Robin Ventura spends his Friday nights hiding in plain view behind the barbecue pit at Arroyo Grande High School.
Friends say that’s how the unassuming former Major League all-star prefers life — as a nameless volunteer who makes a huge impact in the local community and seeks the edge of the spotlight only so he can stay far away.
“He’s going to be in the spotlight now,” said former Eagles girls basketball coach Vard Ikeda, who got to know Ventura by coaching his two oldest daughters.
The Chicago White Sox plucked their former star to become their next manager Thursday, a stunning move considering that the Arroyo Grande resident has no managing experience and spent the past two seasons assisting the local high school team.
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Ventura, 44, was a special adviser to the White Sox’s director of player development over the past four months and has carved a niche as ESPN’s top analyst for broadcasts of the College World Series.
“When I met with the media as our season ended, I identified one person at the very top of my managerial list,” White Sox general manager Ken Williams said in a statement issued by the club. “I wanted someone who met very specific criteria centered around his leadership abilities. Robin Ventura was that man. His baseball knowledge and expertise, his professionalism, his familiarity with the White Sox and Chicago and his outstanding character make him absolutely the right person to lead our clubhouse and this organization into the seasons ahead.”
But it was still a shock when Ventura was selected to succeed eight-year manager Ozzie Guillen, recently let go from his contract after a disappointing 79-83 season.
“I’m not one to back away,” Ventura told the Chicago Tribune. “The passion was there to do it, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to do it. ... The White Sox care about me and my family. That was big in my decision. I realize I haven’t managed, but this is the organization that is going to give me the support to do the job.”
Ventura played for the White Sox from 1989 through 1998 before continuing his career with the New York Mets (1999-2001), New York Yankees (2002-03) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2003-04).
A six-time Gold Glove winner and an all-star in 1992 and 2002, Ventura finished his 16-year career batting .267 with 1,885 hits and 18 grand slams, tied for the fifth-most ever.
Since retiring, he moved to Arroyo Grande full-time and has gained an unsung reputation for supporting Eagles athletics.
Ventura is the resident tri-tip chef for home football games at Doug Hitchen Stadium, he’s pledged financial support to multiple teams and as a hitting instructor and infield assistant for the baseball team, and players credit his guidance for helping them succeed.
Arroyo Grande athletic director Dwight MacDonald — who began coaching youth basketball with Ventura when their daughters were in fourth grade — recalls one stormy day last spring when Ventura spent all day shoveling dirt to preserve the baseball field for the afternoon’s game.
“He’s out there in the mud,” MacDonald said. “He’s out there behind the barbecue grill. It’s just so incredible. He could have been doing anything he wanted to do, and that’s what he felt like he needed to do. He did it for the school. He did it for the boys and girls on the teams, and he wasn’t doing it for himself.
“So many professional athletes just want to be the center of attention. They want everyone to know who they are. He was the most unassuming, polite professional athlete I’ve ever come across and one of the nicest, most humble guys, the type that would do anything for you. He’s always been that way, and he’s never changed.”
After a standout career at Righetti High in Santa Maria, Ventura had one of the most prolific college careers of all time at Oklahoma State, tallying an NCAA-record 58-game hitting streak before being drafted in the first round in 1988. The streak still stands as the Division I record.
After his playing days, Ventura returned to the Central Coast, settling slightly north of his native Santa Maria.Jordan Morrison, a star centerfielder entering his senior year for the Eagles, was also coached by Ventura dating back to his Little League days.
“He made me a better hitter, made me understand the game a lot better and was able to teach me things I would never, ever learn from anyone else,” Morrison said. “He’s made me a better player and a better person.
“It’s unreal when he talks with you,” Morrison added. “You know you’re not going to get anything better anywhere else.”
Even so, Ventura never gave off an arrogant vibe, his players said.
“He has no problem helping anyone,” Morrison said. “He’s a very humble, nice person.”
Morrison, who batted .408 last year with 14 doubles and 28 RBI, committed to UC Irvine this past summer.
Morrison said Ventura was instrumental in helping him earn his partial scholarship from the Anteaters, a Big West Conference power that finished last season ranked No. 16 in the nation by Baseball America.
“Coach Ventura was a huge part of me getting that scholarship,” Morrison said. “They’d call him and talk, and he’d do everything he could to help me.”
Added Eagles head baseball coach Brad Lachemann: “Obviously, we’re happy for him. The kids are going to miss having him. He’s got information no one else has around here from the experience he has.”