|Rookie manager Robin Ventura has so far surrounded himself with veteran coaches. (AP)|
PHOENIX -- The exact words are in some dispute now, five months later.
The way Buddy Bell remembers it, the strangest job interview in baseball history began with Ken Williams telling Robin Ventura that he wanted him as the next White Sox manager, and with Ventura responding with a blunt five-word answer:
"You guys are [bleeping] nuts."
"That's exactly what he said," Bell said this week.
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I like Robin Ventura, and have since I first met him when he was a junior at Oklahoma State.. Likes, dislikes >>
"It wasn't that," Ventura insists. "But it was close. And I gave them a look that might have said that."
Five months later, Ventura is midway through his first spring training as a manager, and somehow the idea doesn't seem nearly as nuts. Not to him, and not to anyone who has been in White Sox camp.
And certainly not to Williams, the general manager who went to that four-hour meeting last October with the goal of convincing Ventura that this nutty idea made perfect sense.
"My expectations have been exceeded," Williams said.
This may not work. But it's not nuts.
So we're ready to declare the Ventura hiring as a success, even before he takes charge of his first real game?
Well, Williams is. Plenty of others in the White Sox front office -- and in the White Sox clubhouse -- are.
"I can't see Robin not being outstanding -- and he already has been," pitcher Jake Peavy said.
Me? I'm still not sure, and I'm still not sure I can get past the idea that despite Ventura's 16 years as a major-league player, he has never managed or coached at any level.
Until the middle of last summer, when Bell called him into an office at U.S. Cellular Field and told him, "You've got to do something," Ventura wasn't working in baseball at all.
He intended to, eventually. He even believed it possible that he could end up as a manager, eventually.
Late-round flier ... Alejandro De Aza, OF: With Pierre gone, Alejandro De Aza will get his first real chance to be an everyday outfielder for a whole season. As a slap hitter, the 27-year-old won't take advantage U.S. Cellular Field's homer-friendly dimensions, but he has a history of using his speed to leg out base hits. De Aza should produce enough steals and a high enough batting average to help owners in Rotisserie leagues, and he is good enough at avoiding strikeouts and hitting doubles to be of use in Head-to-Head formats. His lack of home run power prevents him from being even a middle-round option in standard mixed leagues, but he does enough things well to be worthy of a late-round pick.
Bust ... Matt Thornton, RP: Matt Thornton got the first crack at the closer's job last season, but after blowing each of his first four save oppotunities, he was demoted to a set-up role. He recovered well enough to post a 2.95 ERA from April 18 on, and that has positioned Thornton as the likely frontrunner to succeed Santos in the ninth-inning role. Despite the respectable ERA there is no shortage of warning signs for another implosion. For the second season in a row, Thornton's control eroded as he threw fewer strikes and issued more walks per nine innings. When opposing hitters have gotten ahold of one of his offerings they have increasingly been able to hit him ... hard. Thornton's line drive rate ballooned to 24 percent, which contributed to a 64-point increase in opponents' batting average against him. Thornton still gets his fair share of strikeouts, but his trends are all running in the wrong direction, making him a risk to count on for saves this season. -- Al Melchior
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He just never saw it happening now. He just had to be convinced that he was the right guy now.
And that's what Williams and Bell set out to do in that first meeting, the one Ventura now refers to as an "ambush."
Bell lured Ventura to Arizona without ever mentioning the real reason they were there. Bell, a three-time major-league manager who is now a White Sox vice president, avoided the subject even when he picked Ventura up at his hotel to drive him to the White Sox spring complex.
Williams had planned everything, to the point of including Bell in the meeting.
"[Ventura] needed to know we were serious," Williams said. "That's why I had Buddy there. I don't think he'd have believed me if it was just me."
Williams was determined to make sure Ventura said yes. So was Bell. Jerry Reinsdorf, probably the most loyal owner in sports, was fully on board with the plan to have one beloved ex-White Sox player (Ventura) take over for another (Ozzie Guillen).
Ventura was the one guy who wasn't sure.
"I didn't sleep for three or four days thinking about it," he said.
Williams and Bell left the Arizona meeting convinced that Ventura would at least consider the job, with a reasonable chance that he would say yes. But they didn't leave anything to chance.
Over the next few days, Williams called Ventura several times. Reinsdorf called him. Williams and Reinsdorf flew to California to seal the deal.
The White Sox announced the hiring on Oct. 6, only nine days after Guillen resigned to take over the Marlins. The first reaction was shock, but it was quickly followed by a strong hope that Ventura will succeed.
And maybe it can work.
It helps that he'll have a veteran pitching coach, Don Cooper, one of the few holdovers from Guillen's staff. Ventura says he'll rely on Cooper, but also that he'll make the final decisions on pitching himself.
It helps that Ventura's personality provides such a contrast to Guillen's, even if their actual baseball philosophy is similar. Many White Sox people will admit now that last year's team was doomed almost from the start because of the tension between Williams, Guillen and some members of the coaching staff.
"This needed to happen," Cooper said. "If you're being honest, this is probably the best for everyone."
Guillen is obviously happier with the Marlins. White Sox camp is a happier place, too, even though Williams and others are careful not to turn their praise for Ventura into another referendum on Guillen.
"The players will be mentally, physically and fundamentally ready when the season starts," Williams said.
The players praise Ventura and the coaching staff he assembled. Even Ventura's lack of experience is turned into a positive.
"I love that he hasn't been coaching for so many years that he has that 'coaching mentality,'" Peavy said. "The last experience he had was as a player, and because of that he can relate with us."
It's working now, but of course it's only spring training. The White Sox have lost games, but none yet that count.
If this team is as bad as some observers predict -- one Arizona-based scout suggested the White Sox could lose 100 games -- then some will surely blame the totally inexperienced manager. That won't mean it's his fault.
"Managers can make a good team bad," Bell said. "But they can't make a bad team good."
Experienced managers can fail. Inexperienced managers can succeed.
And sometimes, ideas that seem totally nuts turn out just fine.