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Sox 2019 preview: Manager Rick Renteria’s fire hotter than you might think

Rick Renteria doesn’t have many enemies.

It’s hard not to be liked when you’re as polite, happy and upbeat as the White Sox’ manager.

“How can you not like Rick Renteria?” an umpire said during the 2018 season. “He’s too nice of a guy.”

That same umpire, by the way, has ejected Renteria from a game. In fact, Renteria has been tossed 19 times in his career, including six times in 2018, his second as Sox manager. It isn’t known what prompted the old heave-ho — those “conversations” are private. But it’s safe to say it wasn’t, “How’s the wife and kids?”

Rick Renteria #17 manager of the Chicago White Sox sits in the dugout as he watches his team warm up prior to a game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on March 31, 2018 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

“If anybody doubts my edge, you’re mistaken,” Renteria said. “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness.”

Renteria, who was drafted by the Pirates in the first round in 1980, played professionally for 15 seasons and appeared in 184 games over parts of five major-league seasons with the Pirates, Mariners and Marlins, batting .237 with four homers and 41 RBI. He fell short of building the playing career he had dreamed of, but not for lack of competitive fire.

Johnny Friendly he was not.

“I was never one of those guys who was out there talking to the opponent,” Renteria said. “I wasn’t that guy. I went out for business. When I went out to compete, I went out to compete. My players know that, too.”

“Oh, yeah, he’ll get in you,” shortstop Tim Anderson said.

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Which is something players view as a good thing.

“I can talk about Ricky’s abilities all day if you want to,” first baseman Jose Abreu said through a translator. “One of the things that makes him a great manager is he knows what it’s like to be a player and how players feel. Players respect him.

“He is straightforward in his relationship with players. If he has something to get across, he will go to you and tell you to your face.”

That became apparent to Abreu when Renteria was Robin Ventura’s bench coach in 2016. There was a game in which Abreu didn’t hustle after a dropped third strike by the catcher, and Renteria quickly confronted him.

“As soon as I got to the clubhouse, he pulled me aside,” Abreu said.

The message: Run. Play hard. Give your best. Always.

“I respected that,” Abreu said. “That’s something I like about him.”

As a manager, Renteria benches players for not running hard, an old-school rule in a new age of baseball. Avisail Garcia, Welington Castillo and Anderson are just a few who ran afoul of Renteria’s most-basic rule — hustle or face a benching.

“It’s the way he wants us to play the game,” Anderson said. “Respect the game and do what you’re supposed to do. I feel like he brings the best out in us. He sees there is more in the tank with certain players. And he’s understanding.”

Anderson said players like Renteria because he has a player’s perspective and he communicates.

“His door is always open,” Anderson said. “If you want to talk to him about anything, he’ll be there. And he’s honest.”

***

One of two people in history to manage the Sox and Cubs (Hall of Famer Johnny Evers managed the Cubs in 1913 and ’21 and the Sox in 1924), Renteria was hired by Theo Epstein before the 2014 season to manage the Cubs during their rebuilding phase. He was unceremoniously fired when Joe Maddon, generally regarded as one of the elite managers in baseball at the time, became available.

It was a gut punch for Renteria, who quietly stayed out of baseball for a year before getting hired as the Sox’ bench coach, a job he held for one year before becoming the team’s 40th manager. Through it all, Renteria never played the victim, handling it with more dignity than others might have.

“It didn’t change me,” Renteria said. “I am who I am. If you look at it from their perspective, you have a first-year manager who was asked to accomplish certain things — which I did — and you have a perennial [success], well-known gentleman available. If they see a better place based on the history of the individual they were going to acquire, they have every right to do so. It didn’t diminish my belief in what I was capable of doing. They did what they wanted to do.

“No one has to make excuses or apologize to me for doing something to me. There are moments when you get kicked in the gut, you feel it and move on. But it’s nobody’s fault. It is what it is.”

Renteria was shown the door, but he was secure in what he accomplished, guiding a rebuilding team to a 73-89 record, including 31-28 after July 28.

“I held my head high in terms of what I believe I was doing,” he said. “What I do know is there is nothing guaranteed on either side of the ball, for management who makes decisions or us who sit in this chair.”

Landing in the Sox’ manager’s chair, of all places, and seeing the team through a successful rebuild of its own would be quite something, wouldn’t it?

“It is true irony,” he said of managing the Cubs’ crosstown rival. “But this is where I am supposed to be right now.”

While Maddon, somewhat ironically, sits on a hot seat not knowing his future beyond this season despite winning a World Series in 2016, the Sox quietly gave Renteria an extension that goes through next season. The Sox say Renteria will be the right man for the job if and when their rebuilding is equipped with the players to compete.

“This is sports. Sometimes things work out as you plan, sometimes they don’t,” vice president Ken Williams said. “But as we all sit around today and plan our todays and tomorrows, Rick [Hahn, general manager], Jerry [Reinsdorf, chairman] and I have not questioned that since we brought him on board.”

In any event, Renteria said he knows his days are numbered. Managers are, after all, hired to be fired. And as he said, “I don’t want to do this forever.

“There is a finite candle in my arsenal that says when I’m done, but it’s not there yet. We’re still doing what we have to do, and we have no control of when that light goes out.”

The candle still burns hot. For Renteria in 2019, it’s about being who he is, doing what he does best and turning a significant corner in the rebuild after 95- and 100-loss seasons.

“It’s bigger than just me,” Renteria said. “You have to think beyond yourself, how you are impacting an organization as a whole however long you’re in the place you’re in. Understanding it’s not about me, it’s about us. And however long that might be, I will be here happy [tapping the table] as long as I’m here knowing I’ve done what I needed to do to move us forward.”

If the Sox don’t move forward, someone is going to see a side of Renteria that’s not so nice.

“We’re in a place where we want more, and we should want more,” he said. “If I didn’t want more, I shouldn’t be in this [bleeping] chair.

“There. There’s my edge.”