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Robin Ventura wants White Sox to use last year as motivation

Ken Williams RobVenturenter SoxFest that’s lacking buzz it had last year. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

Ken Williams and Robin Ventura enter a SoxFest that’s lacking the buzz it had last year. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 28, 2012 8:22AM

What a difference 79-83 makes. SoxFest 2011 was “All in” and a contract extension for Ozzie Guillen. SoxFest 2012 is “Appreciate the game” and first-time, laid-back manager Robin Ventura. He played alongside the ruffled and riled Guillen with the White Sox 20 years ago, but his personality couldn’t be more different.

The Sox are in a semi-rebuilding phase because their $127 million payroll finished four games under .500 last season. How their “show me some wins before I show you my money” fan base is digesting all of this will be revealed at the annual fan convention, which opens today (4 p.m., CSN) at the Palmer House Hilton.

If talk-show buzz, Twitter chatter and column inches are the measuring sticks, expect a ho-hum mood. Sox fans trust general manager Ken Williams’ ability to put teams in a position to win, but they haven’t seen his rebuilding skills at work. The stream of poor ratings of the franchise’s farm system has created more pessimism than optimism.

While a large turnout of Sox players and personnel do their best to convince fans that the team will be worth watching, Ventura will try to convince his veterans to sell their souls for him. Any playoff hopes — which took another hit when Prince Fielder joined the Detroit Tigers this week — hinge on a good start. Another bad one would not only doom ticket sales, but likely prompt Williams to sell his remaining movable pieces.

“If you get off to a good start, the momentum can carry you in the right direction,’’ Ventura said Thursday.

Ventura knows the January buzz is nothing like it was last year, and it’s part of his job to get one going. He began by cautioning fans against basing expectations on 2011.

“I probably look at it different than they do, obviously,’’ Ventura said. “Fans want the big signings. They like the bells and whistles added to things. People focus on Adam [Dunn’s poor season], but I don’t see Adam repeating what happened last year. I’ve played against him and know what he’s capable of doing. That’s what I’m excited about.’’

Ventura said he knows from experience as a player that this Sox team should be motivated by its failures last season.

“When I had a year that I didn’t feel was my best, I felt obligated in the offseason to do things differently and try things,’’ he said. “You come in with a different mind-set than in other years. These guys are competitors.

“It can make guys press. But there seems to be a feeling that they can prove last year was an aberration. Going into spring training, there is motivation in that direction, and I like that.’’

“The key lies in Robin’s clubhouse,” a Sox source said. “Veteran guys have to take it upon themselves to find the fountain of youth with some old-fashioned hard work. The [World Series champion] Cardinals rallied behind their manager and played every single pitch with an intensity beyond belief. They won with a far less talented team.’’

Players say the Sox played in fear of Guillen from 2004 to ’07, keeping them on edge. But the creative tension lost its effectiveness after that.

Ventura and his staff have to find a way to get this team on edge, especially with the Tigers prowling in the American League Central. Few will give the Sox a chance, and perhaps they will feed off that.

Opening ceremonies begin at 4, with Bud Selig presenting Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf with the 2011 Commissioner’s Award for Philanthropic Excellence. Selig also will take questions from fans. In what is expected to be his only appearance, Williams will take questions with Ventura at the town hall meeting. Ventura and his staff will attend fan sessions Saturday and Sunday.

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