By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) The most maddening part of Robin Ventura’s time as Chicago White Sox manager is that he was simply just … there. There was nothing exceptional to him while the team floated in mediocrity. His inability to be special in any way disallowed any positive feelings for him at the helm.
Yet leave it to the White Sox in this most fusterclucked of seasons in recent memory to find a way to conjure up sympathy out of me for Ventura.
Note: I don’t believe Ventura should be brought back for 2017. Your ornery fans cursing the purgatory the organization has put them in want anything but stasis, and no one person represents nauseating stasis right now more than Ventura. A beloved former player is now considered a scourge at worst and a symbol of fatigue at best. So it’s time to move on.
But then a USA Today report came out Wednesday that the White Sox plan on retaining Ventura — if he wants to come back — which is forehead-slappingly puzzling. As of Thursday, Ventura holds a managerial winning percentage of .464 through almost five full seasons on the South Side, with his team finishing in fourth or fifth place in the AL Central in four of those five seasons.
Managers don’t win you baseball games much, but they’re capable of losing them. Besides the subpar talent Ventura has annually been given, fans have kept track of several losses that could reasonably be pinned on his decisions, be they bullpen moves, bunts or other buffoonery.
And when Ventura hasn’t put himself in the spotlight of decision-making, he has mostly been just … there. There’s nothing remarkable about the guy (at the risk of veering into dangerous “fire and passion” talk, which usually means hardly anything tangible in a coach). Win or lose, it’s the same sort of tapioca presence. His players on record will usually give the unenthusiastic endorsements of him, like Adam Eaton told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday.
“I’ve enjoyed my time with him,” Eaton said. “I’d welcome him back. I’d love to have him back, but it’s up to the higher-ups.”
Resounding in its passing of the buck. Which is also why the question arose around Year 2 of the Ventura Era of “What does he do well?” And that question has always seemed to leave folks wanting.
So open and shut case, right? Five straight years of largely underachieving with no postseason appearances is a lock for getting the axe in almost any rational baseball environment, especially with Ventura’s contract set to expire at season’s end.
Nah, these are the White Sox. Simplicity has to make no sense. They’re never rebuilding. They’re retooling … since 2011. Clearly out of contention at a trade deadline? Stand pat and gamble on another offseason.
Leak that you want to bring back the manager who’s currently causing fans to cancel their season tickets. But do it in really smooth White Sox fashion — by putting out there that the choice in on Ventura. This is going on while there are still games left and beat reporters gasping for anything interesting about this dead team and players praying to avoid anything tumultuous in this final week as they get their tee times ready.
Only the White Sox could turn a passive villain in this cancerous season into a bit of a folk hero all of a sudden. For a Jerry Reinsdorf-owned team that has always seemed so concerned with loyalty and PR, hanging Ventura out there like the White Sox have just done seems counterintuitive to that m.o. I get the poker move here — “Hey, Robin, we like you, but do you really like coaching? You can walk away if you like.” Then the White Sox can say they didn’t fire/push out the former player, and Robin-hated-manager gets to easily transition to Robin-quitter.
And yet against all rationality and totally out of spite, part of me suddenly wants Ventura to call their bluff. You, the front office, brought Adam LaRoche’s weird-ass version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to my clubhouse. You, the front office, let Chris Sale publicly undermine you about that so that he felt entitled enough to commit arguably an actual crime and destroy a massive amount of team property and then bus-toss me afterward. You traded for Avisail Garcia. You started this season with Jimmy Rollins.
And now you’re going to dangle me over an open flame of fan ire in the last week of the season and say my fate is of my choosing?
If I’m Ventura — and I’ve had those nightmares that I am — maybe I call their bluff. Maybe I return the passive-aggressiveness in kind. And maybe I tell bosses Rick Hahn and/or Kenny Williams, because they — sorry, “a high-ranking White Sox executive . . . on the condition of anonymity,” as Bob Nightengale’s piece put it — have put it out there that they value me, that I want a raise. And because you want me back, I can’t work with Sale anymore, so get on the phone.
For all his faults as a manager, Ventura the person doesn’t strike me as vindictive or up for negotiating in the media. He was pretty diplomatic when asked about yet another odd situation in the world of the 2016 White Sox.
“I said (I’d like to manage the Sox beyond this season) a while ago, yeah,” Ventura said Wednesday after the USA Today report came out. “Again, we’re getting to the end of the year before we’re doing anything.
“Rick and I always have discussions, but I’m waiting until the end of the year.”
670TheScore.com’s Bruce Levine bets that Ventura turns the offer down. One could cite Ventura’s lack of enthusiasm discussing his job as evidence, but, again, this is Robin Ventura.
“I enjoy the job … (but) I’m figuring out how to get to the end of the year right now,” Ventura said, according to the Tribune. “That’s the biggest concern, and making sure everybody finishes it in the way that they should professionally.
“Every job is aggravating, and every job is enjoyable … The game of baseball is enjoyable and it’s hard and it’s gut-wrenching, all those things. Every year you go through that.”
OK, maybe I don’t want the bluff called. It’s doubtful I can stomach such explanatories for another season. But the White Sox are still managing to make me scowl over how they will (maybe? probably? hopefully) cut ties with their manager who never really seemed like he enjoyed managing and has never showed anything suggesting he helps a baseball team.
“It was quite a ride. It really was,” Ventura said in the past tense, perhaps prophetically. “Every team has its challenges, and we had some unique ones, I would say. You handle it inside the clubhouse, and that’s my job.”
And then Ventura returned to present tense. He’s again just … there. In a week or a month he might no longer be just … there. Either way, the White Sox are going nowhere, the organization itself in the newly metallically named ballpark just … there.
And an easy decision was right there. And the White Sox have mucked it up, leaving us wondering what the hell is going on with this team. As usual.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.