PHOENIX – Call Cody Ross a dirtbag and he smiles. It is the way he plays, and is it showing up already with the Diamondbacks.
Ross and Adam Eaton went through outfield drills on the second day of full-squad workouts last week, and Eaton could not help but notice the pace. Ross seemed to be working about game speed, and Eaton asked him about it.
“Gotta get better,” Ross answered simply.
The Diamondbacks understood that they were getting a by-example leader when they signed Ross, and they were not surprised. When manager Kirk Gibson heard the story, the gleam in his eye could have lit Salt River Fields.
“I told him how hard you were working — I was having a hard time keeping up,” said Eaton, with Ross standing nearby.
The two have adjacent lockers at Salt River Fields, and Eaton considers it a license to learn. Gibson sees it as another example of the team’s work ethic.
“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Gibson said of Ross. “It’s great leadership. It’s how he’s gone about it his whole time. When you think about bringing people in, it makes a difference. It’s immeasurable what guys like that bring.”
Gibson still does not want to identify Ross as his everyday right fielder, apparently so that others in the deep outfield do not feel slighted, but that certainly appears the most likely scenario as the D-backs seek the best spots for their four capable players.
Gibson has no questions about Ross’ perseverance. Gibson was the bench coach in Detroit when, on the best/worst day of Ross’s rookie season in 2003, Ross hit a grand slam off Cliff Lee in his sixth major league place appearance after a September call-up, hit a double off the left-field fence in his seventh and suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in his eighth, when he came down on the first-base bag at a weird angle after laying down a sacrifice bunt.
“I was really young and it was like, ‘Ah, no big deal,’” Ross said of the knee injury.
It did not shape his work ethic — that was part of his game from the beginning — but it did delay his return to the majors. Ross had surgery and was traded to the Dodgers within the next six months. He probably hurried his comeback, and it was not until the Marlins acquired him in 2006 that he was back at full strength, first as a platoon player and then as a regular with Miami, San Francisco and Boston.
“I’m not the biggest guy in the world and not the most talented,” said the 5-foot-10 Ross. “I play the game hard. I play it the right way. They’ll see that, and hopefully they’ll follow. We’ll have a lot of fun. We’ll go out and have a great time. But when it gets down to business, we’ll take care of it.”
The numbers speak to his approach. Ross has 96 homers, 152 doubles and 361 RBIs since 2008, and he won a World Series ring with San Francisco as a trade-deadline acquisition in 2010. He was the NLCS MVP on the way to the Giants’ victory parade, and something about those special situations seems to bring out the best in Ross. He is a career .284 hitter with runners in scoring position, with an OPS of .876.
“When there was a pressure situation, I always wanted to be that guy, even when I was in Little League and the game was on the line. I wanted to be in that position,” said Ross, who grew up in Carlsbad, N.M. “I don’t know if you can really teach it, but it’s something I’ve loved to do, and I will always love to be in that situation.”
There is pressure and there is pressure. Succeeding Justin Upton in right field is not that. He kind of chuckled when the subject came up.
“No, no, no. Absolutely not. Justin is a great player. He’s one of the top players in the big leagues, but I’ve been around for a long time. I don’t feel the pressure to come in and step in and try to replace guys. Maybe when I was 20, but not when I am 32,” he said.
The offseason turned out well, even if it had auspicious beginnings. Ross, a free agent, lives in the Valley and was interested in playing at home, but there did not seem to be a fit since the D-backs were long on outfielders. But opportunity comes at the most unusual times, as he discovered.
Ross and his wife were in a car heading to dinner with Texas general manager Jon Daniels when Ross received the news he had been hoping for. Ross’ wife nudged him as they got out of the car and showed him a text message — the Diamondbacks had just called with a contract offer. The sides met for lunch in Phoenix the next day, and Ross singed a three-year, $26 million deal.
“My smile was ear to ear,” Ross said. “At the same time, I still had to control my thoughts because this was a potential deal for me in Texas, too. It was just crazy how it all unfolded and how quickly it happened. It was dinner that night, lunch the next day with the D-backs, and basically agreed that night. It couldn’t have happened any better.
“Free agency is a crazy thing. You go into the offseason thinking there are going to be as ton of teams who are going to come calling. Everyone kind of plays possum and makes you try to panic a little bit.”
Eventually, the Rangers, Rockies and Mariners pursued Ross, as if they had a chance once the D-backs offered.
“A perfect storm. It was boom, boom, boom, and I made a decision,” he said. “Made the right one.”