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Ruminations on Robin Ventura's quiet leadership

The one time Robin Ventura and Adam Dunn weren't on the same page.
The one time Robin Ventura and Adam Dunn weren't on the same page.

Around the time of Opening Day, we had some idea of the manager Robin Ventura might become, although we didn't hear it from him.

Sure, he had some some values he espoused, but they were ones you'd think every manager would hold dear. When it came to more specific attributes, ideas and methods, he remained vague on details. You had to piece it together elsewhere, and it required a lot of cross-checking and deductive reasoning. If three people said the same thing, and two suggested it was a novel development, you had to run it through the memories of the previous regime and look for incongruities there.

Thankfully, Jerry Reinsdorf had a rare moment of candor, which he can afford since he can afford everything. Among the multiple accounts of Ventura's hiring published during spring training, Reinsdorf offered one clear-cut distinction between Ventura and Ozzie Guillen beyond the loud-guy-to-quiet-guy hook:

"I definitely remember the good times more than the stuff that went on the last year or so. But I think Robin can last a really long time because he’s even keel. He doesn’t have the ups and downs, and he knows how to treat people with respect. With Ozzie, it got to the point where he liked to throw people under the bus. Robin will never be like that."

That's been true so far, but it's less noticeable than one would think. He hasn't had many opportunities to excoriate one of his players in public.

Then again, Ventura's administration is part of the reason. The Sox play a sounder brand of baseball, with far fewer lapses in the field and on the basepaths. Based on what some Sox have said -- and the act Guillen carried over to Miami -- it's safe to assume the previous management didn't have much of an interest in keeping players sharp.

Other reasons are more circumstantial. The revolving door between Charlotte and Chicago cycled unproven players on and off the 25-man roster before seeds of discontent could be sown, and when half the roster is rookies, you have to account for the occasional bed-wetting. And even though a few full-time players have battled lengthy slumps, they at least held up their end of the bargain on defense. Basically, the shortcomings aren't ones that can be fixed by yelling or threats.

Leyson Septimo, though, gave a manager a primo opportunity to let 'er rip when he issued a four-pitch walk in the 11th inning of Monday's loss. It's not even that Septimo walked the only batter he was meant to face -- in Ventura parlance, "It's more the four pitches." He didn't lose a prolonged battle. He didn't even get squeezed. Simply put, Septimo failed to give Kelly Johnson a reason to even think about swinging. He put his team in a tight spot, and Nate Jones couldn't pick him up.

It's not the first time Septimo has lost all control in a key situation. And with Donnie Veal on the premises and a roster move waiting to be made by the weekend, it would be very easy to let loose the marmosets on a guy like Septimo.

Ventura, though, opted for an economy of words.

"You don't want to see that any time,'' Ventura said of Septimo's four-pitch walk. "Bad time for it.''

That's it?

"He had one pitch close and then after that he's not close," Ventura said. "And that's just part of growing up. You have to be better in that situation. You have to throw strikes."

Come on. Where's the release? Where's the catharsis? Under. Whelming. Boo. Boo! Booooooooooooooooooooooo!

But this is what I was saying before in terms of the previous administration -- Guillen had a number of tirades, but no consequences. This year, guys are being demoted, traded or designated for assignment without advance warning. In this case, the Sox might leave Septimo at customs after the series, but Ventura won't telegraph it.

Guillen's starred in two reality shows that attempt to show the inner workings of a ballclub, but we would learn more if a guy like Ventura had a camera planted in his office. Based on the amount of roster movement, he has to be delivering hard truths in some manner at some point, but we haven't been able to get a good look at it. That's probably a great thing.


Tying together a few loose threads into this ...

No. 1: Ventura wasn't enamored with the simple adaptation of the lineup with Paul Konerko, so he mixed it up a little by putting speed the top, moving Alex Rios ahead of Adam Dunn, and Kevin Youkilis behind Dunn. It's the most shifting he's done for a lineup, but he didn't think much of it.

Ventura downplayed the changes and said his players had little reaction when the lineup was posted. He didn’t see a need to discuss it with them.

‘‘Just a chance to kind of change it a little,’’ he said. ‘‘We’ll probably go back to what people are used to when Paulie gets back.’’

So players were shifted out of their accustomed role to pursue an idea, and nobody seemed to mind. Then again...

No. 2: Maybe these changes all pale in comparison to Ventura's signature radical departure -- putting infield practice on the schedule before the start of every series. Dave Van Dyck wrote about it last Thursday, and a few quotes stand out:

"We're probably the only team in history of baseball to take infield when it's 115 degrees," veteran first baseman Adam Dunn said. "But that's our routine and what we're doing."

And they stay on schedule even during the hottest summer in recent memory. [...]

Based on the word of groundskeepers they talk to on the road, "yeah we take (infield) more than anybody," bench coach Mark Parent said.

"Fortunately for us, we have teammates like a Dunn or (Paul) Konerko who don't complain and explain it to a (newcomer like Kevin) Youkilis that that's the way it's going to be and let's go do it."

"I don't want to take it, but I do," catcher A.J. Pierzynski says.

Says another player: "We took it some in the past (under Ozzie Guillen), but it seemed like it was done more for punishment."

Danny Knobler of wrote about it in June, mentioning the "shadowball" session that Keith Olbermann captured on video:

Knobler noted that other teams don't take infield practice during the season. In particular, the Yankees didn't even do it during spring training. Why? Because the veterans don't wanna.

The Sox provide quite the contrast. As Adam Dunn told Knobler, "Whatever he wants us to do, I'm in." The clubhouse cornerstones bought into it, so I'm guessing Ventura sold it well.

It probably helps when an uncommon practice is associated with development rather than punishment. Plus, Ventura implemented it without fanfare. The first reports of the Sox taking infield occurred when reporters actually witnessed the Sox taking infield. Even then, it's not news that has spread especially quickly. When national guys like Knobler see the Sox in action before the game, the tone is the same: "Are they taking- holy crap, they're actually taking infield."

Had Ventura played New Sheriff In Town and told the players through the media, "We're gonna do things differently around here!", I doubt it would have been accepted so easily. There are a couple other examples of this. For instance ...

No. 3: We've spent a fair amount of time studying Guillen's first four months with the Miami Marlins, since that's most applicable to the White Sox's situation. But if you haven't seen what's going on in Boston with Bobby Valentine, you're going to want to read this Jeff Passan article. "Mutiny" can be a go-to word to add drama to a team simply tuning out a manager, but this is actually an organized, formal uprising by a significant faction.

The teams that hired bold, experienced managers haven't come close to meeting expectations. The Sox opted for a Captain Bland over a Captain Bligh, and so far, the results speak for themselves.