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Sox players embrace Robin Ventura as rookie skipper asserts control

CHICAGO IL - MAY 02: Chicago White Sox ClevelIndians U.S. Cellular Field May 2 2012 Chicago Illinois. (Phoby Jonathan Daniel/Getty

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 02: of the Chicago White Sox of the Cleveland Indians at U.S. Cellular Field on May 2, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Updated: July 3, 2012 12:02PM

The question is simple: Who is really in charge?

“Robin,’’ reliever Matt Thornton said without giving a second thought.

“Robin, no doubt,’’ starting pitcher John Danks insisted. “In here, Robin.’’

Pitcher, hitter, catcher, coach, trainer; it doesn’t matter whom you ask in the White Sox clubhouse, the answer is the same, and it comes with no hesitation.

Four or five months ago? It was an open question.

Perception or reality, it didn’t quite matter. The facts were the facts. When Robin Ventura was hired after never having managed or coached at any level, all that was missing at his introductory news conference was a big fuzzy head thrown on him as the team’s newest mascot.

That perception was out there with good reason.

General Manager Ken Williams had won the power struggle with former manager Ozzie Guillen, and pitching coach Don Cooper was already in place with a four-year deal.

“They were offering the manager a three-year contract, with half the staff in place already,’’ one rumored candidate said. “Who wants to come on when the pitching coach has a longer contract than you?’’

On the outside, the hiring of Ventura was as just a face; a puppet.

And don’t think he wasn’t concerned about that perception when he met with Williams and chairman Jerry Reinsdorf when they visited California and offered him the job.

“Oh yeah, I was concerned about that,’’ Ventura admitted. “I think that was a question that was asked because it was so, for lack of a better expression, outside the box. I asked Kenny that. In going over everything that’s there, 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.

“You go back to where I was and then you start thinking about doing this, you want to make sure you are doing it the way you want to do it.’’

Two months into the regular season, the curtain on the South Side has been pulled back. Ventura is no one’s marionette. It’s his show, and it’s a show that’s playing to rave reviews with the Sox battling the Cleveland Indians atop the Central Division.

“He gives us the freedom to be us and do our thing, but there is definitely a boundary,’’ Danks said. “He’s the boss, and he’s done a good job of being the boss. No one is going to cross Robin knowing that not only him, but the entire staff will come down on you.’’

But not everything is as it seems with Ventura.

His pre- and postgame news conferences are often like two minutes of Valium. That’s partly his personality and partly by design.

“One of my favorite comments I remember hearing a long, long time ago was don’t mistake kindness for weakness,’’ Thornton said. “Just because someone is nice doesn’t mean they are weak. That’s what you get with Robin.

“There’s more to him than what people thought. People thought, ‘OK, we’re just getting a Sox guy who is the opposite of Ozzie.’ Sure, with the media he is the opposite of Ozzie. But what he expects is the same thing Ozzie expected when he was here. Ozzie had a different way of portraying it, different way of pushing buttons, but it was the same thing.’’

Not that Ventura has found the going easy. Even in talking to dozens of current and former managers, there was nothing that could prepare him for what this gig requires.

“I knew kind of the enormity of it, but you don’t know it until you do it,’’ Ventura said. “You can not 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 this job that just doesn’t stop. It’s continuous, because that’s the position.’’

Nothing has pulled on Ventura harder than the death of coach/instructor Kevin Hickey.

Hickey was found unresponsive and in a coma in his hotel room on Opening Day and died two weeks ago.

“I mean you come into your first day [of the regular season] and a staff member goes into a coma,’’ Ventura said. “It’s like, come on. After that everything is pretty simplistic. When you’re dealing with big picture stuff, this is just baseball.’’

As well as Ventura and the Sox have handled the Hickey situation, the Chris Sale saga from earlier this month seemed a mess. Elbow pain had the starter in and out of the rotation for over a week, and the loudest voice in what was going on was Cooper’s. It was Cooper that went on the Jim Bowden radio show and broke the news that Sale was getting an MRI.

Some in the organization weren’t thrilled with that, as the question of who’s in charge again jumped out into the court of public opinion.

“He’s doing that more as the pitching coach, and I understand what he was doing,’’ Ventura said of Cooper. “It’s not an issue with us. It may be on the outside, but it’s about him being here as long as he has. And he’s going to do talk shows, that doesn’t bother me.’’

Ventura equated Cooper to an offensive coordinator on a football team that has a lot of say. More than most offensive coordinators in the league.

“I don’t feel like I have to be the smartest man in the room and have my thumb on everything,’’ Ventura said. “The final say is mine. I have that, which is what I need. I need all these guys to have input. I need them in the conversation in whatever decision I’m going to make. It’s too hard to have all the ego stuff in the way in trying to reach the correct decision.’’

That’s why Ventura hasn’t been bothered by the idea of Cooper’s deal being longer than his own.

“I never even think about my deal, his deal,’’ Ventura said. “It’s about what we’re doing. For me in the end, whenever I’m gone, I’m gone. If they don’t want me to do this anymore, I just go back to what I was doing.’’

Which is not even a thought right now.

Ventura is not just a manager. He’s the Sox manager, period. Big difference. Whether it’s the three years on the existing contract or longer, elsewhere is not an option.

“It would be very different for me to do this for someone else,’’ Ventura said. “If I’m not doing it here, I’m probably going home. It sounds a little crazy, but even if I manage here for seven, eight years, it probably doesn’t fit somewhere else. This fits for me, it’s comfortable, as odd as it is. Not that I can’t do it. It becomes want. This is where I fit.’’

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