Monday, June 25, 2012

Robin Ventura of Arroyo Grande California is Back in the Big Leagues

After his retirement from baseball in 2004, the former all-star returned home to Arroyo Grande to be a full-time father and husband. Now, eight years later, he's back in a Major League dugout, leading the White Sox to the top of their division.

By Photo by Tracey Roman/Special to the Tribune
Robin Ventura shares a laugh in the dugout during
Chicago's recent series at Dodger Stadium.

By Joshua D. Scroggin,
The Tribune - San Luis Obispo, CA

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 and grand-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.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Like Father, Like Son? Dodgers Clearly Hope So

Organization soon could have up to 10 second-generation players.
Dodgers infielder Justin Sellers didn't realize the significance of what happened until it was pointed out to him.

In the fifth inning of a spring training game against the Chicago White Sox in Glendale, Ariz., the Dodgers hit for the cycle as a team.

But this was not just any cycle: All four players were the sons of former big leaguers.

Tony Gwynn Jr. singled, Sellers doubled, Ivan DeJesus tripled and Scott Van Slyke homered.

"Oh, wow," Sellers said. "That is very unique."

Almost as amazing is the fact that the Dodgers have three other second-generation major league players in their organization: Dee Gordon, Matt Wallach and Jerry Hairston Jr. (Hairston is actually a third-generation player; his grandfather, Sam, spent most of his career in the Negro leagues before playing five games for the White Sox in 1951.)

The Dodgers haven't stopped there. In three days earlier this month they managed to draft three more sons of major-leaguers: shortstop Jesmuel Valentin (son of Jose Valentin), pitcher Jordan Hershiser (Orel) and shortstop Jose Vizcaino Jr. (Jose Sr.).

It has become common practice in recent years for major league teams to track and draft prospects with baseball in their genes, though not all make it this far.

Preston Mattingly, for example, was a first-round draft pick by the Dodgers in 2006 who was never invited to the team's major league camp. He signed a minor league contract with his father's former team, the New York Yankees, in January.

Considering that only 214 sons have followed their dads into the big leagues, it's no small feat that the Dodgers can count seven second-generation players in their organization.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said those seven have an advantage.

"To me, the biggest advantage is being around the clubhouse. They understand that guys are just regular guys," he said. "For me, growing up in Indiana, not really being around a major league city or major league teams, trying to go into a locker room with Goose Gossage, Graig Nettles, names like that - you kind of have this awe."

Some of those players can recall getting the awe out of the way early. Some can't. Here are their experiences:

Ivan DeJesus Jr.
The 24-year-old infielder, who made his major league debut with the Dodgers last April, is the only member of the seven who doesn't remember his father playing in the major leagues. That's because DeJesus was only 1 when Ivan DeJesus Sr. played his final major-league game as a Detroit Tiger.

But DeJesus Sr. went on to coach with the Houston Astros, and his son tagged along during summers, befriending the likes of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman.

"I saw (Berkman) last year when I played against him in L.A., he was in St. Louis," the younger DeJesus said. "He said, `I'm getting old. I saw you when you were little.' I said no, everyone's getting old."

When your father, uncle, grandfather and brother were all professional baseball players, what's the plan if you don't ever reach the big leagues?

"That's a good question. I really don't know," he said. "Everyone says I can be argumentative at times ... maybe I'd make a pretty good lawyer."

Jerry Hairston Jr.
Hairston has carved out a pretty good career as a baseball journeyman; the Dodgers are his ninth team in 15 seasons. Last season with Milwaukee, he played five defensive positions and hit .274 with one home run in 124 at-bats.

At 35, Hairston is old enough to have played with Harold Baines (as a rookie in 1998 with the Orioles) and to have been an 8-year-old milling around the Chicago White Sox clubhouse when Baines was in his heyday.

"I knew that it was a big deal," he said, "but at the same time it's something that my dad did. When you came to the ballpark, it was something I always wanted to do."

Dee Gordon
Tom Gordon's 21-year major league pitching career ended in 2009, the same year his son was turning heads with the Dodgers' Single-A club.

This year, Dee Gordon is trying to make the leap from prized prospect to everyday shortstop and leadoff hitter.

More than a decade before he first set foot in the Dodgers' clubhouse, Gordon followed his dad into the clubhouse at Fenway Park. Back then, he was anything but nervous.

"I didn't grasp it then," Gordon said. "I was too busy playing basketball, running around. I was not in tune with baseball at that time."

That changed over time, of course, and Gordon brought plenty of butterflies to his first major league camp a year ago.

"Why wouldn't I be (nervous)? If I weren't, something would be wrong," he said.

Tony Gwynn Jr.
Tony Gwynn Sr., whose 3,141 hits rank 18th all-time, waited until his namesake son was 9 years old before bringing him to work one day, at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.

"I knew none of my friends got to do that kind of stuff," the younger Gwynn said. "I was very aware of my surroundings, what I was doing. That's probably the reason why my dad allowed me to start going with him."

Taken in the second round of the 2003 draft by the Brewers, Gwynn Jr. debuted with Milwaukee three years later but didn't become an everyday player until 2009 with the Padres.

Though he felt comfortable from the outset, there was one thing Gwynn Jr.'s dad didn't teach him.
"I came here and ate what I wanted to, didn't have to think about it - not realizing my dad had to pay for both mouths in the clubhouse," he said.

Justin Sellers
Sellers, a 26-year-old infielder, played 36 games for the Dodgers in 2011 and made the big league roster out of camp. A bulging disk in his back has sidelined him since May 23.

His father, Jeff, is a Compton native and Paramount High alum who pitched for the Red Sox over parts of four seasons (1985-88).

"I remember talking to Jim Rice, I remember talking to Mike Greenwell," Justin Sellers said. "I was nervous. Those memories carry on to today. I never forget that stuff."

Those early experiences couldn't prepare him for his first major league game in Dodger Stadium last Aug. 12 - especially, he said, having grown up in Southern California. Sellers starred for Huntington Beach Marina before moving on to Cal State Fullerton.

"To really soak that up, words really can't explain the feeling that was running through my body the first time I got called up," Sellers said.

Scott Van Slyke
The Pittsburgh Pirates staged an annual father-son game when Andy Van Slyke was roaming the outfield, and Scott was a regular participant beginning at age 4.

Having toiled seven years in the Dodgers' system, the 25-year-old outfielder was called up to the big club May 10 after hitting .338 with eight homers and 25 RBIs at Triple-A Albuquerque. His first major league home run came 11 days later, and it was memorable - a decisive pinch-hit, three-run shot against another one of his father's old teams, the St. Louis Cardinals.

Perseverance alone might not have gotten Van Slyke - who was optioned to Albuquerque earlier this month - to the majors, but it has at least taught him a lesson.

"It's definitely your own experience," he said. "Coming here, being yourself is different. You know that you've worked hard, put in your years in the system."

Matt Wallach
Invited to spring camp as a non-roster player, Wallach was able to hang out with his dad in a major league clubhouse. Tim Wallach, a third baseman for three teams over 17 seasons, is now the Dodgers' third-base coach.

Matt Wallach was on the field for father-son games in Montreal at an early age, but it took a while for him to grasp their significance.

"Definitely when he was in L.A. (from 1993-96) when I was 8, 9, 10, you go and see you're around guys that you watch on TV," said Wallach, a catcher who is on the Dodgers' Double-A team in Chattanooga.

"Just being able to meet them and hang out with them was pretty awesome."

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dodgers Angels Kings 2012

Timing is Everything

How glorious is this.  The Los Angeles Dodgers, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and the Los Angeles Kings all together on the same field at the same time.  With the Kings winning the Stanley Cup, hockey's championship trophy on Monday night, and appearing at Dodger Stadium two nights later is special.  It was one of those rare circumstances, the Dodgers and Angels were facing each other anyway, and now all three teams appeared together honoring the Kings.  Too bad the Lakers and Clippers weren't playing, we could have made it five teams.

In addition to this special gathering, your editor searched for a special picture from the past.  A 1998 photo of Chick Hearn, the late broadcaster for the Lakers, Bob Miller the L.A. Kings broadcaster, and Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully.  The occasion was honoring the Great Western Forum and naming Staples Center's two press areas: The Chick Hearn Press Room and the Bob Miller Press Box.

A special time for Los Angeles Sports Fans everywhere.