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The hiring of managers can be lumped together with closers, set-up men, five- and six-man rotations, and defensive shifts when it comes to ways in which the game of baseball has changed the past few decades. Robin Ventura is a prime example.
Ventura is just one of a number of skippers - St. Louis's Mike Matheny, Colorado's Walt Weis, Detroit's Brad Ausmus, Cincinnati's Bryan Price are in the club - who had zero managerial experience prior to being hired to lead their respective teams.
Robin never was so much as a minor league coach before following Ozzie Guillen for the 2012 season. Same with Ausmus, who had been considered for managerial jobs with the Red Sox, Marlins and Astros before being hired to succeed Jim Leyland. Ausmus at least had the auspicious, sought-after position of managing the Israeli national team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Times clearly have changed from the middle of the 20th century when managers were recycled as often as pop cans. A string of losing seasons usually dictated that a manager's tenure was about to end, but once a skipper got fired, more often than not he would emerge somewhere else.
Jimmy Dykes managed more games (1,850) in a White Sox uniform than anyone in the team's history. Starting in 1934 as a playing manager - Dykes directed the team as an infielder when playing managers were not uncommon - Dykes kept the position until 1946. Of his 13 seasons at the helm, the Sox finished in the second division of the eight-team American League seven times. His winning percentage was a sad .477.
Dykes never had to worry about his next job, though. Fifteen years later in 1961 at the age of 64, he was still at it, managing Cleveland, the last of the six teams that hired him. Jimmy must have been a great guy. Or perhaps he was agreeable to work for a reduced salary because in 20 seasons, his teams never won anything.
However, Dykes doesn't hold the record for futility. Gene Mauch, a respected manager from 1960 until 1987, never won a pennant in 26 years. The collapse of his Phillies in 1964 remains one of the most remarkable choke jobs on record: the team had a six-game lead with 12 to play. Then they lost 10 straight before winning the last two games, finishing in a tie for second! Nevertheless, Mauch went on to manage the Expos, Twins and Angels before retiring after almost 4,000 games in the dugout.
Not all of the managers who jumped from team to team were losers. Billy Martin guided five clubs between 1969 and 1988 and finished first with four of them. The unpredictable and volatile Martin is most remembered for being hired and fired five times by George Steinbrenner, but he also had success in Minnesota, Detroit and Oakland.
More recently, Tony La Russa - he ranks fourth in Sox history in games managed behind Dykes, Al Lopez and Guillen - never had trouble finding employment since he won divisions, pennants and World Series' in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis.
So what makes a successful manager? Why was Tony La Russa a winner while Jimmy Dykes was a loser? More than anything, good players make good managers. La Russa's first three seasons on the South Side produced a won-loss percentage of .472. He had bad players. However, once Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski, Ron Kittle and Rudy Law joined Harold Baines, LaMarr Hoyt and Richard Dotson, the Sox core was set, and they won 99 games in 1983.
Please understand that La Russa - a hard-nosed, sour, intelligent man - created new ways to use his bullpen which most managers have since copied, and his diligence and thorough preparation resulted in his Hall of Fame credentials. But he still couldn't have done it without Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart, Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Chris Carpenter, and many other talented players.
His Hall of Fame managerial brethren Joe Torre and Bobby Cox were not notably successful with less talented rosters until they landed with the Yankees and Braves, respectively. Torre's career began with the Mets for five years when they won barely 40 percent of their games. Cox's first stint in Atlanta lasted five seasons when he never finished higher than fourth before going to Toronto for four seasons. Of course, he then returned to Atlanta where he won five pennants and the 1995 World Series. Just goes to show what Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine can do for you.
While we're at it, Casey Stengel, prior to leading the Yankees to 10 pennants and seven World Series titles in 12 years (1949-60), never had a team finish better than fifth in nine years managing the Dodgers and Braves.
All of which brings us back to Ventura, who's about to complete his third season with a 219-260 record as the White Sox skipper. It's painful to note that this percentage is even worse than the aforementioned Jimmy Dykes.
Does the record reflect a lack of leadership and expertise on Ventura's part, or has he been handed a bunch of stiffs who can't play? Anytime a club loses as often as the White Sox, criticism of the manager is heard early and often.
A few weeks ago Beachwood reader and Sox fan Jameson Campaigne e-mailed, "He is not a demanding manager, meaning he's allowing maybe half his players not to play up to their potential. He's soft, expecting 'professionals to be professional' and leaving it at that. That's not what managing a listless team is all about."
Ventura, who was signed to what ESPN Chicago described as a "multiyear contract extension" last January, is nothing if not an even-keeled, no-nonsense, bland individual whose so-called press conferences are devoid of any indication whether the team has won or lost. Campaigne is correct. This is not a rah-rah kind of guy. He is similar to most managers. They stoically watch the game, decide whether to change pitchers (often), bunt (rarely), or challenge a call (boring).
What makes the game enjoyable and fun involves fans being able to think along with the manager and critique whether his decisions make sense. I'd love to see the Sox bunt and hit-and-run more often. A team that has had difficulty scoring runs too many times this season needs to stir things up, put pressure on the defense, and take a few risks. My take is that Ventura is too conservative.
But the real test of a manager is whether he has his athletes ready to play. Every time they miss a cutoff man or throw to the wrong base or get picked off, the manager must bear part of the responsibility. Mental mistakes are a sign of lack of preparation and knowledge of how the game should be played. The Sox make too many of these mistakes.
On the other hand, a guy like Conor Gillaspie is a better third baseman now than he was a year ago. I have to think that Ventura, an All-Star third baseman in his own right, gets credit for some of that. He's also been extremely patient with catcher Tyler Flowers, and Flowers is a better hitter and receiver than he was last season.
Jose Quintana, who beat the Rays 4-3 Friday night, has turned into one of the best lefthanders in the American League.
Hector Noesi, not one of the league's better pitchers, still has had a career-saving year. Noesi had a typical outing last Saturday in St. Pete, leaving after six innings on the short end of a 3-1 score which turned out to be the final. For the most part, Noesi has kept his team within striking distance in his 26 starts this season.
Two facts about Ventura are clear: he's a work in progress, and he's going to be around for at least another season and probably more. Another fact is that no matter how effective he is, if the White Sox don't shore up their bullpen and the back end of the starting rotation, as well as play tighter defense, then neither Tony La Russa, Casey Stengel, Joe Torre, nor Bobby Cox could win with this team.
Show me a successful manager, and I'll show you good players.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.
1. From Eric Roth:
Too generous, Roger. Ventura's not up to the task. I agree with giving him credit for Conor's development; so he'd probably be a good first base and infield coach for a competent manager. He seems to split his choices between current baseball orthodoxy and bonehead moves. In WAR, he'd be in negative numbers.
Look at the job Girardi's done the past two years in NYC with a negative run differential for each! Texas couldn't win the big one with Wash at the helm making bonehead moves (defensive positioning with the game on the line, letting Pujols beat them with the bat!) in the World Series.