Cody Ross, meet The Green Monster
Fenway's signature feature could make Boston's new outfielder a big hit
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Three days before the Red Sox break camp in Florida, and Larry Lucchino couldn't help himself.
"I rarely make predictions in spring training," the Red Sox CEO said Friday, "but I will predict Cody Ross will become a fan favorite in Boston. For his style of play, particularly his zest for the game, and for how well he's fit in with this team, in a 'Dirt Dog' way."
Lucchino neglected to mention one other attribute Ross has displayed this spring that surely will endear himself to Red Sox fans if he takes it north with him to Fenway Park: the crowd-pleasing ability, especially when displayed by a man small in stature, to hit baseballs very high and very far.
Friday, Ross hit two more home runs, giving him six this spring, which is six more than struck by Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Gonzalez combined. We had been given fair warning that a couple of feared sluggers would be coming over from the National League and be let loose upon the land, but little did we imagine that Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder would be upstaged during introductions by a man who in the summer months of June, July and August last year hit a grand total of six home runs, matching the total he has hit in 41 spring at-bats in a Sox uniform.
"I plan on keep doing it, keep going," Ross said Friday after going deep twice in a 9-7 win over the Minnesota Twins in Hammond Stadium. "I feel good. It's nice to look at spring training carrying through the season. I've had both sides, where you struggle during the spring and you go into the season with no confidence, so hopefully maybe this year it will be a little different."
If the facsimile of Fenway paid for by the good people of Lee County accomplished one thing this spring, beyond the obvious enrichment of its grateful tenants, it was to advertise the compatibility between Ross' pull-happy swing and the dimensions of the left-field wall at which he will soon be taking aim on Lansdowne Street. For a man who labored last summer in a ballpark whose oversized acres of real estate, in tandem with the swirling winds off San Francisco Bay, conspire to disappoint even the strongest of men, the Monster comes as a welcome target.
It also affords a chance for Ross to prove that the baseball marketplace this winter badly misjudged his continued capacity to put up numbers worthy of an extended invitation instead of the one-year, $3 million contract he was forced to accept from the Red Sox when the three-year deals he had imagined did not materialize.
Ross had rescued his career from oblivion with a remarkable postseason run for the Giants in 2010, hitting five home runs in 15 games in the Giants' run-up to a World Series title. But he lost much of his value the following summer in San Francisco when he hit just .197 in the second half of the season and 14 home runs overall.
"It was an awful feeling," he said. "I started off pretty good, then hit a skid in August. It was just an up-and-down year, not fun. I never felt like I got anything going. That's a terrible feeling."
It felt even worse when the Giants, in a town that had embraced Ross as a favorite son after he helped deliver the team's first title in 52 years in San Francisco, decided not to offer him salary arbitration as a free agent, effectively cutting him loose.
Ross took measure of where he was, and found it wanting.
"I changed a few things," he said. "I watched a lot of video this offseason. I worked on my swing a lot instead of playing as much golf as I had planned to play this offseason. I really worked on my swing and just focused on staying back, staying relaxed. Those are the main keys. It feels good. Hopefully I'll continue with it."
With Carl Crawford yet to advance to hitting against live pitching, Ross will open the season in left field, but he has shown the ability to play all three outfield positions. "He plays great defense," said manager Bobby Valentine, "which has gone unnoticed."
Ross came to Boston advertised as a platoon outfielder and may well end up as just that once Crawford returns, sharing time with Ryan Sweeney in right field. But Valentine had proclaimed when the Sox first signed him that Ross was capable of playing every day, and he has done little to disabuse the Sox of that notion this spring.
And even for someone as well-traveled as Ross, who is on his sixth big league team in just nine seasons -- Tigers, Dodgers, Reds, Marlins, Giants all preceding his current employer -- making a good first impression still matters.
"It's a great feeling," he said. "I've been on a few different teams, and I don't care what anyone says: If you're 18 or 28 or 31, like I am, anytime you go to a new team you feel like you have to prove yourself again.
"Especially coming off a bad year, you feel like you have to show people, 'I can still play, I can still compete at the highest level, I'm still a good player.' It's constant pressure, which is good. So far this spring, it's been easy for me. Not 'easy,' but an easy transition with this team. That's it."
That transition is made even easier by an even-keeled disposition that won him immediate acceptance in a clubhouse also appreciative of his competitive nature, not to mention his bat-flipping exercises after he goes deep. David Ortiz has a challenger in that category.
No one, of course, is inclined to project that home runs hit among the palm trees of Florida will translate to long balls in Detroit, Chicago and the Bronx. Ross, who hit a career-best 24 home runs for the Marlins in 2009 before tapering off to 14 the past two seasons, acknowledges that he has been a streaky hitter.
"I think that could be said with the old me," he said." Sometimes I would see the ball really well. Sometimes I wouldn't see it at all, and I was just whaling at pitches. But I feel different this year. Obviously, I can't keep this up. It'd be nice to, but I feel like a different hitter. I'm not lunging at the ball. I'm taking the sliders away, just seeing it better. I think that has a lot to do with how I approached it this offseason."
Can a spring surprise evolve into a satisfying summer? Hey, the boss is already on record that he likes Ross' chances. And the rest of New England may not be too far behind.