April 21, 2021

Robin White Sox Redux

October 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

On Thursday afternoon I received a text message from my cousin and fellow die-hard White Sox fan, Owen, and it contained just one word: Robin?

Naturally, I replied with the first word that came to my mind: Batman?

Just kidding.  The word I actually replied with was Ventura?  As I honestly wondered whether Owen’s single-word message meant that former White Sox slugger Robin Ventura was being named as a possibility in Chicago’s search for a manager or hitting coach or maybe – especially since Owen lives in Milwaukee – Robin Yount’s name might be floating about.  I also tried to recall whether Robin Roberts is still alive.  (He is, the Phillies Hall-of-Famer and Springfield, Illinois native just turned 85.)

I received several more emails and texts, and head-slaps throughout the day from South Side loyalists all expressing the same surprise.  Robin?

Yes, it’s true.  The White Sox are not replacing Ozzie Guillen with Terry Francona – the suddenly available two-time World Series winner and former White Sox minor league skipper (he managed Michael Jordan!  Isn’t that good enough right there?) Nor are the Sox turning to Dave Martinez, another respected former Pale Hose who has been learning at the elbow of baseball’s best manager, Joe Maddon, in Tampa for several years.  Nor are the Medias Blancas going unorthodox or rogue by bringing in a Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, Ryne Sandberg, Joe Morgan or Mike Ditka.  No, the Sox are giving the keys to 35th and Wentworth to the guy who got his ass kicked by Nolan Ryan.

And I might just love it.

But I don’t know yet.

This move is straight out of the Jerry Reinsdorf South Side Book of Management, which has a few simple rules: 1. Go Cheap.  2. Stay Within The Organization.  3. Don’t Give a Damn What Anyone Outside of Bridgeport thinks.

One of those I heard from on Thursday was fellow Seamhead Nick Waddell who said we should have seen this coming and he’s probably right as the Sox and Reinsdorf’s other team – the Chicago Bulls – never go for the big name, established guy but instead always go for the hopefully up-and-coming fella who comes with a small price tag and manageable -at least at first – ego.  Sometimes it works wonderfully: Jeff Torborg, Gene Lamont, Ozzie Guillen, Phil Jackson, Tom Thibodeau.  Sometimes not: Terry Bevington, Vinny Del Negro.  But Robin Ventura, while having a bigger name than any of those other guys before taking the reins, brings no managerial experience nor expertise outside of a recent high school stint.

So what does he bring?

First, let’s remember Ventura as a player.  Rockin’ Robin was good.  Ventura was a two-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove winner at third base.  He played in 1,254 games over 10 seasons with the Sox, hitting .274 with 171 home runs and 741 RBI.  He then went on to the New York Mets, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers appearing in a total of 2,079 career games, with a career average of .267, 294 home runs, 1,182 RBI and about 30 noogies from Mr. Ryan.  (We’ll get back to that.)

Ventura was an odd mixture of the steady and the spectacular.  He was mostly unassuming on the field as he quietly played third base – and played it better than anyone else in the American League during the 1990s – but also hit 18 career grand slams, which makes him tied for fifth place all-time with Hall-of-Famer Willie McCovey.  The only guys in front of Ventura on the bases juiced dinger list are Lou Gehrig, (23) Many Ramirez, (21) Alex Rodriguez, (21) and Eddie Murray, (19.)  I remember Ventura knocking out several slams on the South Side but his most famous four-bagger with the bases loaded came when he was with the Mets to beat the Atlanta Braves in 15 innings in Game 5 of the 1999 National League Championship Series.  Technically, it wasn’t even counted as a home run as Ventura was mobbed by his teammates before even touching second base as the winning run had already scored.  Painfully, though, for Robin and the Mets they actually lost that series just like Ventura’s former White Sox teammate, Carlton Fisk, is best known for his famous home run with another team – the Boston Red Sox – in the 1975 World Series which Fisk’s side eventually lost as well.  It’s a South Side kinda thing.

So, Robin could rock it out when he needed too.  And, it must be mentioned, Ventura might have been the greatest player in college baseball history.  At Oklahoma State from 1985 to 1988 Ventura hit .428, still holds Division One’s all-time hitting streak at 58 games, was named player of the decade, best player of the last 20 years and finished third in the voting for best player of the century.  The kid could bring it.

Besides his steady fielding, occasional grand slam and one-time brawl with Old Man Ranger, Ventura is also often recalled for breaking his right ankle during a home plate collision during a spring training game against the Red Sox in 1997.  It was, by all accounts, a disturbing and sickening scene as Ventura’s bone broke through the skin and elicited a nearly Joe Theismann injury reaction from all the players and fans around him.  Ventura was expected to possibly miss the whole season but fought back to return in late July and promptly had the game-winning hit against the Rangers in his first game back and then homered in his first at-bat the very next night.  But, the ’97 Sox then went on a slide, dropping four straight which led to the notorious “White Flag Trade” in which Reinsdorf said there was no way his guys were going to catch the Cleveland Indians.  Ventura noted that he might not have worked so hard to get back on the field so soon if he’d known that, essentially, management was just going to give up on his team.  A year later, the Sox officially gave up on Robin as they tried repeatedly to trade him and then denied him a new contract with Reinsdorf – certainly in a polite way – saying Robin’s skills were deteriorating.  And so, Robin was gone from the South Side after 1998.

Ventura’s departure came one year after another longtime solid infielder was shown the White Sox door: Ozzie Guillen.  Ozzie was not happy to be let go by the Sox and never forgot it and even referenced it several times late this season saying that the Sox had “fired him before.”  When Ozzie returned in 2004 I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t alone.  I don’t remember the emails I got seven years ago but I’m sure there were a few that simply read Ozzie?  Yes, Ozzie.  And he went on to help the White Sox win their first World Series in 88 years.  But Ozzie, as goofy and untested as he was seven years ago, had spent time coaching and playing under Bobby Cox in Atlanta and Jack McKeon in Florida, winning a World Series in 2003.  But Robin?  Here’s to hoping he watches a lot of TV.

And speaking of TV, how many times has the MLB Network, ESPN and YouTube shown that the ugly, embarrassing clip of Ventura going after Nolan Ryan in 1993 and getting whooped by a guy 21 years older than him?  That’s right, Ventura was 25, Ryan 46, and old Nolan got him good.  The tape doesn’t lie but few people remember that many players quietly applauded Ventura for his ill-fated attempted assault.  Nolan Ryan was one of baseball’s biggest bullies – and overrated pitchers – (2,795 career walks, most all-time!  No 20-win seasons!  No Cy Youngs!  Nolan Ryan was a fireballer and much, much better than most but was not nearly as good as the baseball cognoscenti like to think.  Humbug!) and Robin – the tape doesn’t lie – appeared to want to go after him, hesitated, then charged and then got smacked.  But, no you don’t DARE go after Nolan Ryan, do you?  You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, don’t spit into the wind and don’t mess with Nolan.  Oh, the temerity.

So the White Sox, like the Corleones, Chicago politicians and half the population of Kentucky, are staying within the family.  If all you knew about the Sox was the way they venerate their past you’d think they were the Yankees and not a franchise that, outside of Chicago (and some would say even in Chicago) is rather non-descript and largely lacking in championships.  It’s touching that the White Sox strive to treat their own with a mafia-like devotion and their past with a Hindu-like reverence but can the Prodigal Son teach a team to hit with runners in scoring in position?  Can Robin convince Mark Buehrle to stay in town?  Will he re-learn Adam Dunn on how to hit the fastball?  Is Robin Ventura willing to charge the mound every time Justin Verlander pitches?

Robin is back, in charge and Chicago’s South Side shakes its head.  But it also thinks, not so far from the surface, that this just might work.  Ventura is smart, loyal, and will no doubt carry out the duties of his office with dignity, grit and far fewer four-letter words than his predecessor.  Things will be quieter on the South Side in 2012 but when Ventura helped the White Sox reach the playoffs in 1993 for the first time in ten years the team was described as “baseball’s quiet winners.”  Hopefully that’s Ventura’s plan: speak softly and play steadily.  If it works, we’ll hear all about it.


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