By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) When Rick Renteria was hired to manage the Cubs, the primary reasons seemed to be that he was nice and that he spoke Spanish.
Four months later and already into spring training, that’s pretty much all we know.
Perhaps it really is that simple, that he is here to emit waves of bilingual benevolence that create a nurturing environment that cultivates the development of Starlin Castro, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, along with Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Arismendy Alcantara, and that the baseball decisions somehow just take care of themselves.
Or maybe somewhere inside Renteria is an all-knowing baseball oracle, obscuring himself behind banalities. I keep waiting for more to understand what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer really see in there, recognizing how swiftly and assuredly the Cubs’ brains identified him as their top choice.
After the all-in overtures from the top of the organization to Joe Girardi succeeded only in padding his paycheck from the Yankees, many expected Epstein to restart the grueling, comprehensive interview process that they employed in the fall of 2011. Dale Sveum was the last man standing when that was completed, awarded the prized blue hat for winning “Survivor: Clark and Addison.”
Candidates were subjected to a barrage of rapid-fire strategic and situational questions over hours, then placed in front of the hot lights of a press conference and observed there, like some kind of science project. Remember Pete Mackanin?
“They didn’t let me up for air,” the besieged Phillies bench coach said back then of his interview in 2011. “They keep pounding questions at you.”
Watching tape, potential managers were graded on their real-time explanations of decisions under simulated game conditions. Even when it was time to get a bite to eat, the examination continued. “They put me through the grinder,” Mackanin said. “I couldn’t enjoy my dinner.”
This time around, however, Epstein and Hoyer softened the approach.
Sources told WSCR that the method changed drastically, as they abandoned the confrontational interrogation bit. Understanding that their real needs at the big-league level were more atmospheric than in-game tactical – think clubhouse more than dugout – they realized their way of selecting the manager should be consistent with that.
The top-down structure of the organization also means that a skipper won’t be asked to reinvent the job. MLB teams are coming to understand which decisions are now quantifiably right and wrong, based on voluminous historical data sets that determine likely increases or decreases in win expectancy at any given moment. If a team stays on the right side of the percentages consistently, there’s clear evidence of more runs scored and fewer allowed over the course of a full season.
For the Cubs, this was the self-aware realization to not overthink either the interview process itself or the assessment of manager as strategist as much as tone-setter.
Renteria probably has his own growing to do along with the prospects he’s responsible for shepherding, and it would be unfair to draw any firm conclusions about his personality, style or instincts before a game has been played.
But there’s still so much to be filled in with this guy. His playing career draws a blank for most of us, and it’s not like his name was at the forefront of the market when other MLB positions have opened. Not a single thing that he’s said yet about baseball has been noteworthy or indicative of what he really thinks about the game. We have no idea.
He seems to smile a lot. He’s unfailingly optimistic. His comments are as warm, peaceful and sunny as the blue skies of Arizona days.
It could be that’s all they really need right now.