When I was in my youth, "Good Guys Wear Black" was all the rage. Our Chicago White Sox moved out of the hallowed grounds that were Comiskey Park to the new ballpark. They had a young, exciting team led by one of the most feared hitters in generations, with a nickname to match, in "The Big Hurt" Frank Thomas. The greatest player in franchise history will always be the cornerstone for the teams of my childhood, but there is another name that was an integral part of the teams during my formative baseball years.
Robin Ventura was the co-star to the Southside show in the '90s. The Robin (pun intended) to Frank's Batman, in a lot of ways. The two would be the defining members of the '90s White Sox flanking the infield corners of the diamond and terrorizing pitchers in the heart of the lineup. Both players were first-round draft picks that resulted from the dark days of the late 1980s. Both players blossomed into All-Stars by the time the team was winning a division title in 1993 and en route to ending a championship drought in 1994 before their owner helped sabotage their season. However, as we sit here in 2022, Robin isn't associated much with the organization and his legacy has been whitewashed, whether intentional or not.
Holding Down the Hot Corner
Rockin' Robin took over the hot corner for the final season in old Comiskey Park in 1990. Until his departure from the organization following the 1998 season, Ventura provided consistency and relative certainty at the position. A sound player on both sides of the ball, Ventura ranks first in franchise history for third basemen with 39.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), according to Fangraphs' metric.
With the bat, Robin had a .274/.365/.440 slash line good for a 115 wRC+. During his time with the Pale Hose, he smacked 171 home runs and drove in 741 runs during his 1,254 games played. For an American League charter franchise, Ventura ranks first in team history for: home runs, RBIs, and runs scored for third basemen. Providing power and patience from the left side created a dynamic duo with the fearsome presence that was Frank Edward Thomas.
With the glove, despite early career struggles, Ventura eventually turned himself into one of the top 3B in the game. I know there's a log of subjectivity to the award and issues with the voting process, but Ventura was a five-time Gold Glove winner while at the corner of 35th/Shields. From 1991-93, Ventura was the standard for the position in the American League defensively. He went on to win two more awards for the team, one in 1996 and another in his final season with the club of 1998.
Adding everything together, Ventura rightfully earned a spot as a member of the Sox All-Century team that was unveiled during the 2000 season. Having spent nearly a decade with the team, one would think Ventura's place in franchise history would be cemented and that he would be paraded around more than a guy that was most remembered for being a Cleveland Indian. Alas, Ventura is largely forgotten by large portions of the fan base.
In a surprise move, Ventura was named manager of the club on October 6, 2011 filling the void that was left by World Series winning manager Ozzie Guillen, who took a brief trip down to Miami. Ventura's hire shocked the fan base, as he was never speculated or believed to be an option for the club. Ventura had no experience coaching or managing in a minor league or major league dugout since ending his playing career after the 2004 season.
The decision was perplexing. However, there was a belief that his calm demeanor would be a necessary shift for the club after eight seasons of the outspoken and bombastic Guillen. Things started well as the 2012 White Sox spent 117 days in first place, before a late September collapse saw them cede the division to the rival Tigers. Those would be the best days of Robin's managerial tenure.
Starting in 2013, everything was a disaster, simply put. From roster construction issues to bullpen management problems, the Sox began a downward spiral that ultimately led to General Manager Rick Hahn famously saying the team was "mired in mediocrity" during the 2016 season, serving as the precursor to the rebuild that began that December.
Ventura's bullpen management was a frequent topic of the team's postgame pressers and was often a running joke with callers on the team's postgame radio show. Ventura's laid back demeanor often led to questions about his desire, most notably at a seminar during Sox Fest when a fan famously asked if he had a pulse. The fact is, Ventura was brought in to be the anti-Guillen in a move that isn't uncommon for sports teams in general. Yet, Robin seemed to get a tremendous amount of ire from the fan base.
Make no mistake, Ventura came into a challenging situation. He inherited a team with a core group that was on its last legs with veterans like Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski, Adam Dunn, Jake Peavy, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd. The team couldn't count on reinforcements internally, as they possessed the worst farm system in the game and as always, resisted being major players in free agency. While he was generally praised for his calming influence during the 2012 season, it truly was a last stand for a team that wouldn't see contention for the remainder of the decade.
Did Robin have his flaws as a manager? Absolutely, and I was an admittedly vocal critic of his. However, assigning all the blame for the failures of those teams on him is simply faulty. You can't ask a chef to make a five-star meal with aged, one-star ingredients. That's the task Ventura faced. He didn't help his cause with tactical decisions throughout his tenure, but the belief that he was holding back the team during his tenure simply isn't accurate.
For his five seasons as skipper, he amassed a 375-435 record. Following the 2016 season with the writing of a forthcoming rebuild on the wall, Ventura decided it was time to leave the dugout at his own discretion. His managerial tenure has placed a cloud over his place with the franchise in a manner that simply shouldn't be.
Since leaving the organization, his name briefly surfaced as a candidate for the New York Mets managerial job, although it ultimately didn't come to fruition. Ventura has stayed out of the limelight since October of 2016 and, in all honesty, he's probably happier for that.
As a fan base, I think we need to do a better job of making the distinctions about Ventura's playing career and time as a manager of the team. He is still the best third baseman to ever suit up for the team, and he should be remembered as such. He's not the first player to fail as a manager, and he assuredly won't be the last.
I will choose to remember Ventura as one my favorite Sox players from my childhood. I hope there comes a point where he is brought back by the organization in an ambassador role and the fan base recognizes how important he was for this team during the 1990s. His time as manager shouldn't define his place with this franchise, and we are five seasons removed from his last game as manager. Hopefully, some of the scars from that time frame have healed. This organization has embraced former players who contributed a lot less to the White Sox than Robin Ventura, and it's time they start putting some respect on Robin's name and bring him home.