Jack Ventura was 5 years old the last time his dad played in a baseball game.
Old enough to know his father was wearing Dodger blue, Jack was too young to comprehend how frequent cortisone injections kept his dad on the field despite a deteriorating ankle, and even then, how the shots weren’t potent enough to keep his Gold Glove andgrand-slam power in the Los Angeles lineup every day.
But when Robin Ventura made the 2004 season his last after 15 years with four big league teams, the Santa Maria native and Righetti High School alumnus was the perfect age to grasp the gravity of spending the full year at his Arroyo Grande home with Jack, wife Stephanie and their three grade school-aged daughters.
“The fun part of where we live and doing the things that we do, I missed most of it,” said Robin Ventura, who retired at 37. “I would miss the summer of being at home. So, whether it was the fair up in Paso or going to the lake, all those little things that you miss for 15 years, you’re now able to do.
“We did what we wanted to do, the kids were at a good, fun age where they were doing their sports, and I could just go do whatever they’re doing.”
And so it was for the next eight years.
But now, the 44-year-old Ventura is nearly halfway through his first season as manager of the Chicago White Sox, his first year back in baseball since the cortisone dried up and he was left walking with a cane.
He was back in the Dodger Stadium clubhouse for the first time last weekend, as the White Sox played Los Angeles in an interleague series.
At one point, legendary 84-year-old Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully stepped in to say hello and welcome Ventura back to Los Angeles.With Jack, now 13, sitting by his side in a full, crisp White Sox uniform and his ankle long since fully reconstructed through surgery, Ventura talked about the factors that plucked him from a stable family life and inserted him directly under a media magnifying glass.
He spoke with the perspective of having helped turn Chicago from an also-ran that finished 16 games out of the American League Central lead last season to the one that is contending for a division title as next month’s All-Star break creeps up.
He also spoke as a coach with a managerial track record less than three months long whose every strategic swing and miss is second-guessed in a rabid sports town.
Not surprisingly, neither success nor failure played a big role in Ventura’s decision to upend a home life enriched by his children’s youth sports, manning the barbecue pit at Arroyo Grande High School football games and periodic television appearances as an analyst for broadcasts of the Little League and College World Series.
Back in baseball
Last offseason, Ventura accepted a three-year contract to become manager of the team that originally drafted him in 1988 because he knew he could do the job. He also wanted to reinforce lessons about work ethic to his children — Rachel and Madi now attending college, Grace still at Arroyo Grande High and Jack readying to enter eighth grade.
“You have kids who are getting to the age where they are going to college, and they’re making decisions about where they’re going to go, what they’re going to do, what they’re going to study,” Ventura said. “It’s really about getting out of your comfort zone and going to do something that you think you can do. And what kind of message are we sending our kids if I’m not going to take the challenge and do it if I feel I can do it, but I just want to stay home and not put myself in the meat grinder?”
Ventura’s main concerns with taking the job were how his family would cope with its double life split between Chicago and Arroyo Grande as his family has spent time living in both places this summer.
It’s that dedication to family that might help make Ventura the successful manager he’s been so far, guiding the White Sox to a 37-34 record and 11⁄2 games behind the first- place Cleveland Indians in the division.
It’s certainly made an impression on players.
“I just think he’s a really good guy, not even talking about baseball,” Chicago second baseman Gordon Beckham said. “He’s just a good dad, a good husband, a good person all around.
“That’s what’s been more impressive to me than anything managerial. People want to judge him by how we’re doing and what our record is. But it doesn’t matter to me what our record is. I think he’s a good man first and foremost.”
Players have also said Ventura’s even temperament — not too excited at the highs and not too disappointed with the lows — is his biggest strength as a leader. That attitude comes from his range of experience.
Ventura’s playing days
Ventura was one of the greatest college baseball players of all time.
His 58-game hitting streak at Oklahoma State in 1987 broke the previous NCAA record by 11 games and still stands as the Division I standard.
He’s been inducted into the halls of fame for both college baseball and the Cape Cod League and led the 1988 U.S. Olympic baseball team to the gold medal in Seoul, South Korea.
As a professional, Ventura won six Gold Glove awards and was twice an all-star. His 18 career grand slams rank fifth on the all-time MLB list. He also played in the World Series with the New York Mets.
His career is also spotted with dubious moments, including:
The 1998 injury where he broke and dislocated his right ankle on a slide into home plate only got worse in the latter stages of his career.
While playing with the New York Yankees in 2002, Ventura had the worst fielding percentage among Major League third basemen. In 2003, he tied for the Major League lead at the position with 23 errors.
His 1993 altercation with Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan sparked one of the most talked about brawls in all of sports.
Baseball isn’t long term
Ventura learned long ago how to take the ups and downs of baseball in stride. His commitment to family has only strengthened that ability.
When Ventura is done managing — whether that’s in three years or 10 or more — he will be back at home in San Luis Obispo County, enjoying retirement once again.
Safe to say, he doesn’t plan on lasting as long as Scully has.
“I got a three-year deal to do this, and that’s really all I’m focused on,” Ventura said. “For me, the relationship I have with the owner and the general manager, if they want somebody else to manage and if they feel they need to go in another direction, our relationship isn’t going to change.
“I’ll take it serious, do what I’m signed to do and then after that, we can decide.
“I haven’t gotten far enough to think, ‘I can do this for 20 more years.’ I think when I think like that, I get nervous of things I’ll miss at home, friendships and stuff like that.”
Robin Ventura’s baseball career
Arroyo Grande resident, Santa Maria native, Righetti High graduate
Played for the Chicago White Sox (1989-98), New York Mets (1999-2001), New York Yankees (2002-03), Los Angeles Dodgers (2003-04).
Two-time all-star (1992, 2002), six-time Gold Glove (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1998, 1999), .267 career batting average, 294 home runs, 18 grand slams (tied for fifth all-time).
Became 39th manager of the Chicago White Sox on Oct. 6