It took 12 years and 24 seasons for ABC’s durable reality-competition program “Dancing With the Stars” to sign a major league baseball player. But it wasn’t a household name such as Derek Jeter, Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez.
It was David Ross.
David who? While with the Braves from 2009-12, Ross was known as Brian McCann’s reliable, defensive-minded backup catcher. Over 15 seasons, he also played with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the San Diego Padres, the Cincinnati Reds, the Boston Red Sox (twice) and the Chicago Cubs. With a lifetime batting average of .229, his chances of being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame are slightly worse than, say, that of John Rocker.
But “Dancing With the Stars,” which returns Monday night on ABC, is peppered with big pop-culture names this season such as “A Team” star Mr. T, singer Charo and gymnast Simone Biles. Ross is more like a cool underdog-hero story. He hit a key home run in the final game of his career in Game 7 of the World Series in October for the Cubs, which won their first championship in 108 years.
“It’s the type of storybook ending that would be hard to believe in fiction,” said Ross, who turns 39 on Sunday.
Plus, he has a book to sell: “Teammate: My Journey in Baseball and a World Series for the Ages,” which comes out May 9.
Ross said the show approached him. A producer assured him it would be an adventure. He called Pro Football Hall of Fame member Jerry Rice and others who had been on the show, and they encouraged him to do it. “I’m always preaching to my son when he’s hesitant or scared to try new things. I wanted to show him I’m willing to do something outside my comfort zone, something I might fail at.”
Against the likes of Olympic gold medalist Biles, “Glee” actress and professional dancer Heather Morris and Fifth Harmony singer Normani Kordei, Ross has zero illusions he’ll be lifting the mirror-ball trophy in two months.
“I’m scared to death,” Ross said. “I have my work cut out for me. But I’ve learned in baseball that I want to win. I have to take it day by day, as I did in Boston and Chicago. I want to see growth. I want to get better each week. I’m working hard to have fun.”
Mediocre dancers in the past have made it far on this show on the strength of their popularity with the voting public, which provides half the total score. (The professional judges’ scores are the other half.) TV host Jerry Springer boogied into fifth place in Season 3. Former HLN host Nancy Grace grooved her way to fifth place in Season 13. Actor and stand-up comic Bill Engvall strutted to fourth in Season 17.
“We’ll see if the city of Atlanta and all the baseball cities I’ve played in can vote for me,” Ross said. “I hope I can get America’s vote.”
His partner Lindsay Arnold, in her fifth season on the show, has helped three celebrities finish in the top four, including former Georgia Tech football star Calvin Johnson Jr. last season. And Johnson was mocked by his Detroit Lions teammates before the season began for his minimal dancing skills entering the season.
For now, Arnold and Ross are rehearsing four to five hours per day. “She is so sweet, just down to earth,” he said. “She’s very positive.”
Not that this is any easier than spring training in terms of prepping his body for something so different from swinging a bat or crouching while catching 95-mph fastballs. He is now learning to move properly to music, to be aware of where his hips are, to perform for an audience. “My ankles and calves are killing me so far,” he said.
And while his baseball buddies have been supportive so far, he said he is bracing for their comments when he shows up in sequins and tights on live TV in front of 15 million people.
Less than five months since he was taken out of his final baseball game ever for a pinch runner, he recounted hitting that final home run, which put the Cubs ahead 6-3 in the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians. (The Cubs eventually won 8-7 in a tense 10 innings.)
“I was still focused on what had happened the previous inning,” Ross said when he stepped to the plate against Andrew Miller. “I had just come in and made an error. I threw a ball that almost killed our first baseman and ended up in the stands. Then I let a ball get by me. Two runs scored. I let two runs in, and my specialty is run prevention.”
So when he hit that home run, he didn’t feel at all like Roy Hobbs in “The Natural.” “People ask me why I wasn’t freaking out and showing emotion,” he said. “I was just so relieved to get one of those runs back. I was thinking about who was next up in the lineup. We’ve got a three-run lead instead of two. How many outs were there in the inning.”
In other words, he stayed focused on the game, a game in which he said he had some of his better and more productive years for the Braves.
“Atlanta was a big turning point for me, watching a winning organization and how the guys went about their business,” Ross said, citing his close friendships with McCann and pitcher Eric O’Flaherty and what he gleaned from former Braves manager Bobby Cox, former pitching coach Roger McDowell and former batting coach Terry Pendleton (now bench coach), to name a few.
He said he learned to accept his role as a backup with the Braves. “There was no competition between me and Brian McCann. I knew he was a six-time Silver Slugger, All-Star, the best catcher in the game. I knew I was Tim Hudson’s catcher. We had a close bond, being able to rely on Huddy.”
“Dancing With the Stars,” 8 p.m. Mondays, ABC