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ST. LOUIS – David Ross never expected to be on a World Series podium. That seat is for stars, not for gray-bearded baseball journeyman, not for backup catchers knocked onto the disabled list for much of the summer by foul tips.
"The trip I've taken this year, I never thought I'd be here, There were times I was questioning whether my career was over," he said Monday night with a smile that brightened the interview room. "I'm playing in the World Series, so just this whole skit is just — I'm up here talking to you guys, this is pretty cool, right?"
The very definition of a bench player — a backup catcher who has never gotten more than 311 at-bats in a season — Ross got the biggest hit of the year thus far for the Boston Red Sox, nearly completing his long-and-winding trek to a World Series title.
Ross pulled a hanging curveball down the left-field line that landed just a few inches fair in the seventh inning, driving in the go-ahead run and boosting the Red Sox over the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1 for a 3-2 World Series lead.
Now 36, Ross's sandy-colored beard makes him look more aging rocker than dashing athlete. A veteran of six major league organizations, he signed last November for his second tour with the Red Sox, his team for part of 2008.
His season began to come apart on May 11, when he took a pair of foul tips off his mask against Toronto. He went on the DL for two weeks and went into a 3-for-22 slide when he returned.
Then he got whacked in the mask by another foul at Baltimore on June 14.
"I got home and my wife said, 'You're not right,'" he recalled. "And they did some tests and kind of concluded I wasn't right. Then I tried to come back fast, not giving enough credit to really what a concussion is. As athletes we feel like we can get through anything, and I couldn't. I stunk for a good two weeks, three weeks, and my wife finally was like, 'If you don't tell the doctors, I'm going to.'"
The Red Sox sent him to Pittsburgh to be examined on June 20 by Dr. Mickey Collins, a concussion specialist. Ross didn't play for Boston again until Aug. 20.
"We try to do mind over matter sometimes, and the hardest part when you're going through something like that is just you don't have a cast on or you didn't have surgery," Ross said. "I looked fine, but I wasn't right. It's hard to look your teammates in the eye when you're going through something like that and see if you're bowing out or not, with the questions that they have. Because I used to do the same thing. 'Concussion, just push through it. You're not tough enough' or something like that."
But now he knew what it was like.
"Headaches and dizziness and all the symptoms, couldn't ride in a car, couldn't be in crowded places," he said, "but did all the exercises Mickey put me through and slowly came back. And thank goodness my hitting has come around, because I stunk there for a while."
With Jarrod Saltalamacchia in a 6-for-32 (.188) postseason slump, Ross got the opportunity of his 12-year major league career. He's caught Jon Lester's last four postseason starts, impressing Red Sox manager John Farrell with their rapport.
"We're all excited for him, and we're glad he's doing it and hope he keeps on doing it," first baseman Mike Napoli said.
Lester credited Ross for his dazzling performance.
"Did a good job of keeping me calm, keeping me in the game," he said.
Ross was 1 for 9 in the Series before his fifth-inning single. He stepped to the plate in the seventh against Adam Wainwright following a single by rookie Xander Bogaerts and a walk by Stephen Drew, took a called strike, watched a ball and then fouled off a pitch. When Wainwright left a 79-mph hanger up, Ross pounced. If the ball hadn't bounced into the stands, Drew would have scored, too, but he came around on Jacoby Ellsbury's single as Ross was thrown out at the plate by center fielder Shane Robinson.
Ross had never seen himself as a Series star.
"I'm kind of more of a keep-my-head-down-and-work-hard kind of guy," he said, "I'm not the type of player who can plan out all these goals. That's probably why it hadn't sunk in yet of what all this is, because I'm worried about Game 6 already. There's a pit in my stomach already."
After it was over, already showered and dressed for the flight home, he was given a televised postgame news conference. He called it "the signature moment" of his career.
"I'm just in awe of being in the World Series, really," he said, turning around to look at the MLB logos on the backdrop behind him, as if he wasn't quite sure they were real.
"That's when you see people on TV," he said excitedly. "I'm stoked!"
Ross has answered questions for 14 minutes, yet he still didn't want to leave the room.
"Jon Lester is waiting to come in," announced Phyllis Merhige, an MLB senior vice president. "You can stay as long as you like."
"Can I sit up here while he's up here?" Ross asked.
And so he did, sitting alongside Lester and David Ortiz, savoring the night of his career just a little bit longer.