Plenty of people tried to entice Robin Ventura to return to baseball on a full-time basis. Each time, the former major-league third baseman said no.
Ventura was happy being a part-time instructor in the White Sox's farm system. He was also heavily involved in the community in his hometown of Santa Maria, California.
Yet when owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Ken Williams called Ventura at the end of last season and shocked him with an offer to become the White Sox's manager, he couldn't say no any longer. Thus, Ventura is now managing a major-league team, replacing his former teammate on the left side of the Chicago infield, Ozzie Guillen, despite having never managed a game at any level.
Ventura says the allure of managing the White Sox was too much to resist. Though he also played for Mets, Yankees, and Dodgers during his 16-year career, it was the White Sox who drafted him in the first round in 1988 from Oklahoma State and for whom he played 10 seasons.
"I was drafted by the White Sox, and I saw the team turn around," Ventura said. "When I got called up we were, I think, 30 games out of first place my first year. So when you go through that kind of transformation, there's something there, I think when you go through the system and that's the way you grow up."
Yet it goes beyond that.
Ventura also likes a challenge, especially the one presented to him in Chicago. He knows the White Sox are considered the second team in the Second City, even though they snapped an 88-year World Series drought by winning the World Series in 2005 and the Cubs are 103 years removed from their last Fall Classic title.
"There is a bit of what I guess you'd say a chip or something else if you're the White Sox," Ventura said. "Having gone to Oklahoma State, you have same thing with Oklahoma. So there's that thing that you have to have passion and understand the position that you're in and the team that you're with and what it means to the people that come to the ballpark. And I've always felt that with the White Sox."
The White Sox certainly look to be underdogs in 2012.
Williams went on record as saying the White Sox are rebuilding when they traded closer Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays for a pitching prospect earlier this month. Reliable left-hander Mark Buehrle, who logged at least 200 innings in each of the last 11 seasons, signed with the Marlins as a free agent a day after Santos was dealt, and the White Sox reportedly are willing to trade right-hander Gavin Floyd and right fielder Carlos Quentin.
Ventura understands the White Sox's situation. He was part of a massive rebuilding project as a player in 1989 that ended with the White Sox winning the American League West four years later. Ventura believes that the current-day White Sox aren't as bad as some analysts might think, even though they finished a disappointing 79-83 last season and in third place in the AL Central, 16 games behind the Tigers.
"There are better players here now than at that time," Ventura said. "That's why I say it's more retooling than rebuilding. The other one was just a turnover."
Still, Ventura is realistic enough to know that projecting the White Sox as a postseason team next season is a longshot. The Tigers figure to be the favorites to repeat as AL Central champions, the Indians and Royals are on the rise, and the Twins believe a return to health by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau—as uncertain as that may be— should get them back to contender status.
"I mean, logically you're looking at it, when you're moving pieces, you're losing a Buehrle, you're probably saying, no," Ventura said of managing a contender in his rookie season. "Is it possible? Yeah. Anything's possible. But by the retooling that you're doing, you are looking for the future, you're guarding that future."
Ventura can only look to the future as manager because he has no past experience. However, Ventura was always highly regarded for his acumen during his playing days. When Jim Tracy was hired as the Pirates' manager following the 2005 season, he lobbied hard for Ventura to join his staff as the hitting coach.
"He was one of the smartest players I've ever been around," said Tracy, who managed Ventura in his last season as a player with the Dodgers in 2004.
Ventura admits he has learned a lot in a little less than three months since being hired and will continue to do a lot of studying between now and the start of spring training in Glendale, Arizona in February.
"There's a lot of stuff right now that you're kind of learning on the fly and doing different things," Ventura said. "But that's what you signed up for. And I feel I have the ability to handle it and to do it. But there are a lot of things that I'm doing for the first time, as far as preparing for spring training, as far as getting the plan together for what we're doing. As a staff we're confident of what we're going forward with and what we plan on putting in and doing. So I'm not worried for me, as much, as getting that plan down and being ready to go when the first day shows up."
Ventura and Guillen played side-by-side in the White Sox's infield for nine seasons and are friends. Yet they couldn't be more different personality-wise.
Guillen, of course, is famous for saying what is on his mind and showing his emotions. Ventura is on the quiet side and much more measured when answering questions from the media. Yet Ventura says that being low-key doesn’t mean he will be softer on his players than Guillen was.
"I have principals of things I like and a policy of the way things should be done," Ventura said. "It might not be as loud, but I'm very persistent with how I like to do things and the way I see it being done. I don't see that changing. I'm not going to necessarily be a loud person, but it will get done."