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Thursday, October 6, 2011
Kenny Williams' latest gamble a doozy

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- For the second time in his coaching career, Brad Lachemann is losing an unpaid assistant to the major leagues.

Lachemann, the son of longtime baseball coach and manager Marcel Lachemann and nephew of fellow lifer Rene, lost the best volunteer hitting coach in California when Robin Ventura left his "stepping stone job" at Arroyo Grande High School to manage the Chicago White Sox.

"My dad was the pitching coach for me in between the Angels and the Rockies," Brad Lachemann said in a phone conversation. "So I guess that was a stepping stone job for the Rockies. Anybody out there looking for a big league job can just spend a couple years coaching in the central coast of California."

Robin Ventura
Robin Ventura (left) signed a multiyear deal to be the new White Sox manager, filling the vacancy left by Ozzie Guillen.

The news of Ventura's unlikely journey from Arroyo Grande (most famous alumnus is Zac Efron) back to the South Side caught all of baseball by surprise Thursday afternoon. Of all the people to replace Ozzie Guillen, no one expected his old teammate Ventura.

But Lachemann was kept abreast as the conversation unfolded between general manager Kenny Williams and Ventura, who had been working as a special assistant to Buddy Bell in the minor league system since June.

Lachemann last talked to Ventura on Wednesday night.

"I didn't have much doubt he'd go into coaching, but I hoped it wouldn't be so soon," he said."I'd have liked to have him around longer. But when you're sitting around with that kind of knowledge and coaching, you have to fulfill your potential at some point. You're wasting it by not working with the best and most talented guys."

Lachemann had taken five years off coaching before getting back to it two years ago. He said he started again only because Ventura, whose kids had gone to school with Lachemann's kids, agreed to help coach.

"You always surround yourself with people who know more than you do," Lachemann said.

Ventura, 44, with four kids and wife Stephanie, was happy living near where he grew up. He was a great teacher and a down-to-earth role model for the perennial playoff team, Lachemann said. He also was the kind of coach who would steal signs from coaches and call out tipping pitchers to his players.

"During the playoffs this year," Lachemann said, "a kid hit a two-run homer in the first inning, and when he comes up later, their guy steals second and the kid hits a foul ball. So I say, 'Do we walk him?' Robin says, 'No, he was overswinging on the first pitch. He'll pop up to second.' I mean, this kid absolutely hit a bomb the first time, and what happens? The next pitch he pops up to the second baseman."

Now, that's not exactly like being the bench coach for the Tampa Bay Rays, like Davey Martinez. To be sure, no White Sox fan cares about Ventura's experience as the Greg Maddux of high school baseball in San Luis Obispo County.

But Lachemann, given his lineage, knows a thing or two about the game, and he's wild about Ventura. In fact, he was thinking of calling Ventura with a bench coach suggestion.

"My uncle Rene is available," he said.

When I first saw the Ventura news on Twitter, I thought my reporter friends had been hacked. Then I checked my email and saw the official news release. Williams had done it again.

It was another "drop the mic and walk away" moment for the White Sox general manager. Just when you think he's washed up, Williams turns into LL Cool Kenny. Jerry Reinsdorf told him he could knock us out, and he did.

I didn't have much doubt he'd go into coaching, but I hoped it wouldn't be so soon. I'd have liked to have him around longer. But when you're sitting around with that kind of knowledge and coaching, you have to fulfill your potential at some point. You're wasting it by not working with the best and most talented guys.

-- Brad Lachemann on Robin Ventura

Then again, the last time Williams shocked us, he signed Adam Dunn. Before that, he traded for Jake Peavy and took Alex Rios off waivers. Hmm, maybe Williams' surprises aren't that good anymore.

"I realize he wasn't on anyone's list out there, and we caught many of you by surprise," Williams said in a conference call with reporters Thursday, trying to sound concerned about the media's lists. "But he's been on our list. He's been on my specific list for a long time."

Williams claims he didn't hire Ventura in June with this outcome in mind, because he hoped Guillen would stay as manager of the White Sox. Right. I believe that like I believe the White Sox will draw 3 million fans next season. Williams is more calculating than Texas Instruments. But that's OK. The family feud is over; it's time to focus on baseball again.

I thought Williams should have been the one to leave, not Ozzie, but the feisty GM deserves some credit for this game. Martinez and Sandy Alomar Jr. were thought to be the favorites, with Terry Francona as the best available option.

But this all makes sense now. Williams created the perfect environment for an inexperienced manager by re-upping veteran pitching coach Don Cooper and fellow holdover, walking statue Harold Baines.

Williams admitted that without Cooper in place, he couldn't take this risk. I guess that's why Cooper, a Williams loyalist, wasn't allowed to interview for the open Yankees job last year and got a four-year extension as Guillen left for Miami.

Don't think Ventura will be content to take marching orders from Williams and cash a check. This isn't like Billy Beane's "Moneyball" teams. And for all Williams' ego, I believe him when he says: "I can be a strong-minded person. I need a person who is not afraid to challenge me. Jerry [Reinsdorf] is like that as well."

OK, I kind of believe him. But the point stands.

Williams raised eyebrows as he set low expectations for Ventura -- "We do not expect him to hit the ground running and be the guy he's going to be two or three years from now. ... I don't expect him to be Tony La Russa on day one." -- but I don't completely buy it. Williams always thinks he's the smartest guy in the room. He won't put expectations on Ventura, but I have no doubt he believes in him.

So don't get caught thinking this is going to be a conventional rebuilding year, either. I've heard that story before. Williams likes to make a splash, and he's addicted to the limelight. Now that he's got Reinsdorf enthused again, I expect Trader Kenny to be in full effect this winter. Some veterans will go, but this won't be Kansas City -- unless Williams starts trading for Royals again.
Kenny Williams
Kenny Williams likes to gamble -- see Jake Peavy and Alex Rios -- but Robin Ventura might be the biggest risk yet.

And there's the rub. Williams' decision-making ability hasn't been trustworthy in years. His gut is gone, or at least in Weight Watchers. I wouldn't let him order me lunch right now. That's the real reason I have skepticism. It's not because I don't trust Ventura and his 16 years in the majors.

The other reason to doubt this move is that Ventura had to be talked into the job. This isn't a volunteer gig. It's a life-consuming job.

"There was a lot of [apprehension] when I first went home to talk to my wife about it," Ventura said. "It turned us upside down. I have a good thing going, and it was easy getting back into the game doing what I was doing. I had the freedom to coach and come back home. I think there was a lot of comfort in talking to the family that this was the White Sox, which for us is an extended family."

Ventura, a White Sox legend, obviously could play the game, and his baseball IQ has never been questioned. Shortly after the announcement, Shawn Green, who played with Ventura on the Los Angeles Dodgers, tweeted, "Of all the players I played with, he would be my number 1 choice to manage a team."

At Ventura's behest, the White Sox are going to ask permission from another club to interview a potential bench coach Friday. He'll need a hitting coach, too.

Talk about a whirlwind. Two years ago, Ventura was talked into coaching high school baseball on a golf course. Now he's the manager of the team that drafted him in 1988. Is he in over his head? We'll find out.

"Now I've jumped in the deep end," Ventura said."But I can swim."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.