When Chicago White Sox general manager Ken Williams beckoned him to the club's facility in Arizona last fall for a meeting, Robin Ventura figured they were going to talk about, in his words, "ramping up" his involvement with the club. He expected Williams to suggest he travel more, maybe spend some days with the major-league club. You know, be less part-time.
Ventura had no idea how right he was.
Williams asked him to manage.
"I'm thinking, 'I don't want to manage in the minor leagues. I'm good,'" Ventura recalled Monday. "They said, 'No, no, no. The White Sox.' It's one of those moments that kind of turns your world upside down."
Ventura, 44, described the job offer during a rain delay at Tony La Russa's charity golf tournament, "Celebrities Fore! ARF," at Glen Echo Country Club. He and several members of the White Sox's coaching staff had flown in on owner Jerry Reinsdorf's plane Sunday night to spend their off day in St. Louis. As the White Sox open an interleague series tonight against the Cardinals, they sit atop the American League Central, an unexpected contender in a feisty division.
That Ventura is the one leading them was obvious in his introduction at the tournament: His six Gold Gloves and two All-Star Game selections were only prelude to his new title, manager of the first-place White Sox.
"I realize the enormity of the position coming from where I was," Ventura said. "I didn't have a grand plan that this is what I'm going to do. I'm looking at this as I'm managing the White Sox. I'm not looking at this to think, 'Hey, do this first and then I'll do it somewhere else for 10 years.' I just want to be really good at this for the White Sox. I don't see it going anywhere else."
It is fitting that the White Sox and the Cardinals — the team that launched La Russa's career as a manager and the team with which he finished it — would again be linked by their managers. In consecutive months this past offseason, Ventura and Mike Matheny were surprise hires as first-time managers for two venerable clubs. Their combined managing experience at any level was zero games. What they lacked in managing experience, however, they both had in organizational expertise.
Ventura said he "grew up" as a White Sox, drafted in 1988 and playing for them until 1998. Matheny spent the middle of his career with the Cardinals but found a home. Williams jokes that when Ventura returned as a special instructor their conversations were de facto job interviews for manager. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak described how his early-morning chats with Matheny in the workout room became informal job interviews.
Ventura and Matheny shared an agent as players, they share a distinction as rookie managers, and now they share text messages.
"So I told Mike when the White Sox hired me everyone was like, 'Oh my gosh, you've got to be kidding me,'" Ventura said of one text exchange. "I took all the arrows for him. When Mike got hired it was like, 'Oh, that's a smart move. Ex-catcher. He's been in the organization.' Sheesh."
Ventura was the 10th overall pick after an exceptional career at Oklahoma State that included three All-American selections, the Golden Spikes Award as the top amateur player, a 58-game hitting streak, and untallied evenings as Matt Holliday's babysitter. Holliday, the son of former OSU coach Tom Holliday, recalls times a ballplayer would watch him and his brother Josh, who is now OSU's head coach. Ventura did it enough to coin nicknames for them. Matt was "Rat."
The two have remained in contact, and while playing for one of the new managers, Holliday can see the traits they share.
"I think both guys when they played stood out to management as potential leaders and manager-types by how they played the game, their interest with the team, their intensity, how they paid attention to the game," Holliday said. "Both of them have those qualities you look for in leaders of men who, and this is important, are in high-pressure situations."
Ventura returned home to California after the job offer in Arizona and was followed there shortly by Reinsdorf and Williams. When they arrived, Ventura was "not 100 percent committed to it," he said. About three hours later he was.
In the seven years since his retirement, he had spent almost every night at home. Now he was throwing his family into this managing maelstrom, and yet it was a parental urge that tugged at him. There was a lesson here for his four kids, as well as him.
"There is something that resonated in the fact that what I am really teaching my kids?" Ventura explained. "It's an exciting thing to do. You can do it. You feel that you can do it. And what would it say if I turned it down because of the challenge of it?"
Ventura inherited a club that despite a high payroll finished 79-83 last summer. Hopes were modest for this year. Ventura said he wouldn't let it get to a point in spring training where you "cross your fingers and hope we'll do something." Within days of reporting to spring training, muscle memory took over and the routine fit like the jersey, as if he never left either. Comfort with the role has come with time.
"Early on I was kind of focused on what was happening and not so much ahead," Ventura said. "Now you're noticing what's going on here, but you're seeing an inning or two ahead."
When he flew to Arizona expecting to hear about a larger role with the White Sox, Ventura didn't carry an inner burn to be a manager. He had not prepared for it by keeping notes or recording insight from his managers. He was happy being a retired player, one who could appear at charity golf events, have his baseball card recited as an introduction, and wave to an ovation upon his returns to the old ballpark.
And then he was offered a chance to do more.
"I think this is a much more fun thing to do than to come back and get an ovation," Ventura said. "There's something more to it than coming back and only wanting the good. I'm willing to take the bad to be able to do this because I hope there is more good. I have the best seat in the house. It sounds so cliché. But I get the best of everything. OK, it's not as fun as playing. It's pretty dang close."