"I was putting my foot in the water working with Buddy, easing my way back in there," said Ventura during a Thursday evening conference call announcing the one-time White Sox Gold Glove winner and All-Star as the team's 39th manager, taking the spot vacated by Ozzie Guillen, Ventura's close friend and former teammate.
"Now I've jumped in the deep end," added Ventura with a laugh. "But I can swim."
To say Ventura was a surprise hire is an understatement. Possible candidates such as Davey Martinez, Sandy Alomar Jr., Ryne Sandberg, Terry Francona, Tony La Russa and Joe McEwing were tossed about, analyzed and then favorites were broken down, with one eye turned to the four American League and National League Division Series to see when these managers-in-waiting would become available.
That surprise was reserved for everyone outside of the organization. For general manager Ken Williams, as he looked at the long list of Guillen replacements on the left side of his ledger, only two or three names made their way on to the right side as finalists. Ventura held the main focus of those remaining three, with the offer presented by Williams and Bell last week.
"It's important to note he's been on my specific list for a long time," said Williams during Thursday's conference call. "I started interviewing Robin from 1994-98 [when he was a player], but he just didn't know it.
"Those follow-up interviews and conversations happened in years that followed. He's one of the classiest people in this game, a very smart person and the man we need for this position at this time."
Williams admitted that the organization was able to have non-specific conversations about the next White Sox manager for some time. Guillen, who was hired by Williams to replace Jerry Manuel before the 2004 season, made it known last September that the team could be in the position it actually found itself in when Guillen was let out of his contract two days before the close of the 2011 campaign.
There was a specific list of criteria used by Williams in finalizing this process. Those requirements included having a passion for the city and the organization and a drive to win another World Series championship, as well as possessing the leadership and communicative ability that will translate into working with young players who are still trying to find themselves and veteran players trying to rediscover their old form.
Each one of those ideas fit Ventura perfectly, according to Williams.
"He has ability to discipline with a serious tone and with a sense of humor, making for a professional and fun environment to come to the ballpark," said Williams of Ventura. "He has familiarity with the teaching of our Minor League system, and he has the confidence and strength to suggest better ways to accomplish our goals.
"We hire people not to tell us what we want to hear, but people who are strong enough and confident enough to disagree if they think we are wrong. And Robin has an old-school attitude about the game but is progressive and open-minded to blend in sabermetric value.
"In our estimation, Robin has never been off of our radar."
Ventura's addition marks the 17th former player to manage the club. Ventura was the 10th pick overall by the White Sox in the first round of the 1988 First-Year Player Draft, and the third baseman spent 16 Major League seasons with the White Sox (1989-98), New York Mets (1999-2001), New York Yankees (2002-03) and Los Angeles Dodgers (2003-04), playing for a managerial list that included Jeff Torborg, Bobby Valentine and Joe Torre, while winning six Gold Gloves and becoming a two-time All-Star.
Of his 2,079 career games, during which he posted a .267 average with 294 homers and 1,182 RBIs, as well as 18 grand slams, Ventura played in 1,254 games over 10 seasons for the White Sox. Not only was he a top performer, landing in the top 10 of five specific franchise statistical categories, but Ventura was also a consummate pro and leader on and off the field.
With that time spent in Chicago, Ventura fits another criteria set out by Williams in that he understands the White Sox fan base.
"Robin is one of the most popular and highly regarded players in this franchise's history," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf in a statement regarding the hire. "From the very first day he put on a White Sox uniform, it was apparent that Robin was a born leader. Those leadership skills were obvious to staff, players, media who covered him, and certainly to the fans of Chicago. We saw those skills again this summer as he visited and worked with our Minor League players.
"You will not find a better teammate, leader and friend. His ability to motivate and lead others will be a terrific attribute as manager. I loved him as a player, from his baseball knowledge, to his professionalism, to how he went about his business in the clubhouse and on the diamond. Robin exudes class in everything he does."
Hiring Ventura does not come with unrealistic expectations. Aside from his work with Bell, Ventura has never held another professional job. But the White Sox and Ventura are confident he'll be able to handle the learning curve of this important new job.
"I was very clear with him that we don't expect him to be Tony La Russa on Day 1," Williams said. "The fit is such that it all can come together and we'll ultimately be better off down the line than we would be if we went in a different direction."
"One thing I'll hang my hat on is coming to work and playing hard," Ventura said. "As far as other stuff, it goes on to what's happening during the season. I have a passion for this organization. This was the only place I would feel this way about."