Ventura, Matheny thriving despite no experience

Ventura, Matheny thriving despite no experience

Ventura, Matheny thriving despite no experience
Not long ago, the path to becoming a big league manager was clearly marked. Go to the Minor Leagues, preferably for several years. Start at the bottom and work your way up -- extra credit for a stint in winter ball or the Arizona Fall League.

There were exceptions, but that was the norm.

Then, those guidelines evolved. Suddenly, it seemed, managerial experience was no longer required. Joe Girardi was named National League Manager of the Year with the Marlins in 2006 and won the World Series with the Yankees three seasons later. Kirk Gibson won the NL West with the D-backs last year. Neither had ever managed at any level previously. They had, however, put in some time coaching in the Major Leagues.

Last offseason, the evolution became a revolution. The White Sox and Cardinals gave a skeptical world plenty to talk about. Robin Ventura took over on the South Side of Chicago. Mike Matheny inherited the defending World Series champions in St. Louis. Neither had managed anywhere. They hadn't coached anywhere. Heck, they'd only been marginally involved in baseball since retiring as players.

And guess what? With more than one-third of the season in the books, Ventura has the White Sox in first place in the American League Central and Matheny's Cardinals are in the thick of the race in the NL Central.

"He's impressed all of the people who questioned his selection or who said you couldn't manage without prior experience, and he silenced those concerns very quickly," Chisox general manager Kenny Williams said of Ventura.

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said the transition from sure-fire future Hall of Famer Tony La Russa to Matheny has been "seamless."

One reason teams seem more willing to take a chance of less-proven candidates is that the perception of the job has changed. Knowing when to call for a hit-and-run or a steal, or to pull the infield in -- even the art of making out the lineup card -- are generally seen as less important than getting all the players pulling in the same direction. It's more about managing people than the Xs and Os of the game itself, more about leadership and commanding respect.

In that sense, with the benefit of hindsight, Ventura and Matheny were perfect fits for their respective teams. Both had strong ties to the organization and were known as players whom teammates listened to. Both, coincidentally or not, are far more laid back than their predecessors -- the intense La Russa and the voluble Ozzie Guillen -- although unassuming exteriors mask steely resolves. And both admit they're still learning.

Asked what has surprised him most so far, Matheny couldn't pinpoint a single aspect.

"You don't have enough time or lead in your pencil," he said. "Something new every day. But has it been an adjustment? It's an adjustment for everybody. You're just going to learn something new all the time."

Ventura has gone through the same process.

"I kind of knew the enormity of it, but you don't know it until you do it," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "You cannot realize the pulling that comes from everywhere. Things come up -- things you don't expect -- and how you have to react to that. That's the part of the job that just doesn't stop. It's continuous, because that's the position.

"I don't feel like I have to be the smartest man in the room and have my thumb on everything. The final say is mine. I have that, which is what I need."

Added reliever Matt Thornton: "One of my favorite comments I remember hearing a long, long time ago was, 'Don't mistake kindness for weakness.' Just because someone is nice doesn't mean they are weak. That's what you get with Robin."

Williams said there is one attribute of Ventura's that stands out.

"His steadiness," Williams said. "Obviously, there is no question about his knowledge of the game and his instincts for the game. What was remarkable about Robin as a player was his steadiness, day in and day out, on the field and off. That continues to be what is remarkable about him as a manager. It's June, and it seems like he has always been managing. He's been comfortable in the role from day one."

Matheny, too, has shown grace under pressure. When a delayed double steal backfired and ended a rally earlier this season, he was unflustered under postgame questioning.

"I'll just say that play didn't go as planned," he said mildly.

Pointing to Matheny's 13-year playing career, veteran first baseman Lance Berkman has been impressed.

"The advantage of having a guy who has played extensively at the Major League level -- they understand that a four-game losing streak is just a blip on the radar screen, a bump in the road," Berkman told reporters when the Cardinals struggled earlier in the season. "He's even-keel to begin with, and even if we had a run that struck out longer, I don't think you would have seen any panic out of him."

That's not to say that the complete lack of managing or coaching experience weren't issues that had to be addressed. Ventura admitted that he was worried there would be a perception that he had been hired as a figurehead whose only duty would be to carry out orders from above.

"I was concerned about that," Ventura said to the Chicago Sun-Times. "I think that was a question that was asked because [the hiring] was so -- for lack of a better expression -- outside the box. I asked Kenny that. I wanted to make sure if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it. I don't want to do it if someone else is making all the decisions."

When he was hired, Matheny called the question "the elephant" during his interview and said that he was assured that the Cardinals were placing a higher value on leadership and intangibles than experience.

It wasn't inevitable that Ventura and Matheny would be hired. It wasn't preordained that they would have such quick success.

It only seems that way now.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for associate reporter Clark Goble contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.