Its a couple hours before game time on Sunday, and Robin Venturas head is in a fog. The flu bug that has been floating around the White Sox clubhouse since last Friday has reached the manager. But hell battle through it, just like Nate Jones did the day before. The rookie reliever showed up Saturday at the ballpark, threw up, and then threw 99 miles per hour on the radar gun in two scoreless inning of relief.
Go back and watch the tape. Jones stumbled around the mound in a daze, giving whatever he had in the tank for those few seconds when he actually had to pitch. The rest of the time his face was a shade of green and purple. At one point he looked at veteran catcher AJ Pierzynski and with all his might said, Just give me the ball.
And that is the essence of this White Sox team of 2012.
Give them the ball.
Give them a glove.
And then: Give em hell.
Thats how Ventura was as a player. Its also how he manages. Now were seeing it on the field.
The White Sox have won 14 of their last 16 games. Theyre in first place in the American League Central by 2 12 games. They have a better record than the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Tigers -- all preseason favorites to make the playoffs.
You hear that rumbling in the distance? Its the White Sox. Last year, they barely made a peep.
Despite all the doubts and criticisms coming into this season, the White Sox have quickly formed into a squad of fighters who have followed the lead of their rookie manager.
Theyre playing well. Theyre confident, Ventura said. Thats what you want. You want guys coming ready to play. They have the feeling theyre going to win every game.
As the manager who has set the tone in the clubhouse from the beginning, you could say that Ventura is the man responsible for that winning atmosphere. Just dont tell that to the humble Robin, because hell never admit it.
I don't want to go there, he said. It's everyone, everyday coming with the same attitude. These guys are the ones who play. You can do the same things Im doing every day, but if you have guys who don't have the ability and arent capable of doing it, it doesnt matter. It's really about how these guys are doing and coming every day to compete. That's the thing Im happiest about.
In his dealings with the media, Ventura can be about as exciting as cabbage. During his press conferences, he comes across like a bored high school student sitting in the back of math class continually being pestered by the teacher.
Hes a man whose personality has different shades. Publicly, he prefers to give the media nothing but gray. Privately, there are more colors in his spectrum.
My personality with the team is a lot different than what people get to see, Ventura admitted.
In this way, he is the exact opposite of Ozzie Guillen, who didnt hesitate in speaking openly and honestly about anything, and to anyone: media, fans, players, coaches, pets, insects.
Nothing was off topic. He was a reporters dream.
I suggested to Robin that he reveal more of himself and whats going on behind closed doors when the microphones are on. He smiled. Then politely shook his head no.
For me, I've always felt it's better to have that in the clubhouse. You have a few tricks up your sleeve for guys in different situations. That's just stuff I use with these guys in different situations whether it's a winning streak or losing streak. To be able to talk to guys and get through stuff and get them refocused and let them laugh in a tough situation. Some things have to be held back.
I told Ventura that I asked some players to describe him as a manager.
Do you want to hear what they said?
They said some bad things about you. (I was joking).
Well, now I need names, he said sarcastically. Just give me their jersey numbers.
Heres what they said:
Robins like a player.
He doesnt look for the spotlight.
Hes the same in a winning streak as a losing streak.
Hed be a great manager for any ballclub.
Not being one for compliments, when I read this to Ventura he looked like I just ran my nails down a chalkboard.
For me, this is where I want to manage. This feels right to me, he said, trying desperately to get control back of the conversation. It's about these guys. Nothing happens without them.
Where would the White Sox be without Ventura?
Something tells me not here. Not in first place and feeling theyre going to win every game like Robin said.
It was looking like a long, boring summer in Chicago.
Maybe not anymore.