That the White Sox thought they could do better than Rick Renteria was not a shock.
That they fired him with a year left on his contract after he led them to a 35-25 record, an improvement in win percentage from .447 to .583 and a playoff berth was.
That the Baseball Writers Association of America made him runner-up to the Rays’ Kevin Cash in American League Manager of the Year voting this week made for a bittersweet send-off.
For Renteria, a modest man who never sought the spotlight, the recognition was much appreciated.
“I was extremely humbled by my nomination and truly appreciate the support of all those that had a hand in it,” Renteria said via text message after learning of the balloting, which included five of 30 first-place votes. “Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.”
Despite the team’s late-season fade (2-7 over the last nine games and a wild-card series loss to the Athletics in Oakland after winning Game 1) and some internal disagreements with the front office over the degree to which metrics should be incorporated into his managing style, Renteria was taken aback by a firing made with a year remaining on his contract.
Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s loyalty, and general manager Rick Hahn’s repeated praise and votes of confidence, would rule the day and give Renteria a shot at managing the team into its competitive window, which is now open.
That was the universal belief, but it wasn’t to be.
It took him a few days, but while the Sox were getting singed in a public-relations firestorm because of the hire of Tony La Russa as his replacement, Renteria is in a good frame of mind, back to being his upbeat self, enjoying family life with his wife, kids and grandchildren and doing yard work and tending to his avocado trees at home in California.
Renteria has been through this cruel baseball fate before. When he was unceremoniously fired by the Cubs in 2014 — they let him go after he effectively served a similar Point A to Point B rebuild phase — he took a year off with pay, and he plans to do the same now. The Sox hired him as bench coach for the 2016 season, then slid him over to the manager’s seat to replace Robin Ventura.
He managed teams his first three years that had no chance to win. In his fourth year, he had a chance and did. But now, at age 58 and seeing a shifting wave to younger, data-driven managers — like Cash, for example — Renteria knows his managing days likely are numbered.
“I don’t expect that he will [manage again],” a baseball source close to Renteria said. “The trend in baseball is clearly away from experienced guys.
“It’s what is going on all over. Rick is too old-school, number one, and I’m not sure he wants to get himself in a situation where he has to battle. Maybe in the front office, but at this point in his career I don’t know why he would want to do anything on the field.”
While Renteria’s lineups and usage of pitchers invited debate and criticism, he generally received high marks, including from players themselves, for overseeing a free-spirited, fun-loving clubhouse culture that emphasized community that allowed players to express themselves and saw them play hard for their manager.
“Ricky was a great manager,” AL MVP Jose Abreu said. “He was a great person. He helped me a lot. I was honored to be part of a team that he managed.”
Renteria rarely, if ever, called players out in the media or used media to motivate players. If a message needed to be delivered, it came from the manager’s mouth, or one of his staff.
“For me, Ricky was a great man on and off the field,” 23-year-old left fielder Eloy Jimenez said. “He helped me a lot. On the field, he gave me the confidence to go out and play, he helped me every single day. I’m going to miss him, but business is business.”
Shortstop Tim Anderson said Renteria’s “presence and energy” will be missed.
A manager who worked tireless hours —he arrived at the Sox spring-training facility in the early-morning darkness and went at such a pace that pitching coach Don Cooper, during Renteria’s first year as manager, implored him to slow down lest he burn out before Opening Day — those who know Renteria expect him to roll with the flow of his fate. For those who care about and respect him — and it’s a long list — do not worry.
“He’s a guy who’s able to put aside disappointment pretty quickly,” said a source who is close to Renteria, “and let go of it after a short period of time.”