- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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White Sox general manager Kenny Williams isn't one to play it safe with managerial hires. In 2003, he picked Ozzie Guillen to run the team even after they got into a heated exchange during Guillen's interview. The two men had an oil-and-water dynamic from the start, but those differences didn't prevent them from winning two American League Central titles and a world championship in 2005.
Ever the trailblazer, Williams raised the stakes this fall. Amid speculation that the Sox were focusing on Dave Martinez, Sandy Alomar Jr. or Terry Francona as possible successors to Guillen upon his departure to Miami, Williams hired Robin Ventura, a guy who is popular and respected in baseball circles but had never managed a game at any level. Ventura's coaching résumé consisted of time spent as a volunteer hitting instructor with his son's California high school team when he wasn't working as an analyst for ESPN.
Williams has a fondness for bucking conventional wisdom and pulling off bombshell trades and stealth acquisitions, from the Alex Rios waiver claim to the Jake Peavy deal. But in this case, it was less about making a statement than following his internal compass.
Ventura, 44, played for the White Sox in the 1990s when Williams was a scout and then a special assistant with the team. They talked enough for Williams to see the leadership potential Ventura possessed. And he wasn't the only one.
During the recent general managers' meetings in Milwaukee, Williams told the story of a "very well-respected psychologist" (whose name he declined to reveal) who does personality testing for the military, large corporations and professional sports organizations.
In our situation, I think the [biggest] risk would have been not hiring Robin [Ventura].
”-- White Sox GM Kenny Williams
"This psychologist was asked, 'Of all the people you've tested, who impressed you the most in terms of their capabilities to lead?'" Williams said. "And his reply was, 'There's one guy who's capable of being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And if he were in the military, he would achieve four-star general status.' I'll give you one guess who the person was."
Hint: His initials are RV.
"The point is, [Ventura] is a cut above," Williams said. "If he could have been a four-star general, I think he's probably equipped to run a baseball team. And he's probably equipped to lead this group of guys."
No experience? Who cares?
If one outside-the-box hire qualifies as a bolt from the blue, two have the makings of a trend.
Just days after St. Louis won the World Series, Tony La Russa threw the baseball world for a loop by announcing his retirement. At age 67, La Russa is now free to take a deep breath, open a bookstore, devote more time to animal rights causes and perhaps make the transition into somebody's front office.
Francona, burned out from his time in Boston but still interested in managing in 2012, seemed like a natural fit. But word quickly leaked out that the Cardinals were heading in a more adventurous direction. Mike Matheny, revered in the St. Louis clubhouse from his days as a Cardinals catcher from 2000 through 2004, had made a big impression during his interview, and the team decided to hire him even though he had never managed at any level. It was Robin Ventura redux.
"I certainly understand the argument that there is a risk," Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. "It's always difficult to tell the temperature of the water when you're standing outside it. Mike is going to be thrown into this, and time will tell how he how he reacts and adapts. But when you look at the qualities of a person and what makes people successful, it's not too hard to come to the conclusion that he'll be a survivor."
The risk, obviously, lies in hiring someone to run a team when he hasn't executed a double switch, run a bullpen or dealt with the media from a position of authority at the highest level. Baseball people always talk about how the game "speeds up" for players in the majors. It's no different for managers.
But for the executives in charge, it all comes down to which risk factor is scarier: Do you automatically gravitate to experience under the theory that the learning curve is too steep for a first-time manager? Or do you trust your gut and hire the person you know rather than place too much stock in word-of-mouth and a positive interview? More than one general manager has been fooled during the interview process.
"In our situation, I think the [biggest] risk would have been not hiring Robin," Williams said.
The White Sox never would have hired Ventura, Williams said, if they didn't have an adequate support system in place. It's headed by pitching coach Don Cooper, a strong, opinionated voice and a man known for getting the most out of his staffs. After hiring Ventura, Williams compiled a list of bench coaches from the "grizzled veteran" school. But when Ventura told him he wanted former big league catcher Mark Parent, Williams deferred to his new manager's judgment.
"Robin came back to me and said, 'I've got my guy, this is who I want, and there is no one else,"' Williams said. "Now that I've spent some time with Mark Parent, I know exactly what he's talking about."
In St. Louis, Matheny will have the luxury of working with Dave Duncan, La Russa's pitching coach for 17 seasons in St. Louis. The Cardinals also retained coaches Mark McGwire, Jose Oquendo and Mike Aldrete from La Russa's regime. Now all Mozeliak needs to do to enhance Matheny's chances of winning is re-sign three-time MVP Albert Pujols.
Taking a chance
Amid the recent chain of events, you have to feel some sympathy for Ryne Sandberg, who was so driven to manage in the major leagues that he stowed his ego and went back to the low minors to learn a new craft. Sandberg has posted a 364-341 record in five seasons with Peoria, Tennessee, Iowa and Lehigh Valley and earned positive reviews for his player-relations skill, but he's still waiting for his big opportunity to arrive. Indeed, when the Cubs laid out the qualifications for their new manager, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein established a set of criteria that immediately excluded Sandberg from consideration.
I certainly understand the argument that there is a risk. It's always difficult to tell the temperature of the water when you're standing outside it.
”-- Cardinals GM John Mozeliak
Boldness is all relative when it comes to managerial hiring. Even though Tommy Lasorda is in the Hall of Fame and Bob Lemon and Dallas Green led their teams to World Series victories, clubs have generally shied away from former pitchers to run clubs. The aversion is due in large part to the perception that pitchers can't relate to hitters.
Kevin Towers, now with Arizona, has made only two managerial hires in 16 seasons as a GM. Bud Black won a Manager of the Year Award in San Diego in 2010, and Kirk Gibson pocketed one this year with the Diamondbacks. When Towers hired Black in 2006, it was based on the assumption that the Padres would be relying heavily on pitching at Petco Park. Black, a 121-game winner in the big leagues, was certainly well-versed in that department.
"We interviewed some great guys: Jose Oquendo. Dusty Baker. Tim Wallach. Trey Hillman. But I felt a connection with Buddy," Towers said. "I think the GM-manager relationship is more important than anything."
In hindsight, the Diamondbacks thought they were ahead of the curve in 2009, when GM Josh Byrnes fired Bob Melvin 29 games into the season and replaced him with A.J. Hinch. Hinch had a Stanford pedigree, 350 games of big league playing experience, some time as a farm director and terrific people skills, yet the perception existed that he was merely an extension of management and a dugout surrogate for the front office.
Things quickly unraveled, and both men lost their jobs the following year. Looking back, Byrnes concedes that he put Hinch in a difficult position to succeed.
"What we thought would be an unpopular decision was a viciously unpopular decision," Byrnes said. "There are ways to quiet that down. You win, and we didn't win enough. Maybe Ventura and Matheny get more benefit of the doubt. We didn't get any."
Hinch encountered two obstacles that Ventura and Matheny won't have to deal with: (1) He took over a losing team midseason, in a situation rife with stress; and (2) he lacked the stature in Phoenix that Ventura and Matheny will enjoy in their cities, as popular former players with built-in credibility.
"I joke with Josh, 'I wish would have had more hits as a player. Maybe I would have been welcomed more,'" said Hinch, whose big league résumé consists of 209 hits and a .219 average over seven seasons with Oakland, Kansas City, Detroit and Philadelphia.
Hinch, who is now assistant GM under Byrnes, has the makings of a rising front-office star. If one remnant from his 212-game tenure in the dugout gnaws at him, it's the lingering perception that the Arizona front office called the shots, and he basically took dictation.
"There was certainly an organizational unity, but Josh never gave me ultimatums on lineups or decisions," Hinch said. "Those rumors were ridiculous, and I never understood why people would think that. To think you're down there as the manager taking orders and only doing things by script is pretty preposterous."
If history shows anything, teams ultimately will value or downplay the importance of experience depending on their individual circumstances. As the Red Sox complete their managerial hiring process, the presence of Bobby Valentine, Gene Lamont and Torey Lovullo as perhaps the last men standing is a sure sign there's a vigorous debate in the Boston front office over which attributes matter most.
In Chicago, Kenny Williams gravitated toward Robin Ventura for his intellect, steady demeanor and leadership skills. Upon hiring Mike Matheny in St. Louis, John Mozeliak praised his new manager for his passion, work ethic and "presence in a room." But credibility and goodwill only count for so much when it's June, the team has lost six straight and the talk radio callers are getting antsy. Baseball's novice managers are only a few months from a crash course in reality.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.
Exploring the rationale behind the unconventional managerial hirings by White Sox and Cardinals this offseason.