Rookie manager at the helm of first place Sox

July 11, 2012

He may be a man of few words, but Robin Ventura is a manager with fans in his clubhouse. The White Sox sit on top of the AL Central with a 49-38 mark, three games over the Cleveland Indians and 3½ over Detroit (which was supposed to run away with the division); the team credits Ventura with giving them a shot at the playoffs.

The All-Star break underway gives us an opportunity to take a closer look at Ventura: The unlikely choice for manager now has a real shot at American League Manager of the Year.

Ventura named manager: Really? Really!

“This opportunity came and [Ventura] jumped on it. Many opportunities don’t come your way; you have to take when it comes.” –First base coach Harold Baines

It was a surprise when White Sox General Manager Ken Williams tapped Ventura to take over for former manager Ozzie Guillen; Ventura had absolutely no managerial or coaching experience prior to this season.

But once the dust settled, those who knew Ventura as a player realized the choice could work. Radio broadcaster Darrin Jackson now praises the manager. “He has done a spectacular job for a guy without managerial experience,” Jackson said. “I love watching him.”

Veteran first baseman Paul Konerko didn’t know Ventura prior to his promotion, but people within the organization told him about what kind of player Ventura was. “He is not a helmet thrower or loud with ups and downs,” Konerko said. “He’s a great guy but not a push-over.”

A cohesive coaching staff

“You have to have coaches believe in you and understand the grind. It is definitely a group effort for us.” Infielder Gordon Beckham

Since Ventura came in without managerial experience, it was important to the White Sox organization to assemble a staff that could assist and guide him: Pitching Coach Don Cooper, Bullpen Coach Juan Nieves and Bullpen Catcher Mark Salas – all hold-overs from the previous staff – handle the pitching; Harold Baines is the first base coach; former Triple-A manager Joel McEwing coaches third; overall minor league hitting instructor Jeff Manto became the hitting coach and Mark Parent is Ventura’s bench coach. 

Parent is especially valuable to Ventura. Parent calls himself the “Sargent at Arms” of the coaching staff, making sure things run smoothly, keeping players happy and letting them know what the manager is thinking. And, with his managerial experience in the minors and his long tenure as a major league catcher, the bench coach is Ventura’s “eyes and ears.” He reminds Ventura not to manage too much, and feeds him suggestions on how to handle various situations on the field.

But make no mistake: Ventura is the one in charge. Parent and Cooper will confer in the dug-out and make suggestions about handling pitching situations, but “regardless of anything, [Ventura] makes the final decision,” Parent said. “It’s Robin’s team.”  

Parent likes to remind the players why he and Ventura are in their respective roles. “My and Robin’s baseball cards are full,” he tells them. “We do this for you guys, not for money, because we want you to succeed.”

Quiet and even-keeled

“His demeanor never changes, no matter what. It is his biggest strength.” –Catcher AJ Pierzynski

Ventura doesn’t talk much, but when he does speak up he does so with purpose. Every player I spoke to on this White Sox roster mentioned Ventura’s demeanor and how it has kept them in the right frame of mind in a season that started off with outsiders’ doubt. “The game is a roller coaster for the players,” first baseman Paul Konerko said. “When a manager and staff [are] steady, that’s a good thing.”

The Sox manager’s quiet demeanor goes against one of the demands of the job: the need to feed comments to the media on a daily basis. “You are never prepared for that,” Ventura said. “You are constantly the one talking,”

Rookie, rookies and more rookies

“He expects us to work hard and respect the game. We all bought into it.” Rookie pitcher Nate Jones

Injuries – and necessity – have put some very young players in key spots on Ventura’s first roster. He broke spring training camp with several rookies in toll.

This hasn’t been a deterrent for Ventura. “Our organization has done a good job of identifying young guys to fill in, which is a big plus for us,” he said. Ventura has a rookie closer in Addison Reed, who replaced another rookie, Hector Santiago, earlier this season. Rookie Alejandro De Aza leads off playing centerfield, Dayan Viciedo anchors left field and rookie lefty Jose Quintana has done a terrific job taking John Danks’ spot in the starting rotation. If the players have a mantra, especially the younger players, it is “one day at a time.” Ventura makes sure – win or lose – the next day is a clean slate.

Just before Friday night’s game there was a humorous sight at U.S. Cellular: Matt Thorton, the only bullpen veteran, took a rope and had all the rookie pitchers hold it and walk behind him like a mother duck with her ducklings. He got the idea from watching a pre-school teacher doing the same with her young students, he said. It was a funny, yet poignant, moment. If this team can continue to win with its young staff it will be quite the feat. 

Credit Ken Williams

The White Sox general manager knew he was replacing a manager that had brought the team a World Series; but the relationship between Williams and Ozzie Guillen could not be repaired. While there were other candidates with more coaching experience, Williams’ choice showed why he is considered a maverick. Now the Sox GM feels vindicated with his selection, and is content with Ventura calling the shots in the dugout. “He is who we thought he would be at an earlier stage,” Williams said. “He has made a seamless transition from the field to his retirement and back, and we are better off for it.”

There are no guarantees that the White Sox will stay on top of the division. But they will make every effort to maintain the consistency they have tried to show under Ventura’s leadership.

It doesn’t hurt the manager to have three players experiencing come-back years – Jake Peavy, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios – another player (Pierzynski) experiencing one of his best halves yet, not to mention one of the league’s best hitters (Konerko). Ventura has worked hard with his young second baseman Gordon Beckham and Beckam has responded in kind. And of course, the recent acquisition of Boston third baseman Kevin Youkilis has been a real coup for the White Sox. He already earned AL player of the week just before the break.

Still, Ventura will need an injury-free season from John Danks and Phillip “Perfect Game” Humber, and he’ll be keeping an eye on All-Star Chris Sale’s journey through his first full season as a starter.

This is only the intermission – the postscript has yet to be written.

This story was part two of series on Chicago baseball managers. Read part one, on Cubs manager Dale Sveum, here.