CHICAGO -- There is more to Robin Ventura than meets the eye.
Yes, his even-keeled demeanor has been there since the very start of his tenure as Chicago White Sox manager.
“He hasn’t wavered one bit,” hitting coach Jeff Manto said. “He’s a very laid back guy, he’s an honest guy, and he’s been that way every day.”
But what’s it like inside the White Sox dugout during a game, when the first-year manager is calling the shots?
It encompasses a bit of everything: conversation between him and his coaches; high energy encouragement for his players; and looks that speak a thousand words.
“He’s consistently Robin,” bench coach Mark Parent said. “I think the one thing about him in the dugout is from the beginning of spring training (to now), he’s gotten caught up on situations and the things he likes to do. Early on it was getting a feel for the guys he wants to hit and run with, the guys he doesn’t want to hit and run with, when he can trust a guy to steal a bag, when he can’t. He’s pretty much been locked in since the end of spring training.”
With the All-Star break a month away and the Sox still atop the Central Division standings by a half-game heading into Tuesday’s series opener against the St. Louis Cardinals, there really hasn’t been anything that has caught Ventura off guard. He credits his well-rounded staff for that.
“By having dialogue all the time, I haven’t got to that point where something has hit me,” Ventura said.
From questions about a hitter’s plan for the day to how to address a player’s struggles, Manto said Ventura is always engaging him in conversation in the dugout, usually after each at-bat.
“I know from the hitting standpoint I try to be one step ahead of him just in case he has a question, or I try to anticipate any concerns he might have about the hitting,” Manto said. “We’re definitely watching him and listening to him because the worst thing for us is to be asked a question and not have at least a prepared answer. So he keeps us on his toes in a subtle way.”
Parent said Ventura’s low-key, even-keeled approach as a manager comes from knowing that the game isn’t easy and that players will make mistakes, a perspective Ventura gained as a player.
“He gets frustrated like everybody, but he doesn’t come to the media ranting and raving about a player’s mistakes,” Parent said. “We’ve all made them.”
Parent added that while Ventura’s demeanor might help the players relax and play their game, he said they know not to take the first-year manager’s kindness as a weakness.
“We understand that Robin has to keep a certain relationship with his guys,” Parent said. “We don’t, although we do have a good relationship. When it comes time to nipping things in the bud we’ll go over and do it, try to correct it so it doesn’t happen again. If it keeps happening then we got to go out and work on them. So I don’t see much change from week one to now because he’s pretty much been right on key.”
And for Ventura’s players, that’s meant plenty of positive reinforcement and teaching moments. Catcher Tyler Flowers, who doesn’t play everyday, gets to see this up close on a regular basis. Between innings is when Ventura is likely to be more high-energy.
“He’ll kind of pick out the first five guys that are up and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to do something here,’” Flowers said. “Just try to put those positive thoughts in your head. It’s a mental game. He knows that.”
And on the flip side, Flowers said he appreciates Ventura’s approach for handling a player’s struggles or mistakes.
“Like the other day I was playing first and made a bad read on the ball. And he came up to me and I was like, ‘Yeah, I know I screwed up,’ and he’s like, ‘You didn’t screw up, you’ve just got to set up differently then you won’t go after that ball,’” Flowers said. “Just the way he approaches it is just comforting, especially to a guy who doesn’t play every day.”
Manto, who played nine seasons in the majors, including part of a season under the bombastic Lou Piniella in Seattle, can attest to that.
“Every hitter’s important, every pitcher’s important,” Manto said. “He makes sure you know that. There’s not a day that goes by that each hitter I’ve talked to in the cage does not feel a part of it. And sometimes when you’re a bench player you feel like, ‘hey I’m over here.’ But Robin talks to everybody.”
And those looks? Flowers said that Ventura wears many faces in the dugout.
“There’s always those looks,” Flowers said. “Designated looks for guys. I haven’t seen the bad one. There’s the joking one, the kind of excitement side. The best thing I can say is he’s extremely positive. I played for Bobby Cox in spring training for two years and I would say he’s similar in that, where Bobby was the same way - ‘Hey kid, c’mon, you’ve got it.’ And if you strike out he’ll tell you you’ll get it the next time.”