MILWAUKEE -- The rolled sheets of plastic that lined the edges of the ceiling inside the visitors’ clubhouse at American Family Field were a reminder of what could have been for the Cubs. Rather than a champagne celebration this weekend, the room was filled with farewell hugs and handshakes.
Reaching the postseason felt like a foregone conclusion in the first week of September, when the Cubs were still within striking distance of the Brewers in the National League Central. Instead, Sunday’s 4-0 loss in Milwaukee applied the period to a late-season fade that saw the North Siders head home with an 83-win campaign.
“If we don't get to where we want to get to,” Cubs manager David Ross said, “I’m the head of the team, I’m the manager of this team, the blame should come on me first.”
Ross has his critics when it comes to bullpen management, lineup construction and tendency to lean heavily on veterans. That comes with the territory in the manager’s chair, but there is so much more to the job than filling out batting orders or making in-game decisions.
Both president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts have pointed to how Ross kept his ballclub motivated and focused when the team was 10 games below .500 on June 8. It was a make-or-break moment in Chicago’s season, and the players produced 50 wins over the next 78 games to climb back into contention.
“To maintain the level of positivity on a daily basis,” Hoyer said, “let me tell you, being 10 under in the middle of June, that is normally a very negative clubhouse. And so for him to bring that every day, the coaches to be positive -- obviously the players deserve a ton of credit -- but he sort of leads that. I think that's really remarkable to be able to do that.”
Ricketts arrived at the ballpark on Sunday and spent time chatting with Ross inside the visiting manager’s office before the last game of the year. During the game, he held court with reporters and gave his support for Ross, whose contract runs through 2024 with a club option for ‘25.
“I think Rossy did a great job,” Ricketts said. “He creates a great clubhouse culture. The players love playing for him. He keeps a steady, balanced approach game in and game out that you need over the course of 162 games.
“And I talked to him before the game today. He's as disappointed as anyone that we just couldn't quite pull it over the finish line.”
After the loss, Ross was asked about the vote of confidence from Ricketts.
“I appreciate that, obviously,” the manager said. “We have really good ownership. I've got a really good front office that I work for. Top-notch human beings. Sure, that feels good. Making the playoffs would feel better. Winning the World Series is going to feel better.
“I appreciate that. But I know the expectation here, and hold myself to a higher standard than where we're at.”
Ross said he plans to sit down with members of the front office, players and his coaches to have honest conversations about how the manager can learn from this season and improve going forward.
“I think he'll probably be critical of himself,” Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “But that's just something that's going to help us continue to grow and get better, is his willingness to get better, which obviously bleeds over into the players and the rest of the organization.”
“He's at the leadership helm for a reason,” Cubs veteran catcher Yan Gomes said. “We all turn to him.”
Even with that disappointing end to the season -- the Cubs dropped 15 of their final 22 games -- Swanson felt the team was close to being able to make the jump to World Series contender as soon as 2024.
“With how we finished, people are going to think it's further off than it actually is,” Swanson said. “I think that there's a lot of really, really talented players not only here, but obviously in the lower levels that can contribute. And then, obviously offseason free agency, there's plenty of moves that can be done there.”
Cubs veteran Kyle Hendricks -- who has a $16 million team option that seems like a no-brainer for the team to pick up for 2024 -- agreed with that assessment. Hendricks also did not believe Ross should have shouldered the blame for what happened at the tail end of the season.
“It comes down to the players at the end of the day. We're the ones that win and lose the ballgames,” Hendricks said. “He's just such a great leader of men and gets the confidence, gets the best out of everybody in here. Everybody loves going out there and playing for him and giving him our best. But we just want to win for him. That's it.
“We feel disappointed that we've disappointed him. We just want to go further. We want him to be managing in the playoffs.”