimately be justified by Penny’s two All-Star seasons in Los Angeles, the right-hander was hurt one start after throwing eight innings of two-hit, shutout ball in his Dodger debut. That left the short-term burden on the polarizing Choi, whose OBP fell from .388 with the Marlins to .289 with the Dodgers, and Ross.
The day before the trade, Ross tripled and hit a game-winning home run in the Dodgers’ 3-2 victory over the Rockies at Coors Field. But thrust into the first starting role of his career, Ross couldn’t deliver, going 13 for 85 with 34 strikeouts, a .232 OBP and .247 slugging percentage.
On September 30 against the Rockies, Ross came to bat with two out in the bottom of the 10th inning and Alex Cora on first, and hit the first walkoff home run of his career. It clinched a tie for the National League West title. It would also be his last hit as a Dodger.
Relegated mainly to the bench behind Brent Mayne for the National League Division Series against St. Louis, Ross went 0 for 3 with a walk. Ross would go through Spring Training with the Dodgers in 2005, but at the end of March, three months shy of seven years in the Dodger organization, he was sold to the Pirates.
That would begin an odyssey that would take him through Pittsburgh, San Diego, Cincinnati, Boston, Atlanta, Boston (again) and finally, Chicago.
For a player who averaged fewer than 40 hits per season, his achievements were many. With the Reds, he would hit 41 homers in 692 at-bats. With the Red Sox, he would win a World Series title in 2013.
In his big-league career, he homered in 28 different ballparks. The last pitcher he hit a regular-season homer against, the Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez, was born 27 years after the first.
Already, Ross’ career has gone beyond what he could possibly have imagined after his Dodger career ended so unceremoniously. And tonight, it is entirely possible that the 39-year-old, in his final Major League Baseball game, will catch the final out of the Cubs’ first World Series title in 108 years, granting him immortal status in Chicago.