It might be the biggest question you have about the White Sox: Is Rick Renteria the manager to take this team to the promised land?
Bigger than whether Luis Robert will live up to the hype or whether Dylan Cease will put his rookie-year growing pains behind him or whether Tim Anderson can hit .335 again.
Renteria’s been the South Side skipper for three loss-filled rebuilding seasons. His major league managerial record, including the one year he spent on the North Side before getting the heave-ho so the Cubs could hire Joe Maddon, is 274-373. If he loses on Opening Day, he’ll be 100 games below .500 in his big league managerial career.
But he’s never had a team like this.
The White Sox have legitimate postseason expectations for the first time in years. Their young core broke out in a big way in 2019. Then Rick Hahn’s front office embarked on a breakneck offseason, importing the kind of veteran talent that knows what it takes to achieve baseball’s ultimate goals.
Fans are excited, but they still have questions about the manager.
“As it comes time for us to win or contend, a position they haven’t really seen him in, I understand them being like, ‘Well, can he do that?’” Hahn said. “It’s a natural question about any individual in that position that’s transitioning to a different stage of the ball club.”
Any manager, no matter how accomplished, will face unending questions about bullpen management, lineup construction and any other number of decisions that make up the job description of a major league skipper. Hell, Maddon was getting criticized by one of his own players the day of the Cubs’ World Series parade.
But the questions facing Renteria are more meaningful, more big-picture in nature.
Every White Sox fan is entitled to their opinion on the matter. But generating an opinion based solely on what is shown during a game broadcast or during pregame and postgame interviews is dangerous. The Renteria fans see in the dugout is a focused one, solemnly concentrating on winning that night’s game. In truth, he’s playing a much, much bigger role behind the scenes.
“They only just see the shots that he calls, and if those shots turn out too bad or good, it puts him in a crazy situation. If it goes bad, then he’s the bad guy. If it goes good, then it’s up on us. So he never really gets the credit, he only gets the bad stuff,” Anderson said. “But it takes a guy with a huge heart to fill that role, and I think he’s definitely the right person to fill that role.
“He cares about our guys, he doesn’t really care about the noise. He’s definitely all in, the right guy that’s going to help us move forward and the right guy that’s going to pull out certain things in guys that you don’t see every day.”
And off the field?
“He’s preaching to you. He’s teaching you, whether it’s about life or connecting with your teammates,” Anderson said. “Even when you walk out to the field for those games in spring training, ‘Take a few minutes and sign for the fans.’ He’s always leading us.
“And it’s not just baseball, in life, as well, to be the best that we can be. We want to be the best. It really goes all around, in all aspects. We’re dealing with fans, we’re pouring it into the community. You see the work he does. Definitely follow his lead.
“Just basically (bringing) good energy and bringing love to all the people that need it.”
This is what the people who know him best think of him. Allow them to explain.
This is Rick Renteria.
‘I didn’t really know who to talk to’
Anderson was in a bad place during the 2017 season.
His best friend, Branden Moss, was shot and killed. And he had no one he wanted to talk to about it.
This was more important than his batting average or his defensive ability at shortstop. This was more important than baseball.
But Anderson had to show up at work every day to play baseball with all that grief and all the things running through his head.
“I didn’t really know who to talk to. My friend was the person that I went to to talk to about everything,” Anderson said in the early days of spring training. “So I just went in (Renteria’s) office, and I was nervous. I didn’t know how he would act or react to it.
“And come to find out that he had some of the same things that I went through, what I felt like. The story was relatable. His background kind of matched mine. His friends, they were matching some of the things that my friends would say. He definitely pulled me out through those moments.”
In college sports words like “family” and “brothers” are thrown around to a nearly immeasurable degree. You’ll hear college coaches talk about how much they love their players, the relationship with them and their families, the bonds that are built during all that recruiting.
But this is the pros. These guys have family-style relationships with one another, but they aren’t so public. This is their job, after all. Not everyone’s boss is their best friend. And not everyone’s boss is someone they can talk to about the most emotional things in their lives.
Renteria, however, has established that type of relationship with his players.
“He hinted about this today,” Lucas Giolito said one afternoon at Camelback Ranch, “tough decisions managers have to make throughout the course of spring training or throughout the course of the year. Sometimes you might not want to make all those personal relationships with players, because at the end of the day it’s a business.
“Well, he doesn’t believe in that. He wants to get to know us all on a personal level.”
For Renteria, when Anderson came to him, he was just doing his job.
“I don’t think I did anything out of the ordinary than just be an ear,” he said. “For me, our human beings are the first thing I focus on. As much as I would’ve wanted him to get out there and do what he does between the lines, you have to deal with the person first.
“Be there to hold them, to talk to them, to hug them if you need to and just be there as a friend.”
Maybe that doesn’t sound superhuman to you. Those are the kinds of things we all know we should do and we should be able to expect from one another. But reality rarely works that way. And whether it’s something minor or something major, like what Anderson was dealing with, we have all felt a certain level of discomfort when either approaching someone with our thoughts and feelings or fielding those kinds of overtures from someone else. It should be natural, but it isn’t always. Anderson faced that discomfort, that asking for help, and found someone willing to listen.
“Now I can go in there and talk to him about anything, doesn’t matter what it is,” Anderson said. “It’s just the relationship that helped build a bond and more trust and believing in me. I tell him how determined I am to be better.”
‘It’s time to wake up’
Renteria had rotator-cuff surgery in the middle of last season, something that couldn’t have waited until October. He spent the final weeks of the campaign in a sling, and he stopped making mound visits so he could take it easy and let his body heal.
So when he marched out of the dugout during a September game in Detroit, it was obviously rather important.
Reynaldo Lopez did not have a good year in 2019, no way to sugarcoat it. His numbers were ugly, but it was his repeated references to needing to focus that raised a few eyebrows and perhaps pointed to the root of his problems.
Well, in an effort to get Lopez to focus, Renteria paid him that potentially medically inadvisable mound visit.
“I wanted to make sure he was aware that he was actually pitching today,” Renteria said after the game.
Among other things during his trip to the hill, Renteria seemed to say, “it’s time to wake up,” and, “go to work.”
That was a particularly pointed discussion.
“Even though sometimes when you don’t do things good, if he has something to tell you, he’s going to tell you, but he won’t do it in a bad way,” Lopez said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “He’s going to do it always in a good way or trying to put your mind in a positive way, try to take those bad things, turn them around, learn from them and put them in a positive way.
“He’s always pushing you to do better, he’s always pushing you to pass through those moments. And that’s what you want. You want somebody that can help you, someone that can have your back. And he does. He does that for us.”
These kinds of conversations happen during the offseason, too.
Perhaps Hahn’s most meaningful move of his busy offseason was his first, bringing Yasmani Grandal aboard on a team-record contract. That gave the White Sox an upgrade at catcher and an experienced winner behind the plate. It also bumped James McCann to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart, hardly ideal for a guy who was an All-Star in 2019 and is about to embark on the all-important contract year.
“I’m sure he’s (saying) ‘Gosh, we just signed a guy and gave him a multiple-year contract. Where do I fit?’ Well, I made him understand,” Renteria said in November. “The conversation we had was, he knows how I feel about him. The whole organization knows how I feel about him. I love Mac.
“I wanted him to know that we’re going to make this work. I think that all players, when you make a change or add, they deserve to have a conversation with the man that is putting the lineup together.”
McCann might still be experiencing some understandable frustration. But at least he has a manager who he can trust will tell him what’s what.
“One of the things that I’ve said numerous times about Ricky is he’s a great communicator,” McCann said. “Whether that’s just communicating his feelings, communicating the lineup for the next day, his game plan for spring training, you’re never really left in the dark in regards to what’s happening. And in a game, a business, where there’s not a lot you can do as far as control as player, it does give you some control.”
“His ability to look ahead and communicate is really big for a player. It’s something that people don’t necessarily think about or know, but being able to communicate is a huge deal.”
‘You’re going to be an All-Star’
Giolito was, statistically, the worst pitcher in baseball in 2018.
His 6.13 ERA was the highest of any qualified starting pitcher in baseball. He gave up 118 earned runs, more than any pitcher in baseball. He walked 90 batters, more than any pitcher in the American League.
2019 went much better.
It was pretty unimaginable to predict the leap he made from one season to the next, when he revamped his entire approach to pitching to become an All-Star and the ace of the White Sox starting staff.
Unless you were his manager.
“I was having a rough stretch, like pretty much that entire year,” Giolito recalled, “and I remember we got into a hotel late one night and we ended up being in the same elevator. And he just patted me on the back and whispered, ‘I know you’re going to be an All-Star one day. I know you’re going to be an All-Star.’
“And I was like, ‘OK, I sure hope so.’”
Giolito expressed that last bit with the tone of, “OK, crazy guy.” And it did take an awful lot of faith to watch Giolito take the mound every fifth day in 2018 and still express the belief that he was destined for greatness.
Credit Giolito for doing the work last offseason to achieve his potential. Credit Renteria for never wavering in his confidence in Giolito.
“It’s unbelievable,” Giolito said. “I think that he has a really, really good way of detecting in his players: Where is their confidence at, where do they feel like they’re standing when it comes to their emotions around the game, when it comes to that self confidence?
“He’s really good at instilling that in you, especially when you’re having trouble doing it yourself.”
While Giolito was being jettisoned from fans’ projected White Sox rotation of the future, the guy who was supposed to be a centerpiece in their lineup of the future was giving people equal fits.
Yoan Moncada wasn’t having much success, either, and he finished his first full season in the major leagues with 217 strikeouts, one of the highest single-season totals in baseball history.
Moncada, like Giolito, is now a load-bearing building block of the White Sox future, emerging last season as the best all-around hitter on the team.
Renteria deserves a little credit for that, too.
“I do remember the first conversation that we had when I was called up,” Moncada said through Russo. “He told me, ‘Hey, just be relaxed, be confident in yourself. Don’t pressure yourself. Go step by step and slow down the game.’ And that’s what I did.
“It helped me, it helped me a lot. I understood right away what he was talking about. I took it, and I tried to apply it. He has helped me a lot during my development in the majors.”
‘A baseball rat’
Chicago sports fans will remember tales of Tom Thibodeau’s dedication to his job, his obsession with the game of basketball, his tendency to never leave work, to watch video into all hours of the night.
Well, Renteria shares some of those qualities.
Unlike Thibodeau, we can use other things to talk about Renteria, like that time he prepared a mean ceviche at SoxFest or the fact that he likes Motown. But yeah, what he really, really likes is baseball.
When you watch baseball on TV, every manager likes baseball. They like it for at least nine innings, for three hours at a time, 162 days a year.
Renteria likes it a little more than that.
“We have the benefit of seeing his undying passion and enthusiasm for the game, plus how diligent of a worker he actually is,” Hahn said. “We’ve had to talk to him over the years about how early he shows up on game day and how, as he’s gotten more comfortable with all the information that’s at his fingertips, he’s been able to sort of cut down a little bit of that time, but he still has such an enthusiasm for sitting down and watching videotape to reinforce what either our scouting reports or our analytical reports are.
“He digests all the information, and then he adds a little personal touch to it by going through it himself and seeing things firsthand with his own eyes.”
That work ethic has benefitted the White Sox during their rebuilding years, as Renteria went to great effort to get the development phase of the plan to work as well as it could. The team wouldn’t be in the place it is now, with realistic postseason expectations, without the breakout seasons from young core players in 2019.
The White Sox think Renteria’s work ethic will help them vault into winning mode, too.
“No matter what player is on the roster, one through 26,” Hahn said, “he spends a great deal of mental and physical energy trying to find a way to help that individual maximize what he is capable of doing and treats everybody across the board the same.
“He loves the game, and he loves work. He’s a baseball rat, to borrow a cliche from hoops.”
‘He can get excited’
People think they know their team’s manager because they see him all the time. So when friends and White Sox fans want to know what people on the team are like, they ask about the players, not about the manager.
They should ask about the manager.
Renteria’s genuine on TV, don’t get me wrong. But there’s a different side of him that doesn’t get broadcast, one that fans would get a kick out of seeing. He’s a high-energy guy. On the backfields during spring training, bounding through the clubhouse before a game, when everyone else is just sitting around waiting for baseball to happen, Renteria’s trying to make it happen.
“I’m not the best morning person,” Giolito said, “so we have our 9 a.m. meeting (during spring training). I’m stretching out, yawning a bit. And he comes in and he has a plan for what we’re talking about each meeting, very high energy.”
“I’ve been on enough flights with the man, especially after some ‘Ws,’ that you get to see that fun side of Ricky that the fans don’t get to see,” Hahn said. “Between 7 and 10 o’clock at night, when the game’s on the line and decisions have to be made and he’s trying to think two, three innings in advance, it might be difficult to see sort of that jovial or high-energy side come out when his mind’s working at that pace in game. But in the clubhouse, either before or after a game, or certainly when we travel, we get to see that lighter side of Ricky, which is beloved by players and staff members with every organization he’s been with.”
Because he takes his job seriously and he’s trying to win a baseball game every night, fans might think of him solely as a serious man. But ask around.
“He can get excited,” Moncada said. “He can get mad, too, but he’s one of those people who can make you laugh. You can joke around with him, but at the same time he can be strict, he can swing the hammer, too. He’s always looking for ways for us to feel comfortable around him and with the team, and that’s something that we appreciate because he’s always taking care of us. He’s always trying to make us feel loose, and that’s something you like.”
“He’s always leading the way as far as energy’s concerned. He brings it every day,” McCann said. “He’s always messing around. He’s always got a smile on his face. He’s always pushing guys, challenging guys. He gets it. That’s the big thing, he gets it.”
“Ricky’s a happy person,” Lopez said. “You won’t see him mad without reason. When we’re doing stuff, he’s with us, he’s laughing, he’s always trying to get the atmosphere loose for us and get us loose for the games and for our work. That’s good. I think there is no reason why you won’t like him.”
Little by little, that side is starting to make itself known publicly, too.
Who has been the one driving the playoff bus? Renteria, with his comments in interviews since the end of last season. Everyone’s expecting big things in 2020 after the offseason Hahn’s front office put together.
No one, though, is more excited than Renteria.
“As players, we’re already very excited about this year. The pieces are starting to come together, and we really want to start developing that winning culture,” Giolito said. “But when he talks about it and gets us going in these meetings, it’s on a whole other level.”
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