When the first of two Bob Nightengale stories broke about Robin Ventura Wednesday, I thought I had a pretty good sense of the White Sox’ angle for expressing the desire to retain Ventura with no action behind it.
There was no compelling reason for the White Sox to create this story. They hadn’t offered him a contract. They hadn’t even begun to negotiate one. They had simply expressed the desire to retain Ventura ... if Ventura wanted to return. That’s an unusual condition to jam into a story about job security, because the desires of most embattled managers are considered a given. It all smelled fake to me.
Of course, we’re all knee-deep in the circumstantial evidence. There is no specific reason to bring Ventura back. Even if the White Sox win out to avoid their fourth consecutive losing season, it’ll still be four consecutive non-winning seasons, and the Sox internally expected to be in the hunt over the last two. Dangling a desire to bring him back will do nothing but agitate the fan base, which already dislikes most things about the direction and some, if not all, of the people trying to provide that leadership.
This isn’t to say that fans should dictate the future of the franchise. This is to say that we had the same discussion about Ventura last year.
Last offseason, the White Sox defended Ventura by saying he succeeded at the most important of a manager’s job, which is handling affairs when the Sox aren’t playing. They tried to bolster the weaknesses they identified -- some in-game decisions — by replacing his bench coach.
The team then spent this season telling the fan base that Ventura might not be great at the off-field stuff either. They had not one, but two incredibly juvenile flare-ups that made the Sox the subject of national ridicule, and in between, the Ventura administration wasn’t able to reverse a slide to prevent wasting a 23-10 start. And it’s not just that they couldn't ultimately capitalize on the head start -- it’s that they wasted it with such ruthless efficiency that they couldn’t even entertain buying at the deadline.
The Sox tried to lay out the case for retaining Ventura back then, but it wasn’t enough to overpower the more troubling undercurrent that suggests, as a franchise, the White Sox are chronically unable to make personal decisions about non-playing personnel.
I’m establishing this backstory because, when the first Nightengale story broke, I thought the White Sox were taking this saga to a fitting conclusion. The Sox wouldn’t simply settle for letting the contract run its course until it lapsed. For the grand finale, they would let Ventura fire himself in order to really isolate themselves from anything resembling initiative. The White Sox are inspired about being uninspiring.
This scenario fit both prisms used to view Jerry Reinsdorf. With the sentimental one familiar to Sox fans, here’s his sense of loyalty taken to its self-defeating extreme. With the ... less charitable one familiar to Bulls fans, face-saving is the primary goal:
It's not. This move, this passive aggressive BS, is far more of an insult. Forcing him to be the one who bails. https://t.co/imCdM1aN03— Matt Spiegel (@MattSpiegel670) September 28, 2016
I bring up the Bulls because it reminded one fan of the way Phil Jackson exited in 1998, theoretically being allowed to consider a contract from Reinsdorf even though Jerry Krause promised the job to Tim Floyd.
Either interpretation held water with me, because I don’t know what the leak accomplished besides a nod to a very superficial kind of loyalty. The supposedly magnanimous gesture to Ventura still put him in the awkward position of having to field questions about his desire to be here, so how does he benefit from it? Even if they're using a public notice to prod him to make up his mind, the Sox should have already made the decision. That's their job, not his.
My faith in this unseemly vision — the White Sox trying to be charitable by making Ventura an offer they’ll know he’ll refuse -- was shaken by the second Nightengale story. Understanding the USA Today reporter is perhaps the go-to guy for Reinsdorf and Kenny Williams, the updated version read like a preemptive defense about a sixth year, mainly because of its catty tone.
Here’s the original lede:
The Chicago White Sox have decided to retain manager Robin Ventura and will sign him to new contract providing Ventura wants to return, a high-ranking White Sox official told USA TODAY Sports.
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity since there has been no public announcement, and contract negotiations have yet to commence.
And here’s the revised version:
The Chicago White Sox have decided they want embattled manager Robin Ventura back for 2017, and their fan base reacted as if ace Chris Sale was just traded to the New York Mets for Tim Tebow.
The White Sox front office and ownership show loyalty by expressing their intent to keep him, choosing to blame themselves for the team’s struggles the last five years instead of Ventura, and Sox fans act as if they’re the ones now being betrayed.
It makes no sense.
If Nightengale’s reasoning — which Tom Fornelli accurately called "out of town stupid" -- reflects the White Sox’ attitude, then it reflects the severe disconnect between the front office and the fan base. It also would explain why they thought it was worthwhile to dangle this notion publicly. I don’t think management that has both conviction in Ventura and an awareness of their customers’ despair would’ve let this leak. This is news that’s better delivered by ambush.
Another way to read this second version is that the White Sox still expect Ventura to walk away, but they’re smarting from the backlash. Even with the update, it doesn’t answer why the Sox would leak this story without allegedly knowing what Ventura wanted. It’s not like the Sox have been in the middle of a three-city road trip and therefore unable to have a face-to-face heart-to-heart. They’ve been home all week, with ample time to discuss this since there’s nothing to play for.
(I suppose there’s also a middle ground, where the White Sox do offer Ventura a contract, but Ventura can’t accept it because the terms violate MLB rules and/or the Constitution.)
Until we know what Ventura actually wants, I don’t know how to feel. Perhaps he sees this as intended charity that he doesn’t need to accept and they part on peaceful terms. But if the White Sox put him in a compromising position he didn’t desire, which forces him to re-up or risk being viewed as a quitter ...
... part of me hopes he stays.
Only a part. I mean, it’s ultimately better if the Sox move on from Ventura. He hasn’t shown himself as special in any regard, and there’s just too much collateral damage with keeping this going. I’m not only talking about the fan base, but with the people in the White Sox marketing department tasked with drumming up interest when the team itself can’t do it, and the vendors pitching their goods to mostly empty sections. Even Ventura doesn’t deserve this, because he was a valuable part of the White Sox franchise and remains a fundamentally likeable person despite his struggles as a manager.
But the remaining part of my brain nags at me to remain consistent.
This situation reminded me of a White Sox-Tigers game from June 28. You may remember it as the game where Ventura left Jeff Samardzija in four batters too long during the eighth inning. Ventura ignored every possible warning as Samardzija sailed into the heart of the Detroit order, and when Victor Martinez came to the plate with the bases loaded and cleared them with a game-tying double, I was almost glad the White Sox failed. They deserved to pay for such poor decision-making, especially since it wasn’t the first time the Times Through the Order Penalty killed the Sox.
Likewise, this isn’t the first time the White Sox organization hasn’t been able to cut ties with a manager despite every sign begging them to take action. Ventura just doesn’t have the marketability to be lured somewhere else, so nobody is doing the Sox the favor they don’t deserve to receive. At this point, why should the Sox be spared from their own inability to see the dangers of overexposure?