David Ross basks in bright lights
After overcoming concussion, backup catcher thrives on World Series stage
ST. LOUIS -- You hurt an elbow, knee or shoulder, and typically you are not exiled from the game. David Ross twice bruised his brain, which is, after all, what it means to have a concussion, and twice the Boston Red Sox sent him away -- first to one of the best doctors in the country, then they sent him home to Florida.
"Every time you get this game taken from you, it's a pretty lonely place," Jonny Gomes said Monday night. "Some guys, when they rehab, they're in the dugout, the clubhouse, meetings. But when you have the game as a whole taken from you, it's a pretty lonely place."
Ross was gone for more than two months. He missed 65 games. He was gone so long he almost succumbed to the pleadings of his daughter, Landri, and his son, Cole, to shave his beard, the one he had begun as one of the three original Beard Brothers, with Gomes and Mike Napoli.
"When I was in my concussion, there were a couple days I thought of shaving the beard," Ross said Monday night. "But I knew I couldn't walk into the locker room. Those guys wouldn't let me back in if I shaved it."
How long was he gone? "I wasn't aware of how bad it was when it was first diagnosed," Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino said Monday night. "But it took so long for him to come back, you'd have to be blind not to be aware this was a major medical event."
An event, the 36-year-old Ross said, that not only left little room for him to imagine that he would be sitting on a World Series stage Monday night after delivering the biggest hit of his life while catching the biggest game of his life, but made him wonder if he would ever be able to play again.
"The trip I've taken this year, I never thought I'd be here," Ross said. "There were times I was questioning whether my career was over. But thanks to a lot of positive people, good doctors, I'm here, and I've got to thank the manager [John Farrell] for having faith in me and putting me in that position."
On Monday night in Busch Stadium, Ross was in a place that was anything but lonely. He had just guided pitchers Jon Lester and Koji Uehara through a 3-1 win that gave the Red Sox a three-games-to-two lead in the 109th World Series; he'd ripped an RBI ground-rule double off St. Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright that was the key hit in a tiebreaking, two-run seventh inning; and now he was on a podium reserved for the likes of marquee pitchers and superstar sluggers, not 36-year-old backup catchers with six big league teams and a .237 lifetime average on their résumé.
This was a moment meant to be savored, and Ross, an ebullient sort by nature, was going to ride it for all it was worth. Someone dropped a "signature moment" on him.
"The signature moment, I think that's what everybody lives for," he said. "But I'm kind of just -- I'm just in awe of being in the World Series, really. That's as signature as it gets. I'm on the podium, talking to you guys, with the whole World Series [backdrop] behind me, right? That's when you see people on TV. I'm stoked."
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His teammates -- who, outside of his wife, Hyla, and his doctor, neuropsychologist Micky Collins, MLB's consultant on concussions at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center -- knew most about the ordeal he was put through after being struck in the catcher's mask by foul tips twice in the span of about 10 pitches, and they were happy for him.
"David's been really great for us all year," said Ryan Lavarnway, the catcher who was left off the postseason roster but has remained with the team to assist in the bullpen and be available in case of injury. "When he's been healthy, he's been a mentor to Salty [Jarrod Saltalamacchia] and myself. He really takes the lead with the pitching staff. He prepares as well as anyone, and he knows these guys [the Cardinals] well because he's been in the National League so long.
"I'm really happy to see him come through in the clutch like that. I don't think anyone was surprised because he has that ability."
Lavarnway was in Pawtucket when Ross was first hurt back in May. Ross, who had one stint on the disabled list that month, attempted to come back but continued to experience symptoms, then went back on the DL in June for two months. When he returned, Lavarnway had questions.
"I asked him what it was like," said Lavarnway, who like Ross plays the game's most physically demanding position. "It's a scary thing, messing with the brain, all that stuff going on with the NFL. That's your life beyond baseball."
Ross told Lavarnway of some of the symptoms he was experiencing, how he could pass the concussion tests, then realize he could turn his head and his eyes would lag behind.
"Or if he was running," Lavarnway said, "he couldn't turn his head in one direction because he'd lose his balance and fall."
He was in no condition, obviously, to be stepping into a batter's box and await a 95 mph fastball. "I think they definitely did the right thing, getting him away from this atmosphere, send him to the best doctors in the country, let him heal," Lavarnway said. "The abstract ways they solved it as a team, he and the doctors and the medical staff, in ways you never would have thought of."
Ross admitted he thought the concussion was just something he could manage if he willed himself to do so. Athletes are wired that way.
"We try to do mind over matter sometimes," he said, "and the hardest part is when you're going through something like that, you don't have a cast on, or you didn't have surgery. It's hard to look your teammates in the eye … because I used to do the same thing. 'Concussion? Just push through it, you're not tough enough' or something like that."
There were headaches and dizziness, he said. He couldn't ride in a car, he couldn't be in crowded places.
"But I did all the exercises Micky put me through and slowly came back."
It wasn't pretty at first. The first time he came back, in May, he struck out five times in his first game, a red flag that he wasn't yet himself.
When he came back in August, he doubled in his first game back, batted .270 over his last 13 games, and he's chipped in with four more hits, including a couple of doubles in six postseason games. His playing time has increased -- he has started behind the plate three times in five Series games, including both of Lester's starts.
But his value to this team goes beyond what he does on the field.
"He had a heck of a game," Gomes said, "but as good as he is as a catcher, he's twice the teammate, twice the competitor, and we're very lucky to have him."
The lonely places are behind him. David Ross is where he belongs.
"I'm playing in the World Series," he said, "so just this whole skit is just -- I'm up here talking to you guys. This is pretty cool, right?"
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