KANSAS CITY, Mo. — You would have a hard time finding two managers with more contrasting styles than Robin Ventura and Ozzie Guillen.
Replacing the volatile Guillen, Ventura has enjoyed instant success in his debut season with the Chicago White Sox.
The White Sox are leading the division and entered Tuesday's action 2½ games in front of the Tigers, the overwhelming choice in the AL Central.
“A lot of people put a lot of emphasis on coaching experience, but he had instant credibility with us because we knew what kind of player he was,” said White Sox slugger Adam Dunn. “He brings the same demeanor every day whether we win or lose. He's consistent.”
Ventura is the polar opposite of Guillen, outspoken but successful. Now the Miami Marlins' manager, Guillen ranks third all time in White Sox history with 678 wins, highlighted by a four-game sweep of Houston in 2005 for the White Sox's first World Series title since 1917.
“It was time for a change,” said White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski. “If you ask Ozzie, I think he was ready to go. Both have their styles. (Ventura) has a calm demeanor. Guys have responded to him. Every day nothing really changes win or lose, good game or bad game.”
Ventura could have remained retired after making millions during a 16-year major league career but was invigorated by an unexpected offer — manage the team that drafted him 24 years ago.
“You look at challenges in your life,” Ventura said last week during a series vs. the Kansas City Royals. “Are you afraid to do it just because of the backlash of what might happen or what people might say? I don't care about that stuff. I viewed it as a challenge, a place I would like to work for people that I have a lot of respect for.”
Considered one of the greatest college baseball players of all time following a remarkable three-year career at Oklahoma State, Ventura was out of baseball for six years before he was hired as a White Sox roving minor league instructor last season.
Veteran third baseman Kevin Youkilis, acquired recently in a trade, had issues with Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine but highly endorses Ventura.
“(Ventura) basically trusts us until we do something out of line and then he'll tell us,” Youkilis said. “That's the best way to manage in my opinion. You have to be stern at times and tell guys when they're doing something wrong. But if you show trust in your guys, they'll go play hard for you.”
Veteran left-hander John Danks, who has averaged 11 wins a season the past five years, said Ventura's even-keel demeanor has been a good fit.
“His style is to go out and play hard and if you mess up, you mess up,” Danks said. “He doesn't get mad at you for messin' up, but they will try to correct it right there on the spot. Then everyone forgets about it.
“He has an open door. Half the time he's in here (in the locker room) with us. This is as close-knit a group as I can remember here. There aren't any cliques.”
Nearly every White Sox player interviewed had similar comments, pointing out Ventura's track record (career .267 average with 294 home runs in 16 major league seasons) brought instant respect.
“He understands the game in terms of what everybody goes through,” said second baseman Gordon Beckham. “Everybody will go through some ups and downs. He does a really good job of managing that. It seems his mood is always the same. That's been a real positive for us.”
During his debut season, Ventura has leaned on a veteran coaching staff, especially pitching coach Don Cooper, in his 25th season with the White Sox, his 10th as pitching coach.
“A lot of people make assumptions about this position, some I even made when I was a player and wasn't paying that close attention,” Ventura said. “There are little nuances, things you need to be able to do as a manager.
“More than anything it's talking to players, getting a gauge for what it takes to get them to play better, little keys that you saw them do before that helped them have success.”
Handling a pitching staff is one of a manager's biggest challenges. Ventura said one advantage he has is he was close friends with pitchers like Jack McDowell, Kirk McCaskill and Jim Abbott.
“Those were the guys I went to dinner with,” Ventura said. “Subconsciously I knew the challenges they faced. You'd overhear the things they had to overcome to be successful, but at the time I didn't really care. ‘That's your problem.'
“Now it's all coming back when I see the same type of struggles my friends faced. But every game is different. You're trying to assess for that game and down the road. That's the hardest part. You'd like to use guys every day if you could.”
Ventura played in the postseason five times, for four different organizations — the White Sox, Mets, Yankees and Dodgers. His managerial philosophy is rooted among several different people, including former OSU coach Gary Ward.
“You take from everybody,” Ventura said. “That's part of me being me, my career path that I've traveled. I might do a drill from way back and guys kind of like it. Hopefully it works.”
One subtle change is at least once a road trip and once a homestand, Ventura schedules 10-minute fielding sessions that include outfielders throwing to bases. That's rare in the majors once the season starts.
“Extra infield” sessions have paid dividends. The White Sox have surrendered 23 unearned runs, second fewest in the AL. Detroit has allowed twice that many.
“Pitching and defense is how you win ballgames,” Youkilis said. “That's the best chance to win this division. We're trying to keep it rolling.”
The White Sox's success can be traced to a lineup that features five players that have slammed 13 or more homers, led by Dunn, leading the majors with 28 homers. Pierzynski (16 homers) is on pace to shatter his career high.
Led by a bounce-back season from Jake Peavy, Chicago's pitching staff has a solid 3.93 ERA, has a .243 batting average against, third best in the AL, and has issued the third fewest walks in the league.
How much credit goes to the manager?
“The way I look at it, not a lot,” Ventura said. “It's the players that are performing. My role is to teach the way we're going to play fundamentally, both now and the future. No manager goes to hit for a guy or pitches for a guy.”
Players, though, said Ventura has created a low-key, tight-knit atmosphere. Winning obviously makes everyone's job easier.
“If you're doing bad he doesn't avoid you,” Dunn said. “He's the same guy every single day. When you bring stability like that to the clubhouse, especially with a young team like we have, it's huge.”
Selected 10th overall by the White Sox in 1988, Ventura is the only manager in major league history who has won an Olympic gold medal.
Part of his motivation for accepting general manager Ken Williams' offer last October was a parent practicing what he preaches to his children.
His oldest daughter, Rachel, 19, is attending Oklahoma State. Madison, 18, is attending college on the West Coast. His other two kids, Grace, 16, and Jack 13, are at home with his wife, Stephanie.
“You teach your children about challenges and stepping out of your comfort zone,” Ventura said. “This is definitely it for me. I think there was a parenting moment in there somewhere.
“Last year I got back in it and did the minor league thing. I liked it. Then came this kind of weird opportunity. A lot of it is just the challenge to do it and have fun doing it. I'm having a great time.”
Career MLB stats
294 home runs
Career highlights: Tied for fifth all-time in MLB history for grand slams (18) behind Lou Gehrig, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Eddie Murray. ... Hit 20 or more home runs nine times, including a career-best 32 with career-high 120 RBIs for the Mets in 1999. ... Won six Gold Gloves. ... Two-time All-Star. ... Was in the playoffs five times with the White Sox (1993), Mets (1990, 2000), Yankees (2002) and Dodgers (2004). ... Ranks sixth all-time in home runs (171) in White Sox history. ... A three-time All-American, Ventura was selected Baseball America's Player of the Decade for the 1980s and also was named college baseball's all-time third baseman. ... Won the Dick Howser Trophy and Golden Spikes Award, college baseball's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy, his junior year at Oklahoma State. ... Set NCAA record with a 58-game hitting streak in 1987. ... Career College World Series .459 average ranks second all time. ... Holds OSU school record for career hits (329). ... His No. 21 OSU jersey was retired in 1998. ... The only manager in major league history who has won an Olympic gold medal. ... Selected 10th overall in the 1988 draft by the White Sox. ... Named Freshman of the Year by Baseball America in 1986 after hitting .469.