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Senior Baseball Columnist

Efficient Ventura making it look easy as rookie skipper for White Sox

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Ventura might be a first-year manager but so far it doesn't come close to showing. (Getty Images)  
Ventura might be a first-year manager but so far it doesn't come close to showing. (Getty Images)  

CHICAGO -- It is 4:30 p.m., and the Chicago White Sox are taking infield. This is a very old school thing to do in general -- most clubs these days blow it off -- but what's really strange here Tuesday afternoon is that the White Sox did the same thing on Monday afternoon.

All season long under rookie manager Robin Ventura, the Sox have been taking infield before the first game of each series.

"Everybody else goes, 'Pffft, it's only infield'," designated hitter Adam Dunn says. "Yeah, it's a pain in the butt. It might be inconvenient.

"But it's one of the little things that's helped us."

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So why are the White Sox out here taking infield for a second day in a row?

"I didn't like yesterday's," Ventura says. "It was a little sloppy yesterday."

You would think that perhaps, after the White Sox swiped the opener Monday of this enormous series to seize a three-game lead over Detroit (now two games after Tuesday night's 5-3 loss), Ventura would have let his players slide as a reward.

But that's the thing that continues to impress with this manager who had never before managed.

Nothing slides.

There is no "Pffft, it's only. ..."

"Listen," veteran Sox pitching coach Don Cooper says. "Xs and Os, that's a matter of personal preference. Managing is managing people. Robin knows everything that's going on.

"I personally think he's done a hell of a job."

The current AL Central standings are one measure of that.

Another is the efficiency and professionalism with which the White Sox have operated all summer long.

If last season was a daily fireworks extravaganza under Ozzie Guillen, this year is a calm study in details and fine print.

"If everybody's honest about it, it was time for a change," Cooper says. "And the change has been a good one.

"Robin stepped in and calmed the waters. He's gotten the guys to play together."

From Ozzie to Robin, it is the biggest White Sox culture change since they tossed the Bermuda shorts. Ventura doesn't say much. But he doesn't waste words. Always, there is a point.

He came to the job after 2,079 games as a player, and exactly zero as a manager or coach.

He was home with his family on the California coast after retiring as a player in 2004, raising his kids and playing dad, when Sox general manager Kenny Williams added him to the staff last June as a special assistant to director of player development Buddy Bell.

As things deteriorated under Guillen, Williams, who as a GM makes an awfully good mad scientist, had an idea.

"A little nutty," Ventura, 45, concedes, smiling. "A little nutty.

"When it was first brought up to me, I had just started to go back and do things in the minor leagues. But you go through it, and having played that long, you realize the grind of it all, there's something enjoyable about a season, the journey of it, the ups and downs."

Ventura's hiring was widely, and immediately, panned.

It was as if the White Sox were desecrating the game by entrusting the club to a guy with little more qualification than Jake and Elwood Blues. What would they do next, use purple baseballs or aluminum bats?

"I didn't expect anyone to get it," Williams says. "Except those who know him the best."

Those who did? They got it.

"People asked, 'Can you believe they hired Robin Ventura?'" says Braves hitting coach Greg Walker, who left the Sox last winter after nine seasons as a coach there and nine as a player. "He can diffuse anything. He's unbelievable.

"Don't ever underestimate Robin Ventura. He can be a tough guy, or he can make you laugh until you cry."

Ventura immediately impressed a couple of veterans coming off tough seasons -- Adam Dunn and Alex Rios -- with quiet conversations over the winter. He's earned the trust and respect of young players with the deft way he's handled them, one key being the patience he afforded Gordon Beckham despite the second baseman's deep struggles early.

In hiring bench coach Mark Parent and hitting coach Jeff Manto, and with the promotion of third-base coach Joe McEwing from the Sox minor-league system and the holdover of pitching coach Cooper, the Sox have a coaching staff that is gaining admirers everywhere it goes.

Mostly, the coaches are a mirror of the skipper: steady and consistent.

"Our dynamic here, and by that I mean when you throw all that we are into the mix -- tough media, being in the same market as the Cubs, following a larger-than-life presence [Guillen], having some players who have had a history of success in the game but were coming off disappointing seasons, national questions about this team, which I understood because I had some of the same questions, and with the younger players we were going to use -- that was a lot to throw into the pot," Williams says. "Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that to get all that we needed, I had to think outside of the box.

"We needed someone with leadership ability, first and foremost. Someone who could walk in the door and have a presence and didn't have to explain who he was or what he was about. Someone who was intimately familiar with how the media here works. Someone with, obviously, great baseball acumen.

"When you connect all the dots ... maybe I didn't articulate it well enough early. I got hammered so quickly, I just said, forget it, people will see."

Three weeks to go, they're seeing.

"I'm jealous, because so far he's made it look easy," Tigers manager Jim Leyland says.

Humble and unassuming, Ventura chuckles and says something about how Leyland is delivering a nice compliment while trying to be funny, it has been anything but easy.

The most difficult moment came right on opening day, when longtime Sox batting practice pitcher Kevin Hickey was found unresponsive in his Dallas hotel room on opening day and never came out of the coma. He died on May 16.

"Losing a staff member, that was the furthest thing from my mind," Ventura says. "A guy who had been part of our family forever. That was tough."

It is Ventura's manner, more than his dugout strategy, that has these Sox on their 'A' game more often than not. While his style is more attention-to-detail than anything, he says "I also want them loose enough to play the game freely."

He can do strategy, though. Oh, can he. First week of the season in Cleveland, during the late innings of a close game, Ventura called for a steal with a runner on first base, then signaled for a bunt to move the runner to third, rather than bunting right away to move the runner.

"I like that he was going for it, and not going by the book," Dunn says. "He's doing it like he wants to do it, and that's awesome.

"You never know what's coming. He hits-and-runs with everybody. Well, probably not me. ..."

There was a time in this game when nobody would have dared hire a manager with no experience. But it is a different age now and, besides, as Ventura quips, he had some experience counting pitches while managing his kids' Little League teams.

He and his wife, Stephanie, have four children, three daughters and a son, ranging in age from 20 to 13. And truth be told, they're part of why he's doing this, too.

"I realized there would be a lot of rolling of eyes," he says of the critics. "But you can't worry about that. Like when you're a player, you can't worry about the people who don't think you can play.

"What am I telling my kids with something like this that's unique and hard, if you're afraid to do it because of what people think? You're not teaching your kids too much."

Which, really, is all part of managing, too. Isn't it? Done right, he says, it should be fun and hard and everything in between.

So he jokes one day that Dunn, out with an oblique strain, is "hour to hour", then upgrades him the next day to "half-hour to half-hour."

On Monday, he crashes a White Sox pre-game hitters' meeting to berate them for not doing the little things required to drive runners in from scoring position.

Tuesday? First time all season he makes the Sox take infield for a second day in a row.

And in doing so, he teaches them another lesson: Even with the season reduced to 22 games, it is never too late to sweat the details.

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