By Dan McGrath — For the Sun-Times
From outward appearances, the hot seat Robin Ventura is said to occupy could just as easily be a comfy chair. He is presiding over a White Sox team characterized by maddening inconsistency, but every day is just another day at the office.
He is even-keeled and accommodating in his daily media sessions, flashing temper only once, when a persistent line of postgame questioning digressed from odd to idiotic. He is patient with and supportive of his players, even when a toss under the bus seems warranted. A stress-free environment is unattainable in the high-pressure, grind-it-out world of major league baseball, but tension and drama are counterproductive in Ventura’s clubhouse.
“It’s baseball,” he said as the Sox were taking two of three from the feeble Minnesota Twins last week for their third consecutive series victory. “It’s not life or death. It’s important, don’t get me wrong. But there are a lot of things going on in the world that are more serious. If you can’t get perspective from that, you should.”
With determined but defective John Danks sent home to Tennessee and embattled James Shields showing recent signs of life, Ventura has become the most popular scapegoat for the White Sox’s deficiencies. Somehow it’s his fault that the same team that opened with a 23-10 record achieved the opposite result over its next 33 games to wind up back where it started. The same team that suggested it might have fixed itself by going 5-2 against smash-mouth Boston and Toronto lineups gets blanked for seven innings by Minnesota’s Kyle Gibson, who brought an 0-5 record and a 6.10 ERA to work at U.S. Cellular Field on Tuesday night.
Lest Todd Frazier’s Mendoza-line batting average suggest a 2016 version of the dreaded Adams, Dunn or LaRoche, bear in mind that Frazier has the power numbers of an elite slugger and has been as good as advertised in the field and in the clubhouse.
He’s also one of the few Sox players who have stayed healthy, and health is a concern when roster flexibility is limited by the presence of eight relievers. “We’ve needed every one of them,” Ventura acknowledged, saying without saying that his starters don’t go deep enough often enough.
“We’ve got to score more runs. We’re not going to win many 2-1 games.”
While the Sox spin their wheels, the Cleveland Indians are playing lights out, leaving Ventura’s team closer to the bottom than the top in the American League Central and behind a half-dozen fellow wild-card aspirants. It’s going to take a Cleveland-like surge at some point for the Sox to become plausible contenders, and they can’t play the Twins every night.
“We can only worry about Cleveland when we play Cleveland,” Ventura said. “And we can’t worry about streaks. You have to be in the moment. Every day is a new game. All you can do is take care of that game, that inning, that at-bat. If we do that, we’ll get results.”
Critics will interpret his “life or death” statement as further evidence that Ventura — nice guy, terrific player — is too laid back to run a major-league team. Where’s the fire? Why can’t he be more like a baseball Mike Ditka, forever the exemplar of a Chicago sports boss?
Ozzie Guillen had fire, and it worked for a while, even won a championship. Reporters loved Ozzie, who could fill a notebook recounting what he’d had for breakfast. But over time, Ozzie’s players resented the constant drama and eventually tuned him out. Ventura’s less-is-more approach seems better suited to the times.
They’re doing the same job in the same city, so comparisons between Ventura and Joe Maddon are inevitable, and not necessarily fair — they’re different people operating in different circumstances. The animal acts, the zany suits, the pajama parties … Maddon’s antics come off as really cute with the Cubs winning. Then you watch him squeeze every possibility out of that 15-inning win in Cincinnati the other night and you appreciate the substance that accompanies the style — the man knows what he’s doing, always.
It helps that Maddon is managing the most talented young roster in baseball, with a starting rotation of gnarly gamers at his disposal as well. Javy Baez, Matt Sczcur, Albert Almora, Willson Contreras … does it matter whom Maddon plugs in? Chances are he’s going to deliver.
The Sox call up a kid they’ve been nurturing in Class AAA and he breaks his foot the first day, running the bases. How bizarre.
And probably Ventura’s fault.