Ventura's heart into turning around Sox

First-year manager has presence, brainpower to succeed

Robin Ventura leads with his heart.

That's why he was flying into home plate on that awful night in Sarasota, Fla., 15 years ago. It's why he pushed himself beyond exhaustion in his recovery from an ankle damaged so bad it would ultimately require a rare transplant, and why he was so crushed when the White Sox traded away three of their best pitchers at the trade deadline that year, only a week after he had gotten back on the field.

"I never knew the season ended on July 31," said Ventura, who wanted a chance to run down the Indians in the last two months of that disappointing 1997 season.

Ventura hated leaving the Sox after 1998, but led with his heart when he signed on to play with the Mets. That's why he quickly became a leader of a team that included Mike Piazza, John Olerud, Rickey Henderson, Orel Hershiser and Al Leiter, and why he was so elated when he delivered a game-winning blast against the Braves in the 1999 NLCS — a signature moment of a 16-year career.

Ventura, as well-rested as he is well-rounded, led with his heart when Sox general manager Ken Williams shocked him with a job offer last October. He knows as well as anyone that he might not be up to speed on everything it takes to manage in the big leagues, but he trusts the instincts that have always made him one of the guys everyone trusts.

With largely the same roster that produced 79 wins a year ago, Sox pitchers and catchers take the field on Thursday in Arizona. But because of the guy who leads them, they will start out looking a lot different than they did in September.

"There's always a tone you end up with," Ventura said Wednesday. "I don't think you can necessarily force it on them, but your leadership in your club is going to set that tone. Again, it's about being prepared to win games and that's really the focus of how we're going to do things and do it right. That's it. It's pretty simple."

It's going to be fun watching Ventura develop his own style as a manager. If there's going to be a pleasant surprise in Chicago this season, the bet here is it is going to come on the South Side.

As you've probably sensed, this looms as a down year for both the Cubs and the White Sox, but there is one angle that shouldn't be overlooked. That's Ventura's presence and brainpower, and the way lightly regarded teams have a way of outplaying their expectations early in a season.

I don't see how the Sox can stay within 10 games of Detroit over six months, but give the Tigers an early hiccup involving Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander or closer Jose Valverde and I wouldn't be stunned to see Ventura's team at the top of the division on Memorial Day.

Staying there requires organizational depth, and that's not the hallmark of the Sox under Williams' direction, but give Ventura a decent start by at least four guys in a group including Jake Peavy, John Danks, Chris Sale, Adam Dunn, Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham, and he's going to deliver the sort of bounce that is hard to achieve with a middle-of-the-road team.

"I don't know if (we're) flying under the radar," Ventura said. "We still have the same goal — to win games. And we have to figure out a way to do that. Detroit has kind of earned that (favored status) doing what they did last season and signing some players this year, but it's not going to change the way we approach anything. We're not going to concede anything."

In the last 12 seasons, only 14 other big league teams changed managers after a season in which they won 75 to 85 games. These teams have mostly seen little immediate improvement after their moves, averaging 1.5 fewer wins behind their new managers.

But Grady Little ignited a Red Sox team that won 82 games behind Jimy Williams and Joe Kerrigan in 2002, and Ron Roenicke got a 19-game improvement from the 2011 Brewers after replacing Ken Macha. It can happen with a combination of a new vision and improved production.

Ozzie Guillen is a good manager, but he essentially talked his way out of Chicago.

Now, thanks to Jerry Reinsdorf's stubborn faith in Williams and their combined preference for organizational guys, it's Ventura's turn.

Betting against him has never been a good idea. For the time being, I like his potential to become a strong manager better than the chances of the Sox to be a strong team, but Ventura wouldn't be back in uniform if he didn't believe in his heart he can make a difference. The guy leads with his heart. He can't help himself.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers
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