By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The White Sox are in first place and riding an eight-game winning streak.
That means rookie manager Robin Ventura is a shoo-in for manager of the year. After all, this is a team that was supposed to be in the hunt for last place – not first.
Not so fast. Ventura is off to a great start, but he is far from a proven commodity. He has shown that he is a very comfortable manager to play for and that makes a big difference. When players enjoy going to the ballpark and playing hard, it goes a long way toward making a manager successful.
The biggest thing that Ventura has proven so far is that he is not Ozzie Guillen, and that has turned his players on and allowed them to feel comfortable in the locker room. When players feel comfortable in their work environment, they have a much better chance to play their best game. That’s what they are doing right now and that’s what didn’t happen last year.
You can’t expect the White Sox to continue on this kind of roll and Ventura will have to show he can handle the rough patches, but he has shown his team through the first third of the season that he is about the business of managing the team and not about the business of self-preservation.
This is not a knock on Guillen. He had a very solid run with the White Sox and anyone who brings a World Championship to the city will see his legend grow over the years. But the sideshow was too much for his players, coaches and organization. The battles with Kenny Williams were nothing more than a wrestling match for power within the organization. It didn’t have to be that way and it seems quite likely that it was Guillen who lit that fuse more often than his adversary. It may have been entertaining at times, but it was not good for the team.
A top pro like Paul Konerko was able to handle it year-in and year-out, but few players have his outlook, professionalism or skill. Adam Dunn certainly couldn’t. His miserable year became one for the books and he finished with such poor numbers that there were legitimate concerns whether he could bounce back from such a deep chasm. When owner Jerry Reinsdorf tried to mitigate Dunn’s circumstances during spring training by saying “even Babe Ruth” had a bad year, it was laughable.
Comparing Dunn to Ruth should never have been attempted because it’s just wrong to compare the greatest player of all-time with a decent player who can hit the long ball and get on base when he is at his best. For the record, Ruth’s season of struggle took place in 1925. The 30-year-old Ruth played in 98 games that season and hit 25 home runs, drove in 66 runs and hit .290. He also slugged .543 with an OPS of .943 in the worst season before his skills eroded in the final two years of his career.
Guillen made it clear that he never wanted Dunn on his team and it seemed like he privately enjoyed the big slugger’s struggles. He certainly had no clue how to bring him out of his funk and he painfully kept Dunn in the lineup when the situation was well past hopeless.
Guillen was going to show Williams who really knew baseball by keeping Dunn in the lineup.
The hiring of Ventura meant the spitting match was officially over. The players and coaches no longer had to worry about the infighting between the team’s leadership. All Ventura had to do was put the best players on the field and then manage the game as best he could.
So far, so good. But there are storms coming that Ventura will have to negotiate. His straight-forward approach has served him well so far, but he’s also going to be tested and he’s going to have to prove himself.
It’s way too early to pin any awards on his chest.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.