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Ventura's quiet style a winner, so far

The Anti Ozzie
Robin Ventura's quiet style is perfect for the White Sox.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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CHICAGO

Sometimes, you just have to put your head on the other side of the pillow. You have to make change for change’s sake. Whoever said that’s not a good thing was dead wrong. It’s a mandatory thing.

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The feel-good story of the White Sox has been manager Robin Ventura, who had never coached or managed. After Thursday night’s rainout against Detroit, the Sox still have a one-game lead over the Tigers with 20 games left.

What's gotten them there has been Ventura’s quiet leadership, his selflessness. He’s no-nonsense, no ego. But while all those things are true, they aren’t really just about who Ventura is. They are also about who he’s not.

A big part of why the White Sox are winning is that their manager is not Ozzie Guillen. They didn’t turn this thing around by hitting the reset button.

No, it was the mute button.

“Different times for different things,’’ said former Sox star Frank Thomas, who played with Ventura, and with (and for) Guillen. “Different personalities for different things. Ozzie did a wonderful job as a manager. He really did.’’

It’s too easy to let this story go off into nicey-nice fiction here. The truth is that the final few weeks of a pennant race are when you learn about a manager. And while Ventura has created the right atmosphere, he also made some goofy decisions in the past few days against the Tigers.

Ventura called on Kevin Youkilis for a sacrifice bunt in one crucial situation. Youkilis couldn’t get the bunt down, and struck out. Tigers won.

In more than 4,200 career plate appearances, guess how many sacrifice bunts Youkilis has successfully completed.

Zero.

On Wednesday, Ventura used relief pitcher Leyson Septimo instead of Donnie Veal to face Prince Fielder. Lefties can’t hit Veal; Fielder hit a three-run homer. Tigers won.

“Prince has seen him (Veal) a few times now,’’ Ventura said. “You’re looking for a different look.’’

This was different all right. Fielder had been 0-for-4 in his career against Veal.

This is coming down to such a classic battle: Detroit manager Jim Leyland, who has been around forever,  against Ventura. A 67-year old vs. a 45-year old. Detroit was built to win now. Chicago was expected to rebuild.

But Sox general manager Kenny Williams built a better roster than people realized. And his move to get Ventura was bold, and right.

At first, I thought it would never work. But Ventura was such a strong leader as a player. His calm and quiet should not be mistaken for weakness. He charged the mound (unsuccessfully) at Nolan Ryan, and had a famous near-fight with Thomas in the dugout.

“It wasn’t a fight,’’ Thomas said. “We were in New York. I got punched out (called out on strikes) twice that day on balls that were out of the strike zone. At the time, we were closing in, I think, on the division. And New York was out of it.

“Just because we were in Yankee Stadium, we were getting screwed. That’s the way it was back then. I just yelled at the umpire and Robin didn’t like it. We got back and both of us were just screaming and yelling at each other. It wasn’t a big fight. We were just yelling and screaming. We got along fine. We were roommates.’’

In fact, Thomas was beloved in Chicago early in his career. But Ventura and pitcher Jack McDowell were the team leaders. Thomas quietly put up huge numbers. It wasn’t until Ventura and McDowell left Chicago that the microphones started going over to Thomas. Let’s just say that some people aren’t meant to lead that way.

The point is that Ventura was always leading. And after years of Guillen’s big mouth and self-absorbed nature, Ventura was exactly the type of leader Chicago needed.

“I didn’t look at it necessarily that way,’’ he said. “It was just more about doing the job. They (Sox management) were probably looking at it differently as far as who they hire. But you see over the course of history of hires, somebody like Ozzie, then somebody like me. It’s happened that way with a lot of teams. Everybody has a different way of doing stuff.’’

The Sox are far more focused than they were last year, and far more relaxed. They have also worked more on fundamentals and details. During batting practice Tuesday, Ventura stood at the backstop behind home plate and watched every swing. If memory serves, Guillen was usually walking around talking to everyone.

“It’s not like I’m doing anything,’’ Ventura said. “I realize the players play. Our job as a staff is just to get them ready to play, be prepared and all that stuff. They should get the success, and then if it doesn’t work, it’s on me.’’

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Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to credit a manager for. Alex Rios and Adam Dunn are so much better than they were last year. Pitcher Jake Peavy, who couldn’t even spell the word “pitching’’ without hurting himself, suddenly is healthy.

Did Ventura create an atmosphere to help some of that? Or would it have happened with Guillen?

To be fair to Guillen, the Sox wouldn’t have won the World Series without him in 2005. The team had a number of misfits who were choking in the final weeks of the season. Guillen took all the pressure off of them by keeping the focus on him.

Besides that, his tough-guy attitude created the atmosphere the team needed after years under the hand-holding, managing style of Jerry Manuel. Manuel had replaced three years of blithering from Terry Bevington, who once signaled to the bullpen for a relief pitcher … when no one was warming up.

Chicagoans have seen this over and over. Mike Ditka gave the Bears toughness and swagger and a Super Bowl. By the time he left, he HAD to go. Mike Keenan made the Blackhawks relevant until he had to get out. Scott Skiles took the embarrassing Bulls and screamed them into shape. Eventually, his team just tuned him out.

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That’s what happened with Guillen. By last year, he was burning out his own team.

It’s not just tactics, but also style. And timing. The right style has to be in the right place at the right time. That’s why the Sox are going to beat out the Tigers in the end.

Even Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski said that when the Sox hired Ventura, he didn’t think it would work.

“I still believe that experience is very beneficial,’’ he said. “But I don’t know Robin Ventura very well. Everybody I know and respect tells me he’s an exceptional leader. He’s a guy who’s probably the exception. If everyone thinks this is easy, that you can just walk in there, then they’ll be bitten in a wrong fashion more than they’ll be right.’’

Before Thursday’s game, Leyland put out a Marlboro and sat in the dugout watching his team during batting practice. He said managing changes in crunchtime of a pennant race. Experience would know.

“I always take talent over experience,’’ Leyland said. “They’re talented, we’re talented. I’ve got a lot of experience, Robin doesn’t have much. He’s making it look easy. If his players are better than mine, they’ll win. If my players are better than his, we’ll win.’’

Maybe it’s just that simple. But maybe something helps to make the players as good as they can be.

Tagged: White Sox, Tigers, Kevin Youkilis, Prince Fielder, Donnie Veal

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