- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Robin Ventura, the 39th manager in Chicago White Sox history, subscribes to the Bobby Cox theory of media relations: Workplace squabbles should be kept in-house, and any disagreements should be addressed in a publicity vacuum. Even players who jog out ground balls or put their own interests above the good of the team will receive their verbal spankings in the solitude of his office. If they want to go out and vent to the cameras afterward, that's their business.
As anyone with access to Twitter, YouTube, WGN, Chicago talk radio or a Tribune or Sun-Times subscription can attest, that's a radical departure from Ventura's predecessor, Ozzie Guillen. Just as Larry Bowa begat Terry Francona in Philadelphia and the mild-mannered Ron Roenicke succeeded the old-school Ken Macha in Milwaukee, the White Sox are doing a stylistic 180 with their manager.
"Anybody next to Ozzie is going to be a big difference," says long-time White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper. "Everybody knows that Ozzie shoots from the lip, and Robin is the antithesis of that. He's the bizarro-world opposite. I don't know how much thought went into it, to tell you the truth. But when I first heard he was hired, I thought, 'This is a pretty smart idea.'"
Ventura's flair for interpersonal communication was readily apparent when the White Sox gathered on a back field before a recent Cactus League game. As players and staff milled around, Ventura stopped to confer with bench coach Mark Parent about the plan for the day. He chatted with young third baseman Brent Morel before spending a few moments with Art Kusnyer, a former White Sox player who was Tony La Russa's bullpen coach in the early 1980s. Ventura is one of those rare people -- in baseball or any other walk of life -- whose demeanor puts everyone at ease.
His sense of humor is dry and occasionally self-deprecating. Ventura collected 1,885 hits, made two All-Star teams and won six Gold Gloves in 16 big league seasons and produced a memorable "grand slam single" that won Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS for the New York Mets. It's an impressive resume, but the closest Ventura gets to self-aggrandizement is acknowledging his status as the best batting practice pitcher in camp.
"I'm not going to claim the top spot. But my name has been put in the running, I will say that," Ventura says. "I'm consistent in spots, location and speed. I know what you want in a BP pitcher, and I provide that. You get former pitchers who want to break bats and carve you up. I don't do that. I want every guy to hit a home run every time up."
Ventura, acknowledged great teammate and straight arrow, faces a challenge far more daunting than replacing Guillen's larger-than-life persona. The White Sox, trendy choices to win the American League Central last spring,
finished a disappointing third in the division at 79-83 and aren't receiving much love from anyone this year.
Mark Buehrle, a pillar of the rotation since 2001, is now with the Miami Marlins. Adam Dunn is swinging the bat much better this spring, but it would be hard to look worse after he hit .159 with 11 home runs last year. Alex Rios and Gordon Beckham need to ramp up their production, and Jake Peavy is trying to rediscover his old San Diego Padres form after three injury-riddled seasons.
The Sox won't receive much help from the farm system, which was recently ranked as the worst in the game by ESPN Insider's Keith Law.
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Kenny Williams pulled off a stunner with their new hire after Guillen left to run the Marlins in late September. While Terry Francona, La Russa, Sandy Alomar Jr. and Dave Martinez were monopolizing the media speculation, the Sox zagged instead of zigged and chose Ventura -- the sidekick half of Chicago's "Batman and Robin" tandem with Frank Thomas in the 1990s -- despite the fact that he had not managed at any level.
At the MLB general managers' meetings in November, Williams cited Ventura's leadership skills as a major factor in the decision. Like many large corporations and sports organizations, the White Sox administer personality tests to potential employees, and Williams said the tests revealed Ventura has the makings of a Fortune 500 CEO or a four-star general in the military.
"If he could have been a four-star general, I think he's probably equipped to run a baseball team," Williams said.
The hiring of Ventura was even more jarring when juxtaposed with Ryne Sandberg, another Chicago favorite, who spent four years managing in the Cubs' organization with hopes of one day taking over the big league club. When he was passed over for Mike Quade in November 2010, Sandberg moved on to Philadelphia, and he will manage their Triple-A club in Lehigh Valley again this year.
"I'm sure there are people who don't look favorably upon it because of the route it took," Ventura says. "But this is a different organization, and it has to be about the trust level that Jerry and Kenny have [in their manager]. They've known me for a long time, so it's not like they don't know what they're getting as far as personality and how I'm going to act. Those are all valid things that people bring up. But this is what's right for here."
Ventura has already shown he has the conviction to follow his instincts rather than the tried-and-true path. Some first-time managers might bring in a veteran dugout sage to help babysit them during the learning curve, but Ventura surrounded himself with peers rather than grizzled, bifocal-wearing relics. Parent, hitting coach Jeff Manto and third-base coach Joe McEwing, the newest members of the Chicago coaching staff, were playing contemporaries of Ventura. They've already jelled nicely with Cooper, Harold Baines, bullpen coach Juan Nieves and bullpen catcher Mark Salas, the four holdovers from Guillen's regime.
At the same time, Ventura has reached out to the organization's past. He has invited back franchise favorites such as Kusnyer, Joe Nossek and Jeff Torborg to share stories, lighten the mood and help rekindle the White Sox tradition.
If the Chicago players thought Ventura's first camp might be scattershot or disorganized, they were in for an awakening. Ventura arrived in Arizona several days before the players to make sure things ran smoothly, and he was quick to delegate authority to his coaches in their specific areas of expertise. The players have already noticed a bigger emphasis on details and fundamentals than they saw when Guillen was manager.
"It's a little more intense now," first baseman Paul Konerko says. "If guys mess up, we'll stop and keep doing it until we get it right. There's a little more heat in the drills."
Ventura also wants the Sox to be more attentive to holding opposing baserunners, a glaring team deficiency in 2011. According to ESPN Stats & Information, opposing teams were successful on 78.5 percent of stolen-base attempts against the White Sox last year -- fourth-highest in baseball. Base stealers were successful 87.3 percent of the time (62-for-71) against Gavin Floyd, Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and Philip Humber, so holding runners has been a major point of emphasis in camp.
"We have pickoff plays now and we never had them in the past," Cooper says. "I'm talking about a backdoor pickoff at first, or pickoffs with the infielders. There's a lot more encouragement, and in some cases a little more pushing to put them on. If it's not important to the staff, it's not going to be important to the players."
While the detail man in Ventura plays drill sergeant, his laid-back, nurturing style could be therapeutic for some players. He had a celebrated college career at Oklahoma State, but hit .178 in his first September call-up, so he can relate to the travails of Beckham, a former Georgia All-American who is still looking for his comfort zone after multiple position changes.
"I struggled my first year worse than he did, so I get that part of it," Ventura says. "He needs to just play the game instead of thinking, 'I need to get four hits today.' If he can bring it back to just playing in the moment, everything will take care of itself. He's talented enough. He just overthinks it."
Back in the game
When Ventura retired as a player in 2004, he was plagued by excruciating pain from a gruesome ankle injury he suffered during a spring training slide in 1997. He needed a cane to walk, and was so discouraged that he told his wife he would rather have doctors amputate the leg below the knee than continue to take painkillers just to make it through the day.
Ventura's ordeal finally ended in November 2005, when he underwent ankle transplant surgery in California. Dr. William Bugbee replaced Ventura's mangled original with a piece of bone harvested from a cadaver, and six months passed before Ventura could throw away the crutches and apply weight to his right foot.
More than six years later, the story has a happy ending. Ventura can play golf, walk along a Pacific Ocean beach or run family errands with no pain. He's still challenged to run sprints. But judging from his 24 career stolen bases, fast-twitch muscles were never his claim to fame.
During his hiatus from baseball, Ventura proved to be a natural as an ESPN analyst during the College World Series. But he felt a void when the games ended and he unclipped his microphone and left Rosenblatt Stadium to go to dinner with his broadcast partners. He realized that he was emotionally invested in the camaraderie and competitive aspects of the game in a way that only true "ball guys" can understand.
"I left every game not caring who won or lost," Ventura says. "You sleep better, but I missed the competition. When you're involved in it as a player, it hurts when you lose and you feel better when you win. I know from being out of the game for a while that there's a part of it you miss."
Comparisons to Guillen will be inevitable as the season progresses. In their rush to praise Ventura, the Chicago players don't want to be perceived as taking slams at Guillen, who left an indelible mark during his eight years as White Sox manager. Konerko said Guillen and bench coach Joey Cora showed faith in him even when he might not have deserved the support.
"There's only one Ozzie," Konerko says. "Ozzie's nuts. He's a beauty. There's no 'off' switch. He's going 100 miles an hour the whole time, and you have to love that. It's something to marvel at when you're around him. It will be a little different now with Robin, but that's just the way it goes.
"The funny thing is, people talk about how different Ozzie and Robin are. But their careers almost mirrored each other. You hear them telling the same stories. Their values are really similar when it comes to playing the game, and what they really, truly care about."
While Guillen stirs the pot in South Florida, his successor in Chicago is approaching his new gig with perspective, quiet determination and an admirable sense of calm. Robin Ventura took an unusual route to reach this point. Now he'll chart his own course.
There's one thing the White Sox and their fans can be sure of in 2012: New skipper Robin Ventura is going to handle things a lot differently than Ozzie Guillen.