That kid is 27 now, a pitcher for the Washington Nationals, among the handful of players who sat out last season with coronavirus concerns. It was his first break since there was a jersey small enough to fit him. It was, in his words, a “very tough decision” that cost him $1.5 million and a chance in the rotation, and it will delay his free agency by a year. But he made it to avoid the risk of long-term health issues, of straining his arm, of one day looking back with regret. And it gave him months to think.
Because Ross is also a Black man in a largely White sport. He joined the Players Alliance, a group of Black current and former baseball players, to push social justice on a sport allergic to anything past balls and strikes. He just had to chip in from afar. He began using his Twitter and Instagram accounts for advocacy. He threw imaginary pitches in his parents’ living room. He then made a promise, a pact with himself, to thrive on the mound so he can stretch his reach off it.
That’s why, after stepping away, Ross is even more energized to return. He is making up for lost time.
“If you aren’t a big-name guy, they’re like: ‘Oh, who are you? … You haven’t done anything. … You haven’t performed,’ ” Ross said this month. “Then it’s like, you only want to listen to people who are successful? Okay, I’ll go and be successful.”
They wove through the city, saw the Washington Monument, tried to pass an hour, then two, before heading to Nationals Park in late October 2019. It was a low-stress day until Willie Ross’s phone rang.
“Joe’s pitching today,” said Joel Wolfe, Joe’s agent, to Willie, Joe’s father.
“Yeah, I know,” Willie remembers responding. “Because the bullpen is so depleted.”
“No,” Wolfe corrected. “Scherzer is injured, and Joe is starting.”
Willie looked at his wife, Jean, and his eyes welled up. At night in the early 2000s, once home from Greenman Field, Willie lined his kids up to hit in the garage. An hour of swings went to Joe, the youngest. The next hour went to Frankie, Joe’s big sister. And the third hour went to Tyson, the oldest, who took the hardest swings.
By 8 p.m., they switched from metal to wood bats to avoid noise complaints. By 9, Joe’s small hands were callused and stinging. By the next day, he would want to do it all again.
“He could be very hard on himself,” said Willie, a pediatrician. “And he’d always compare himself to his big brother, like, ‘When was Tyson’s first home run?’ ”
So when the Athletics drafted Tyson in 2008, Willie worried. Tyson was a college star headed to their city’s team. Joe was a 5-foot-7 freshman playing junior varsity at Bishop O’Dowd High. The next year, in a tough playoff matchup, varsity coach Chris Kyriacou put Joe in to keep the score close. Kyriacou remembered the other dugout getting loud then, telling Joe that he wasn’t Tyson, that he was nothing like his brother.
But Joe never reacted. He just held on to the slights.
“No bad body language, no sign that he could hear,” Kyriacou recalled. “But I think something burned inside him.”
As a senior, a UCLA scholarship in hand, Joe led O’Dowd to a tight playoff win over that same school. He was later drafted by the San Diego Padres, 25th overall in 2011, and traded to the Nationals in December 2014. He would spend the next half-decade trying to stick in Washington: a debut in 2015; a playoff appearance in 2016; Tommy John surgery in 2017, halting his progress; bouncing from the majors to the minors, and from the bullpen to the rotation, in 2019.
Then he was the emergency option for Game 5 of the World Series, filling in for Max Scherzer. He walked out to an ovation that, 17 months later, still lives in the back of his mind. The night finished with a lopsided loss to the Houston Astros. But that Joe was called on, and that he delivered five innings, gave him traction the next spring. He was the Nationals’ expected fifth starter. He looked how he had before a doctor sliced into his elbow.
And only a global pandemic could have slowed him down.
After those hours in the garage, the days at the park, the long rides with Willie to this camp or that tournament, it was fitting that Joe and Tyson made a decision together. Joe wouldn’t pitch for the Nationals in 2020. Tyson, a 33-year-old free agent, wouldn’t hunt for a job.
“Seeing how aggressively it was spreading when teams were together, it just didn’t seem like a good idea to be playing,” said Ross, whose father, mother and sister are in the medical field. “With the lack of information, there was a shock value for what was happening, and I decided to take time away, which is always hard to do.”
When spring training shut down, Ross moved from Florida to Arizona, then to California, living about 10 miles from his parents’ house in Oakland. He and Tyson played catch to stay sharp. Ross watched Nationals games on his iPad. Some nights, if they lost in the late innings, if he could envision himself helping, Ross wanted to go throw pitches in the dark. He missed the game and the clubhouse. And then those feelings grew stronger.
On July 23, the Nationals and New York Yankees began the season by kneeling before the national anthem. Players wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts for batting practice. Then, on Aug. 27, the Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies joined NBA teams — and a handful of MLB clubs — that paused to draw attention to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.
It made Ross think back to 2017, when A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell knelt during the anthem and received little to no support from MLB, his White teammates or other Black players. Ross was 24 that season. He didn’t feel ready to stand with Maxwell, to call reporters to his locker, to voice thoughts on police brutality or systemic racism in this country.
He was in a “predominantly White environment,” as he put it, and feared marginalizing himself or affecting his chances to advance. He was recovering from surgery, sure, but still felt his opinions didn’t fit within a rigid culture. But he now wishes he had done more to back Maxwell and raise those issues on his own.
“As much as you are like a family with your team, there’s times where things are said or something happens, and it’s like, that’s not really all right,” Ross said. “But I’m one of two people here that feels offended by that, so I’m just going to let it slide for the betterment of us having good camaraderie. Because the last thing you want to do is cause a rift during the season.
“And as a person of color, when you’re in the workplace, the last thing you want to do is give them a reason to do anything to you. That’s how it’s been in the past, but I feel like a lot of people feel more comfortable speaking out than ever before, really.”
He counts himself in that group. So in the weeks before this season, he could sort his plan into three buckets: Continue his work with the Players Alliance, the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy and underserved communities in Oakland. Use his growing social media following to share commentary on racism in sports and society. And say something, stand up for himself and young Black players, if a teammate makes an insensitive comment.
That last part is by far the most difficult. Yet Ross says he is empowered by the past year.
“Other athletes who are speaking up and speaking out, and having traveled a lot more and seen things that are repeating themselves across the nation,” Willie said of what he believes has inspired his son. “I think you’d have to be in a cocoon to not want to speak out.”
If you can hear the shouts at Greenman Field, the Coliseum’s PA announcer, the metal pops inside a garage, and see the kid standing there — bat cocked above his shoulders, eyes on the ball — then maybe you know why Ross wants this so badly.
Picture him going to bed with a tan Rawlings glove tucked under his arm. Picture him sleeping with it like a stuffed animal, then slipping it on his left hand each morning. This winter, he and Tyson bought customized gloves for a travel team in Oakland. They purchased them from a Black-owned business and had each player’s name stitched into the leather.
“You get that first legit glove, and you can feel like a big leaguer,” Ross said through a smile. “I want that for them.”
Now imagine that, if this year goes well, if he can establish himself in the Nationals’ rotation, then 20 gloves will become 50, then 50 will become 100, then teenagers all over Oakland and Washington will have gotten a nudge from Joe Ross. You could watch a few of them in the majors one day. You could know their names and hear their voices.