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Paul Sullivan: Cubs embrace David Ross as their new manager. Now he has to prove he’s nobody’s puppet.

CHICAGO – Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts, the only Ricketts sibling to attend David Ross’s introductory news conference Monday, was excited to talk about the team’s new manager.

“Of course we know everything about him,” she said. “We know his character, we know his experience, we know … excuse me, but I’m going to give him a hug right here.”

Ross, having finished his news conference, was waiting nearby to give his new boss a big ol’ hug, even though she technically already was his boss because Ross had a part-time gig as a special assistant to President Theo Epstein.

No matter.

Ross apologized to Ricketts for not returning her text, having apparently forgotten the first rule of etiquette when beginning a new job is answering your boss’ text. But Ricketts shrugged it off, knowing he’d been busy since Thursday when it was announced that he was Joe Maddon’s replacement.

Ricketts told Ross he was her choice, which almost made him blush. Ross told Ricketts that her brother Pete had told him she was the “most excited” of the Ricketts clan about his hiring. The two had another big ol’ hug, before Ross was off to do some more interviews.

When asked to confirm Pete Ricketts’ assessment of her excitement level, Laura demurred.

“I don’t know if I was the most excited,” she said. “But I was kind of rooting for him all along. Obviously I want them to do their process and (conduct the interviews) and make the best choice for the job. But, yeah, I was really hoping in the end it would turn out to be David.

“I know his character, how he holds people accountable. We’re just really thrilled.”

“Accountable” was the operative word Monday during Ross’ introduction, which did not include any offerings of a shot and/or a beer, as Maddon famously did with the media at the Cubby Bear five years ago. Accountability also was the thematic motif during Epstein’s postmortem after a late-season collapse saw the Cubs miss the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

So at least we know what we’re working with here. Ross obviously was hired to kick some assets, namely the talented core in the Cubs clubhouse that underachieved together, even as their individual 2019 stats look fine on the back of their baseball cards.

The 2019 Cubs were a supergroup that somehow didn’t mesh, like Blind Faith, which recorded only one album together despite the talents of Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. It’ll be Ross’ responsibility to make it mesh in 2020, though we’re still not sure if Epstein will break up the Javier Baez-Kris Bryant-Anthony Rizzo supercore this winter.

Ross handled himself well Monday and was much more serious than the guy we watched as the clubhouse leader in 2015 and ’16. He took pains to shoot down what he called the “misconception” about the “fun-loving, Grandpa Rossy theme out there,” undoing the hard work Rizzo and Bryant did to create the character. It was their “GrandpaRossy – 3” Instagram account in 2016 that hammered home the image, which is tough to ignore.

“If you ask any of my friends and ex-players what kind of teammate I was, I didn’t shy away from the tough conversations,” Ross said, pointing to some mound conversations with big ol’ pal Jon Lester that were “rarely friendly.”

Former Cubs starter Jason Hammel seemed to verify that anecdote on Twitter last week, facetiously asking Ross if Willson Contreras “will be managing the days ur babysitting (Lester).”

We can joke about the Ross-Lester relationship now, but with the Cubs in the stretch run this year Lester posted a 6.45 ERA with a .921 OPS against in 10 starts from Aug. 1 to Sept. 18. Ross may have a difficult decision to make if Lester starts similarly in 2020 and is the weak link of the rotation.

Epstein isn’t worried about good ol’ boy Ross being able to manage his ol’ buddies.

“It’s easy to get in a player’s face,” Epstein said. “Anyone can do that. It’s hard to get in their face and then have them come back a half hour later and want to talk about it more and still want to be around you.”

Epstein denied the Ross hiring was a fait accompli, as many – including me – have suggested from the start of the interview process. Ross did not interview with any of the other eight teams searching for a manager this month, so he only had one choice – manage the Cubs or return to his analyst job at ESPN.

“I think it’s the perfect fit for him and the organization at the perfect time,” Ross’ agent, Ryan Gleichowski, said.

Epstein said he learned a lot about Ross’ ability to manage during the interview process, which included a mock opening news conference that Ross apparently nailed. Ross also successfully dodged a reporter staking him out near Starbucks during his first interview with Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer, which probably earned him some points as well.

So why was Ross the “perfect fit” for the job?

Epstein said Ross had “special gifts as a leader, the things you can’t teach.” He revealed that players had said during exit interviews that there was not enough team bonding, which obviously was Ross’ forte as a Cubs player.

The perception of Ross simply carrying out Epstein’s directives will be difficult to shake, at least at the outset. Ross said he understands it will be a “collaborative effort” between him, Epstein and Hoyer, but he insisted he would be “making my own decisions (with) continued feedback” from his bosses.

“I’m going to be myself and figure out who I am and my passion on the field,” he said.

WMVP-AM 1000’s John Jurkovic already has dubbed him “the Manchurian manager,” so Ross will have to prove he’s not.

“If you’re a front office and you want a puppet, you don’t hire David Ross,” Epstein said. “Anyone that knows Rossy knows that.”

Epstein added Ross is “absolutely his own man,” and said he was looking for a “partner” and not a “yes man.”

“I’m looking forward to someone with his own ideas,” Epstein said.

Ross received a three-year contract through 2022, which gives him one more year than Epstein to make things right, assuming Epstein goes on to bigger and better things after his 10-year stint with the Cubs is up after 2021, which is mere speculation at this point.

“I never for one second think about my contract or the duration of it,” Epstein said. “We’re always going to act in the best interest of the organization for the long haul. … I think he’s somebody the entire organization felt good about. It wasn’t one person picking him. He was the consensus choice throughout the organization, and hopefully he’s here for a really long time.”

If it works, it should be a good ol’ time for everyone involved.

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The Cubs introduced David Ross as the 55th manager in franchise history on Oct. 28, 2019. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

The Cubs introduced David Ross as the 55th manager in franchise history on Oct. 28, 2019. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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