CHICAGO – As the White Sox’s season unraveled in front of him, first-year manager Robin Ventura kept his cool.
He had plenty of opportunities to blow a gasket watching the Sox’s three-game lead with 15 games to go evaporate. The late-season collapse, aided by mental miscues, inconsistent pitching and silent bats, cost the Sox their first playoff appearance since 2008, ultimately finishing a disappointing second in the American League Central three games in back of the Detroit Tigers.
Yet Ventura, reflecting during the final days of the regular season, didn’t express any regrets. Leading a team few expected to finish .500, let alone contend for the playoffs, the Sox’s 85 wins were the most by a manager in his first season since Gene Lamont in 1992 (86 wins).
Bounce-back seasons by Alex Rios, Adam Dunn and Jake Peavy helped fuel the Sox’s turnaround. But behind the scenes, Ventura pushed the right buttons. His even-keeled demeanor provided calmness inside the clubhouse and fortitude in the dugout.
“I don’t see the reason to be two different people,” Ventura said. “I realize the job that I have and what I need to do dealing with people. I’d rather deal with the people as I am whether we’re inside the clubhouse or out. So I don’t think I have the ability to change that.”
Nobody knew how general manager Ken Williams’ bold move would pan out. When Williams named Robin Ventura the 17th manager in Sox history last October, the 45-year-old was expected to bring a calming influence after the departure of the brash and outspoken Ozzie Guillen.
California cool replaced Chicago tough.
“It’s been there a long time, I don’t really have a choice at this point,” Ventura said of his even-keeled attitude. “Maybe I’ll work on it in the offseason and come up with something else. Yeah, it’s accurate. It’s boring, but it’s what it is.”
Ventura’s friend-turned-bench coach, Mark Parent, always believed he could succeed as a big-league manager. And when Ventura called him last year to ask if he should take the job, Parent couldn’t believe he was even debating the opportunity.
“I told him, ‘[Heck] yeah,’” Parent said. “When you’re done playing, I think that’s the most prepared you’re going to be to coach or manage. He hasn’t surprised me or let me down at all. I think that he’s gotten better. He’s gotten better focusing on the entire game and being able to compartmentalize different parts of the games at different times of the games.”
For the most part, Ventura knew what he was getting into when he accepted the job. He spent 10 of his 16 seasons with the Sox after they drafted him 10th overall in 1988 out of Oklahoma State. During his decade on the South Side, Ventura thrived winning five Gold Gloves at third base and appeared in an All-Star Game. But besides daily obligations with the media, which Ventura half-jokingly said is his least favorite part of the job, the responsibility of looking out for every player is always in the back of his mind.
“The hard part is you’re always thinking,” Ventura said. “If it’s one guy doing well, somebody else might not be doing well. You’re always thinking that way. You’re thinking of 25 guys instead of just what you have to do and probably more than 25 guys since there’s more people here. That’s the hard part. The easy part is that you enjoy coming. It’s easy to get up and get ready to come to the ballpark.”
Ventura’s efforts to instill attention to details and take one game at a time, as cliché as it is, was embraced by his players. It didn’t go unnoticed by pitcher Jake Peavy. When the Sox lost a crucial game to Tampa Bay on Sept. 27, in part because of botched fundamentals, Ventura didn’t call anyone out publicly or lament dropping another game behind Detroit. One game later, the Sox pulled out a much-needed win. Peavy said he watched both of Ventura’s post-game news conferences after those games, one of which he started, and couldn’t help but be impressed.
“If you want to know about Robin Ventura, you can go back and look at the two post-game interviews,” Peavy said. “He never wavers. His attitude, his professionalism, a constant professional in the way he handles himself and the way he carries himself. The team is going to take the personality of your leaders whether you want to or not you’re going to take on that personality and I think it’s been huge, simply because of the young guys that we’ve had.”
Ventura wasn’t perfect this season, struggling at times to handle a youth-laden bullpen which became more complicated once rosters expanded in September.
His job likely won’t get easier next season. With veterans A.J. Pierzynski, Brett Myers, and Peavy free agents and Kevin Youkilis and Gavin Floyd potentially joining them, the Sox could look very different in 2013.
However, Ventura has the right personality to handle inexperienced players. Rookie relievers Addison Reed and Nate Jones praised Ventura and, other than pointing to his on-the-job learning of working a bullpen and pitching staff, players found it difficult to find fault with him – a far cry from their previous manager, but exactly what the Sox need.
“He doesn’t change from the dugout to off the field, he’s the same way all the time,” Parent said. “He has a certain passion for the game, but that doesn’t mean he yells and screams. His consistency lends to a happy, good-working environment.”