A baseball general manager once explained to me the three stages of dealing with a baseball owner.
The first stage you could call the “Convincing Stage.” Let’s say, as a general manager, you have determined that your team DESPERATELY needs to do something — spend more money or get a certain player or create a new scouting department or buy all new computers or whatever it might be — and you have to convince the owner why it’s necessary.
You try to show the tangible good that will come from it, prove that making this move will help the team win and that the investment will pay for itself many times over. You try to appeal to the owner’s hunger for winning and explain that it will be hard to do your job unless the team makes the move.
Now, let’s say that doesn’t work.
Then there’s the second stage, which you might call the “Doomsday Stage.” You explain to the owner all the bad things that will happen if the team doesn’t do what you’re asking. Other teams will get all the good players. Your team will lose faith. Your fans will lose faith. The media will scream. The playoff chase will be lost. Whatever comes to mind.
“So,” I asked him, “what do you do when the second stage doesn’t work.”
He smiled. “Well,” he said, “if it’s important enough, that’s when you turn over the table.”
As this bizarre Adam LaRoche-Drake LaRoche-Kenny Williams-Chris Sale circus unfolds in Chicago, there has been one person I’ve been watching closely — manager Robin Ventura. The details surrounding this saga are baffling and cloudy and emotional, but one thing is certain: It’s about time for Robin Ventura to start turning over some tables.
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Let’s review the story as quickly as possible. First baseman Adam LaRoche has long brought his son Drake along with him to ballgames. It’s a LaRoche thing — Adam kind of grew up in MLB clubhouses himself when his father Dave played ball. Adam felt like that was a great place to learn about life and for the last five years Adam has brought Drake around just about everywhere. This happened when Adam was with the Washington Nationals and, last year, with the Chicago White Sox.
“It’s like having your son and best friend alongside you all day long, at work, which never gets happen,” LaRoche told the Washington Post a couple of years ago. “I don’t know many jobs where you can bring your kid and not have to put him in day care somewhere. It’s been awesome.”
Well, I have a 14-year-old daughter who I love more than life itself, but I’m OK not having her with me at work all the time. However, that is beside the point as are most of the other fun questions everyone asks on Twitter about kids in the workplace. What is the point, then?
Let’s look at what we know.
We know Adam LaRoche signed with the White Sox last year and it was fine for Drake to come along with his Dad to basically every game. “My first question to the club concerned my son’s ability to be part of the team,” LaRoche wrote in a statement.
We know this spring that White Sox president Kenny Williams asked LaRoche to “dial it back” with Drake. Williams was pretty vague about the reasons, but it seems that he was concerned about setting a precedent and was concerned that Drake was just around too much. “Even 50 percent is too much,” he said.
We know Adam has decided to retire instead. “Do I choose my teammates and my career? Or do I choose my family? The decision was easy,” LaRoche wrote. He also said that he was, at one point, told not to bring Drake around at all.
All of this has created quite a storm throughout the White Sox organization. Kenny Williams did some interviews. There was apparently talk about boycotting Thursday’s game. On Friday, the White Sox’s best player, Chris Sale, lambasted Williams — calling him a liar, saying he had torpedoed the team, and so on. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf also put out a statement saying that the team was looking into things, and no other comments would be made.
On Friday, Ventura was finally heard from — he tread lightly, spoke a few careful cliches, made sure not to offend anyone or relay his opinion in any way.
And you simply can’t do this and be a Major League manager.
Everybody can see that this isn’t easy for Ventura. He was already on the hot seat. Under Ventura, the White Sox lost 89 games in 2014, made some bold moves last offseason and then went 76-86. That’s a pretty good formula for getting fired in today’s environment. But Ventura was brought back — general manager Rick Hahn (who also has been deafeningly quiet) said that Ventura is a championship-caliber manager. So he came back, and there have been numerous (and obligatory) “how Ventura is dealing with the pressure,” stories all spring. It’s clear he wanted to stay out of the light.
Now this happens, and that’s no longer a possibility. What is Ventura’s role here? I can tell you this: Just about everyone in baseball agrees that the clubhouse is the domain of the players and, even more, the manager. Keeping the clubhouse energized, focused and together is, in many ways, job No. 1 for a manager. I spoke with three general managers over the last three days, and this is the first thing they say: The MANAGER decides how the clubhouse is run. Yes, if the manager might decide to let the players run the clubhouse (this seems to be at the heart of Joe Maddon’s philosophy with the Cubs) but even that is still the manager’s decision.
In other words, Ventura needed to be the one to decide if Drake LaRoche was spending too much time in the clubhouse. That should be 100 percent his call, but Williams is the one doing all the talking.
There are only two possibilities for why this is happening:
1. Williams acted unilaterally, over the head of the manager, and Ventura believes Williams is wrong. If this is the case, yes, Ventura needs to turn over some tables. He needs to be kicking and screaming. He needs to make himself heard. There is absolutely no chance for him to succeed as manager of the White Sox if he does not have the authority to run the clubhouse. None. There is absolutely no chance for him to succeed as manager of the White Sox if he feels like his authority is being undermined from above. None.
And all this is doubly true if, as everyone seems to suspect, Ventura gave LaRoche his word that he could bring Drake with him all year long. Now, Williams is preventing him from keeping his word to a ballplayer? Once the manager loses trust, everything is over.
So, if Ventura thinks Williams is wrong, he must turn over every table in the White Sox facilities and keep turning them until he gets control of the clubhouse or quits.
2. Williams did not act unilaterally (maybe he was speaking directly for the owner?) and Ventura can see the point, can see that maybe Drake LaRoche was around just a bit too much. If this is the case, well, that’s really bad because it means he’s hiding behind Kenny Williams.
Best I can tell, these are the two options here — either he agrees or disagrees with Williams — and in either case, Ventura needs to be heard and say something more than just a few careful cliches. He’s the manager here. Yes, it’s true that there are only 30 managerial spots available, and to keep one of those jobs you sometimes have to bite your tongue and take one for the team. But this is not one of those times. If the White Sox aren’t going to let him run his team, then he has already lost the job.