Congratulations to Kenny Williams and Jerry Reinsdorf and all others with the Chicago White Sox who managed to pull not just a complete surprise, but what is likely to be a long-term brilliant maneuver, in hiring Robin Ventura as the team’s new manager.
If anybody in baseball history has ever been better prepared psychologically for the roller-coaster of managing, I can’t think of his name. Ventura was probably the most unflappable, even-keeled player I’ve ever met – completely immune to the impact of wins and losses, interviews and ignorance, the media and the fans. He focused on exactly one thing: playing the game, and helping his teammates play it nearly as well as he did.
And he did this with an exceptional sense of humor that he used surreptitiously and almost conspiratorially. You have doubtless heard the story of Rickey Henderson coming to the New York Mets in 1999 and being reintroduced to John Olerud, briefly his teammate with the 1993 Blue Jays. Rickey – famously unfocused in the most benign and only self-injuring way possible – is supposed to have caught one glimpse at the batting helmet worn in the field that was both Olerud’s protection against after-effects of a brain aneurysm and the first baseman’s trademark – and said “I played with a guy in Toronto who did that, too.”
The story was entirely false, but so authentic-sounding, that it is still told as if it were biblical truth. And it was completely the concoction of Robin Ventura, perhaps the only such practical joke clean enough to be documented here. What’s more, if it took 100 words to tell that apocryphal story, those were probably 100 of the 200 words Ventura said to anybody not on his team that month. The French will tell you that there is the man good at the “bon mot” – the clever remark, that might have been the only clever remark out of a thousand he made that day. Then they will tell you, with a great deal more reverence, about the expert at the “mot juste” – the guy who is quiet all night, all day, all week, until he finally speaks, and says something so precisely correct and appropriate, that the quote stays vibrant and with you, forever. That’s Robin Ventura.
That’s not just about his humor. His baseball intuition was just like that, too. Jerry Manuel just said on MLB Tonight that Ventura used to “take care” of their infield when both were with the White Sox. The same was true with the Mets. Even as his skills slowed with the Yankees, his ability to position himself defensively based on pitch and hitter more than made up for the slowing reflexes. As a manager, one would expect that he would be as he was as a teammate: he will say damn little, and when he does speak, his players will say “Jeez! Why didn’t I think of that? He just extended my career five years.” This is, simply, one damn smart baseball man, who can’t be upset.
The latter truth probably comes from one infamous day that only becoming an all-time great manager might enable Ventura to live down. On August 4, 1993, after Nolan Ryan hit Ventura with a pitch at Arlington, Ventura charged the mound. He was 26, Ryan was 46 – it should’ve been no contest. It was exactly that. Ryan, alone among all pitchers who have ever faced that scenario, had the presence of mind to stay on top of the mound. From there, he was Andre The Giant. Ventura could do little more than run into Ryan’s headlock, and the rest was a video highlight that will still be being played on the day humankind disappears from the earth.
Since then, Ventura has made no brash move. Only stealth stuff. He has marched to his own drummer’s beat and done very well at it. And this is all said with the kind of caveat the White Sox must have anticipated. If he has misjudged his own interest in dealing with today’s players, Ventura will shrug his shoulders and go home. Maybe that will happen in 2032, maybe in 2022, maybe next May.
I’m not saying it’s likely, I’m just saying he doesn’t need this managing crap, and that’s one of the reasons he figures to be great at it.