FORT MYERS, Fla. – Call him a ground floor guy. At least that’s where Boston Red Sox outfielder Cody Ross felt like he was at when he walked through the door Perfect Game opened in the mid-1990s.
Ross was mid-way through his junior year at Carlsbad (N.M.) High School in late December 1997 when he packed up his glove, bats and spikes and traveled here for the first Perfect Game World Showcase at the Terry Park Complex.
Ross and his family were forming friendships with Perfect Game President Jerry Ford and two of Ford’s sons, Andy Ford and former big league right-hander Ben Ford. The young Ross was eager to be involved with PG’s inaugural national showcase event.
“It was the first one ever,” Ross said Saturday. “I got to know Andy and Ben and Jerry real well, actually, and I came out here all the way from New Mexico when I was a junior in high school and (Perfect Game) was like a brand new deal. And wow, they’ve just turned it into an amazing organization.”
Ross was speaking early Saturday evening from beautiful JetBlue Park, the Red Sox’s new 10,000-seat spring training stadium. JetBlue is a good 15 miles southeast of humble Terry Park, but Ross has traveled a lot farther than that to get from his first appearance at the PG World Showcase 15 years ago to his spot on the Red Sox’s 2012 roster.
Drafted out of high school by the Detroit Tigers in the fourth round of the 1999 MLB amateur draft, Ross played four full seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut with the Tigers on July 4, 2003. He bounced back and forth for a few years until becoming at least a part-time player with the Florida Marlins in 2006.
He has now been in the big leagues for all or part of eight seasons with the Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Florida Marlins and San Francisco Giants. Five of those seasons were with the Marlins.
Ross, 31, signed a one-year, $3 million free agent deal with the Red Sox over the winter.
“People have been calling me a veteran for years,” he said with a chuckle. “But you know, how do you determine if you’re a veteran or not? Somebody put it real well to me: ‘Once you become a Major League free agent, after six full years in the big leagues, you can consider yourself a veteran.’ And I got that this year, so thank you.”
In August of 2010, the Marlins placed Ross on waivers where he was quickly snatched up by the Giants. A 5-foot-10, 195-pound outfielder – the same height and weight listed for him at the 1997 PG World Showcase – Ross was about to embark on the two most memorable months of his baseball career.
He wasn’t necessarily spectacular in the 33 regular season games he played for the Giants at the end of their NL West Division Championship season in 2010, but he was serviceable – he hit .288 (21-for-73) with four doubles, three home runs, seven RBI and 11 runs scored. And then the Giants sailed into the postseason, the calendar flipped to October and Ross found his footing.
The Giants beat the Atlanta Braves 3 games to 1 in the National League Division Series with Ross hitting .286 (4-for-14) with a double, a home run and three RBI. San Francisco moved on to the NL Championship Series to face the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies for the NL pennant.
Ross was suddenly unstoppable. He hit .350 (7-for-20) with three doubles, three home runs, five RBI and four runs scored, and registered a .950 slugging percentage and a 1.385 OPS. He was named the NLCS Most Valuable Player after the Giants won the series, 4-2.
San Francisco went on to beat the Texas Rangers in the five-game 2010 World Series and Ross had earned himself a World Series Championship ring. He was just 4-for-17 (.235) with a double, home run and two RBI in the Series.
“That’s what you play for,” Ross said of the World Series Championship. “Once you get in the big leagues and you establish yourself – it’s tough to get here but the hard part is to stay. I don’t care what anyone says; when you first get up here you’re basically playing for yourself to try to stay in the big leagues. If you win or lose, a lot of times that’s secondary when you’re a young player. You just worry about yourself.
“But once you get an opportunity to establish yourself you realize it’s not really about that, it’s about winning – because if you win and you’re good and you produce, then you’re going to stick.”
Ross played in 121 games for the Giants in 2011 and hit .240 with 25 doubles, 14 home runs and 52 RBI. And now he’s with the Red Sox.
“It’s a true honor to be able to wear ‘Red Sox’ across my chest,” he said. “Not only is this one of the top organizations in all of baseball but in the whole (sports) world, really. You can think of a handful of teams – you think of the Lakers, you think of the Yankees, you think of the Cowboys – there are very few really great organizations that when people think of that particular sport, they think about (that team).”
The thought of wearing a Boston jersey once again took Ross back to the beginning, back when he was in high school in New Mexico and trying to get noticed. After attending the 1997 PG World Showcase, he participated in the 1998 PG Lone Star Showdown at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, and then returned to Terry Park for the 1998 PG World Showcase.
That event was picking up momentum. Among the other top prospects on hand in ’98 were Ross’s current Red Sox teammate and MLB All-Star outfielder Carl Crawford and former first-round left-hander David Purcey.
“I came down and there were quite a few scouts and quite a few college (recruiters) in the stands watching a bunch of us play,” Ross recalled. “I remember somebody telling me ‘It’s going to be good for you because a lot of these college teams and a lot of these scouts have never seen you because you’re on the West Coast.’ It was great exposure for me there.”
The best high school-age ballplayers are filled-up with equal parts of talent, ability, work ethic, ambition, confidence and ceaseless hope. Ross was no different.
“Obviously, back then, you hope and you just dream that you get a chance to play not only in the big leagues but just professional ball,” he said. “You hope somebody gives you the opportunity and thinks enough of you to give you a chance to wear a professional uniform. That happened for me, luckily, in 1999. You obviously have to be real good and real talented and work your tail off to get here but you’ve got to be a little bit lucky, too.”
Ross isn’t guaranteed a spot in Red Sox Manager Bobby Valentine’s Opening Day starting lineup, but will be ready to contribute in any way he can.
“I always go in with high expectations,” he said. “I rarely put out the personal goals; I don’t say, hey, I want to hit 20 homers and drive in 100 runs. I don’t do that. I just go out and try to do the very best I can every single day to try to help my team win. If you just do one thing a day to help your team win, then at the end of the day everything else will take care of itself.”
And he’ll never forget that ground floor he walked into back in late December 1997.
“I’m just so happy for (the Fords) for being able to put together such a good deal for kids to be able to get so much exposure and help guys get to college and into professional baseball,” Ross said.