Robin Ventura entered the 2016 season in the last year of his contract, a 297-351 record and a potential replacement as his bench coach, so it wasn't going to take much to heat up his seat.
Still, it's incredible how he's reached this point. The White Sox built a six-game lead with a 23-10 record. A few weeks later, they are now 27-25 and two games behind Kansas City. The Royals seized first by sweeping the Sox with three consecutive come-from-behind victories (the second was so stunning that the third was assumed).
Ventura won over some critics with the way the Sox responded in the wake of the Adam LaRoche circus -- a winning record in spring training, and an even better one in April -- reinforcing the idea that the players respect him to an unusual degree.
Alas, May reinforced the idea that Ventura's Sox aren't particularly resilient, which is a bigger issue in a critical period for the franchise.
The massing at the gate is real, and I'm not talking about the metal detectors.
This is not a column devoted to demanding the Sox fire their manager. That would be an 800-word waste of space, idiocy disguised as advocacy, because it's so unlikely to happen. Why? It's complicated. But at press time, Jerry Reinsdorf still was Sox chairman, and teams in Reinsdorf's charge tend to ignore what everyone else sees, especially when it comes to evaluating coaches or managers. Thus skepticism surrounds any potential firing of Ventura no matter how much logic supports the idea.
That said, if the Sox operated in the real world and truly were to stay consistent with their front-office rhetoric about the 2016 team, they would explore the idea of changing managers — and sooner rather than later. The Sox's early success placed more pressure on Ventura than anything. Taking all those steps forward in April actually backed the Sox into the corner they now find themselves.
It's difficult to write a truly compelling fire-the-manager column in the absence of a mutiny, and some of Haugh's points illustrate it. He identifies to Ventura's reliever usage after the Kansas City series, which was definitely a problem (specifically, quarantining Zach Putnam to low-leverage situations while Matt Albers overheats). Then again, that's always the No. 1 answer on the Family Feud board of manager complaints. I remember a comment on our Facebook page saying Al Lopez was the last Sox manager who knew how to handle a bullpen, which is a way of saying that sometimes our expectations are our problem.
Elsewhere in strategical lambasting, Melky Cabrera's bunt during the White Sox' only rally in a 1-0 loss to the Mets on Monday was seen as a self-harming maneuver all the way around. The New York Post said "Ventura did his old employers a solid," and even the postgame show joined in, even though it was supposed to be canceled after J.B. Shuck's single:
But again, this is another criticism managers commonly face. Baseball has a number of skippers who are commonly mocked for their backward strategies -- Mike Matheny, Ned Yost, and Ron Washington before he resigned for a completely unrelated reason. Teams tend to prioritize harmony, communication, protecting player health and showing patience with prospects, which are the reasons the Sox gave for keeping him last September.
The more you get into the day-to-day details, the more Ventura's situation becomes like any other manager facing the ax. The idea of his firing then becomes mundane -- somebody has to take the blame, maybe this will provide a spark, maybe it'll look like a spark but will in fact be timed with regression finally reversing itself in the White Sox' favor, etc.
But this isn't a typical situation because Ventura wasn't a typical hiring in the first place. I'm sure the Sox had their reasons for wanting a guy like Ventura after the Cold War, but considering he had no experience and hadn't yet considered himself management material, it seemed random at best from the outside. At worst, it was the threshold where organizational affection became self-defeating.
With this in mind, everything remains peculiar and open for scrutiny. Take Chris Sale's defense of Ventura. This is something that typically happens in this situation, although his word has a little extra oomph. He's the longest-tenured White Sox player, and he's the only one to have multiple loud disagreements with his manager.
"I don't think he gave up any runs," Sale said. "I don't think he made any errors, and he's in the dugout the whole time. It's on us to win games. I understand people -- I'll keep it that -- want to point fingers and find blame. But at the end of the day, it falls on the players. We have to find a way to turn it around. We're going to keep fighting. It will turn. We have too much morale, chemistry and too much talent. Just a rough patch."
I understand players -- I'll keep it at that -- who don't think a manager deserves to pay for their sins, and it speaks to Ventura's strengths that even the player who has haaaaaated some of his decisions still respects him for the long haul.
However, the problem with being the longest-tenured White Sox these days is that you don't have a whole lot of firsthand experience on a winning team. Sale has admitted as much, highlighting his lack of October exposure before the season.
"It’s the only reason we show up really,’’ Sale said Friday, surrounded by reporters after pitchers’ first official day of preparation for the 2016 season. "This is my seventh season, sixth full coming up. I’ve never even had a taste of it. I’ve never pitched in a meaningful game in my career.’’
Square up these quotes, and it leads me to wonder whether Sale actually knows when a team is capable of turning it around, because Ventura's teams never have. Even setting aside the 99- and 89-loss seasons due to a lack of talent, every make-or-break period has broken the White Sox. We all remember September 2012, and again last season, the Sox fell into long funks the two times they rallied to get near (or over) .500. Sale has every reason to say "it will turn," and every reason to believe it, but Sox fans don't have the evidence in front of them. Instead, we see five-pitcher innings and bunts from the No. 3 hitter as potential signs that the manager has fallen victim to what Hawk Harrelson calls "sphincter time."
There's an inverse relationship between the length of Ventura's resume and the length of rope the Sox have given him. We had to take the Sox' word for it after they hired him. We had to take their word for it when they extended him after a 99-loss season. When Rick Hahn explained their decision to retain him after last year's disappointment -- making him the first White Sox manager to survive three full losing seasons -- words alone stopped sufficing. Yes, it's impressive and commendable that these prolonged downturns haven't turned the Sox clubhouse into the set of "Wake Up and Smile," but that eventually has to translate into a postseason appearance in order to matter. (I'm in my 11th season doing this, and I've written more White Sox books than White Sox playoff game recaps.)
The Sox are still in OK shape -- two games over .500, two games out of first -- which is what keeps the "Fire Ventura" movement from having all the impact. Nevertheless, the Sox subjected themselves to intense doubt with this particular course of (in)action, because the history of Ventura's Sox says today's "overreacting" will become tomorrow's "reacting," and they might never be able to cut the losses until they cut their losses.