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March 19, 2012
The hiring of the former White Sox third baseman could not have been more surprising—not least to Ventura himself
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March 19, 2012

Robin Ventura's Rockin' A Manager's Cap

The hiring of the former White Sox third baseman could not have been more surprising—not least to Ventura himself

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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."

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.

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