The idea for one of the most radical managerial hires in baseball history was first floated late last September, on a sultry night on the South Side of Chicago. The Ozzie Guillen Show had just ended for the White Sox—the tempestuous skipper was released from his contract so he could take over the Marlins—after an entertaining but ultimately exhausting eight-year-run in the Windy City. General manager Kenny Williams was watching a game from the owner's box at U.S. Cellular Field when he took out a yellow legal pad and began scribbling down names of potential Guillen successors. When team owner Jerry Reinsdorf walked in, Williams handed the pad to the 76-year-old godfather of Chicago sports. "Kenny made two lists," says Reinsdorf, also a longtime owner of the Chicago Bulls. "On the left side was a long list of guys with experience, and none of these men excited me."
This is an article from the March 19, 2012 issue
The list on the right had two names. "One was Paul Konerko, and it was not really serious," says Reinsdorf of the idea of making the White Sox' first baseman the first player-manager since Pete Rose with the Reds in the mid-1980s. "The other was Robin Ventura. I thought, Wow. Now, that is interesting."
The Moneyball revolution has kindled innovative thinking across the game, but baseball still often seems stuck in flat-earth views when it comes to managers. Teams are lauded for thinking outside the box when they hire a "baseball man" who's paid his dues as a minor league manager or big league bench coach. No one, then, aside from Williams, had considered Ventura, who had been out of the game since his 16-year playing career ended in 2004. Not Reinsdorf, even though he'd always thought highly of Ventura, who played third base for the White Sox from 1989 through '98. Not the baseball cognoscenti, who gossiped about everyone from Tony La Russa to Terry Francona to experienced coaches Sandy Alomar Jr. (now with the Indians) and Dave Martinez (Rays) getting the job. Not Ventura himself, who had never coached or managed at any level—unless you count a weekend at White Sox Fantasy Camp or his time as coach of his 13-year-old son's flag football team.
The 44-year-old Ventura was living a quiet, comfortable life with his family in Arroyo Grande, Calif., between L.A. and San Francisco, where he spent time working for a high school baseball team as a volunteer hitting instructor/video coordinator/groundskeeper. "I'd walk outside, and there's Robin shoveling dirt," says Dwight MacDonald, athletic director at Arroyo Grande High. "He was out there for eight hours one day making sure it was ready for the game." Ventura also designed T-shirts for the school and did the grilling at the football games.
When Williams met with Ventura for dinner in Phoenix a few days after the end of the season and proposed the idea of managing, Ventura was staggered. "I couldn't believe what he was saying," he says. "My reaction was, 'You want me to do what? Are you crazy?' I was in a daze the rest of the dinner."
The hiring, announced on Oct. 6, was received with such incredulity—"This is nuts, and even Ventura knows it," wrote one Chicago Tribune columnist—that you would have thought the organization was bringing back Bill Veeck's short-shorts unis from the 1970s. The baseball world was stunned again a month later when the Cardinals hired Mike Matheny to succeed La Russa. That pick wasn't quite as out of the blue—the 41-year-old ex-catcher spent the last two years as a roving instructor in St. Louis's minor league system—but Matheny also had never coached or managed at any level.
The great experiments in Chicago and St. Louis could shatter the conventional wisdom that managerial experience matters. "There is a big upside to rolling the dice on a new guy," says an American League executive. "You're not spending as much as you would on a guy who's been around. But you also just might find the next great manager. Maybe after Ventura and Matheny, we'll see more teams go away from the traditional route. Unless, of course, those guys fail spectacularly."
A manager's job is simple," Earl Weaver once said. "For 162 games you try not to screw up all the smart stuff your organization did last December." Measuring a manager's impact on a team has always been more art than science. "If anything, the effect of a manager on a team is underrated," says Chris Jaffe, a baseball historian and the author of the 2010 book Evaluating Baseball's Managers. Jaffe estimates that a manager could add up to five wins for a team—roughly the equivalent of an All-Star. Analysts can measure the clear ways a manager influences his team (bullpen usage, lineup construction), but in-game strategy is only part of the job. What managers do behind closed doors—motivating players, putting them in position to succeed—is arguably more important. That part of the job is impossible to measure. "Managers are like icebergs," says Jaffe. "Most of what matters is below the surface and out of view."
Bold managerial moves dominated this off-season. Guillen was asked to lead the rebranding of the Marlins. The Red Sox called on Bobby Valentine, 10 years removed from his last MLB job, to clean up the team's beer-and-wings clubhouse culture. To help guide the organization into a brave new world under new president Theo Epstein, the Cubs passed on team legend Ryne Sandberg, who has spent the last five years managing in the minors, and went for Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum, whose only managing experience was three seasons in the minors and a brief tenure as Milwaukee's interim skipper in 2008.
Gambling on an inexperienced manager can backfire, of course. A.J. Hinch knows how quickly things can go wrong. A former catcher with 350 games of major league experience, Hinch was the Diamondbacks' director of player development when he was tabbed to take over for Bob Melvin in May 2009, even though he had never been a coach at any level. Fourteen months later, Hinch and the man who hired him, G.M. Josh Byrnes, were fired. "If you win, it can alleviate a lot of the questions quickly, and we just didn't win enough at the outset," says Hinch, who went 89--123 in Arizona.
"Robin and Mike, they have familiarity with the fan bases," adds Hinch, now a Padres assistant G.M. under Byrnes. "I never played for the Diamondbacks. It wasn't as easy for fans to relate to me. I joke, 'If only I had more hits as a player, I would have been more famous and accepted a bit easier.'"
While Ventura was a two-time All-Star, Matheny was a part-time catcher most of his career, though he was well respected in the clubhouse during his time in St. Louis from 2000 through '04. "There is zero credibility gap between Tony [La Russa] and Mike," says Cardinals rightfielder Lance Berkman. "From the second he was hired, Mike had the credibility."
"Those guys played a long time," Guillen says of Matheny and Ventura, the latter of whom he played with in the White Sox infield for nine seasons. "They should know how to deal with players. You don't need experience. You need good players. The less moves you make, the better manager you are."
That advice should serve Matheny well. He takes over the defending World Series champs, a club that, despite the free-agent departure of Albert Pujols, is loaded for another title run. Says Berkman, "With the veteran makeup of this team, his main objective should be to just keep the train on the tracks."
Ventura, meanwhile, must steer the White Sox in a different direction: The club is coming off a disappointing 83-loss season, despite the highest payroll in franchise history. Ventura is even-tempered and soft-spoken—the anti-Ozzie, though the White Sox scoff at the notion that personality was a factor in Ventura's hiring. "There's no one trait a manager needs to have," says Reinsdorf. "Robin reminds me of Phil Jackson—laid-back but smart. I have the same feeling about Robin that I had about Phil."
As a player, Ventura was known for his keen baseball intellect. "He has unbelievable recall," says White Sox VP of player development Buddy Bell. Last May, Arroyo Grande High was playing in the first round of the state playoffs, and Ventura and head coach Brad Lachemann were sitting side by side in the dugout. "The [other] team's best hitter had hit an absolute bomb in the first inning," says Lachemann. "We're up a run when he comes up to the plate, late in the game with a man on second. I get up to tell the pitcher to walk him, but Robin grabs my arm and says, 'He was overswinging on the first pitch. He'll pop out to second.' We pitch to him, and he pops out to second."
This winter Ventura consulted with former managers like Bell and Jeff Torborg. (Both will be in White Sox camp as advisers later this spring.) He read scouting reports on the White Sox players and called many of them, though he didn't spend hours dissecting video. "They had a bad year, so you don't want to watch video of a guy not hitting," he says.
Ventura's biggest strengths might be his media savvy and unruffled demeanor, traits that defined, for example, Joe Torre as much as strategic acumen. He will also have the luxury of leaning on one of the game's best pitching coaches, in Don Cooper. (Asked if he would have hired Ventura without Cooper on staff, Williams says, "Probably not.") "He's always had a way of seeing things from different angles," says Williams, who was a White Sox scout and special assistant during Ventura's playing days. "It takes a strong personality to deal with people around here, from ownership to the media. You better have thick skin. I needed someone who could withstand all of that and continue to be his own man. And Robin will."
Ventura says he was "50-50" on taking the job before Williams and Reinsdorf flew to California to meet with him at home. "Robin picked us up at the airport," says Reinsdorf, "and we went up a mountain and got to the house, which had a fabulous view. I was somewhat confident that he'd take the job until I saw his house."
Looking out over a valley and onto the Pacific Ocean, Williams turned to Ventura and said, "Now why the hell would you want to come to Chicago?"
The idea of managing had crossed Ventura's mind, but he never dreamed his first opportunity would happen this soon. His concern was the control he'd have over the team. "I told Kenny and Jerry that I didn't want it to be that they were telling me what to do all the time, and I'm the guy just doing the interviews while they're running the team," he says. "If this starts going south, I want to be the one making the changes and the calls."
White Sox players joke that Ventura's camp-opening speech broke records for brevity. "He put it in the players' hands to be leaders and do things the right way," reliever Matt Thornton says.
Sitting behind his desk one afternoon in the team's Glendale, Ariz., camp, Ventura admitted, "I still feel like things in my life have been turned upside down a little. But no regrets or second thoughts." The man who had the crazy idea has none either. "People talk about how risky this is," Williams says. "Risky? The way I see it, the risk would have been not hiring a guy like Robin Ventura."
THIS CAN WORK!
The overall performance of managers recently hired despite a lack of previous experience suggests that success is possible for the rookie White Sox manager
• A.J. HINCH,Diamondbacks (2009--10)
Hired for his "organizational advocacy" in '09; fired 14 months later for his underwhelming 89--123 record.
• LARRY DIERKER,Astros (1997--2001)
Left the broadcast both to lead his former team to division titles in four of five seasons.
• BOB BRENLY,Diamondbacks (2001--04)
Rookie manager during Arizona's '01 title run; fired in the middle of club's franchise-worst 51--111 '04 finish.
• BUCK MARTINEZ,Blue Jays (2001--02)
Spent 17 years as a big league catcher; lasted less than a year and a half as skipper, going 100--115.