The days of SoxFest serving as the country’s purest form of democracy are long gone, but the current format and price tag still allows angry fans to vent. I’ve only attended one SoxFest, and that was for the infamous Q&A session where a fan asked Robin Ventura whether he had a pulse. Ventura answered in the affirmative, and his subtle, immediate facial contortion suggested he could have really proved it there, but discretion was always the better part of his valor.
There were no such fans to be found at the Hilton Chicago this weekend, at least if the microphone lines awaiting Rick Hahn and Rick Renteria were any indication.
SoxFest was an out-and-out LoveFest. I don’t say that with the derision that some reporters deploy, because fans should be expected to be fans, and those in attendance probably didn’t fork over hundreds of dollars out of anger.
Based on the sights and sounds over the weekend, it’s just a fan base that has turned the page on the previous era. Millennials wore pro-Hahn shirts and asked him for approval and autographs, and Baby Boomers thanked Renteria profusely for the watchable baseball. Don Cooper probably accounted for the majority of the weekend’s Chris Sale references in one seminar alone. While I didn’t have a 100 percent attendance rate in the ballroom, I only heard Fernando Tatis Jr.’s name at the very end of the weekend.
It helps that the Sox sport an abundant cast of personable prospects that seem to like each other, which stands in stark contrast to the way previous White Sox teams played a self-loathing brand of ball.
But the weekend was a showcase for Renteria more than any one figure.
Sorry, Snapchatting Nicky Delmonico.
Hahn topped Renteria in terms of fan worship, but we’re used to hearing his brand of messaging — relaxed yet disciplined, the combination of which yields self-deprecating jokes about his own cliches.
👻: whitesox pic.twitter.com/LQ5UqL3ls8
— Chicago White Sox (@whitesox) January 26, 2018
Renteria has fewer opportunities for this kind of direct connection, physically or philosophically, and explored the studio space. He gladly smiled for selfies outside of photo lines, and he expounded on his approach in great detail.
A few examples:
*On today’s podcast, you can listen to Renteria tell the story of Jose Abreu’s sudden defensive improvement at first. I can transcribe it, but you’ll get a better sense of how he conveys his pride in a player’s progress by listening.
*Renteria acknowledged the tension between avoiding the Times Through the Order Penalty and not burning out the bullpen, and the chances he’ll have to take with a starter for a shot of sparing a reliever. He also went into detail about an “outs, not innings” mindset for relievers in an attempt to demystify the eighth or ninth innings, and how Juan Minaya, Gregory Infante and Danny Farquhar were able to overcome early stumbles in high-leverage situations by getting multiple chances.
*Going back to the podcast, you can also get Renteria’s reaction to a fan asking him to defend the number of times the White Sox bunted. It turns out he couldn’t really defend the number either:
“Actually there were a couple of opportunities there where, to be honest, we didn’t put the bunt on. And our players thought they would be helping the club by executing the particular play there where to be honest we didn’t put the bunt on. And our players thought that they would be helping the club by executing that particular play. I don’t want to throw my players under the bus. Believe me, there were times when they came in after trying to bunt, I went, “OK, I really wanted you to try to swing the bat there, because I think you might be able to pop one.”
Renteria didn’t pin it all on his players, and he’d run afoul of the vigilant sabermetricians while elaborating. He said he wanted all of his players to know how to bunt, and he described himself as an old-school guy. But he also described himself as a consumer of information, cognizant of crooked numbers and the value of outs.
It’s complicated and imperfect, and that’s the case for just about every manager. Renteria acknowledged and seemed to welcome second-guessing and reevaluating, calling such discussions a big part of baseball.
Will his strategies shift? Alternatively, will he be openminded and openhearted in the face of mounting criticism? That remains to be seen, and that probably won’t be tested until another year. Over the span of 2018, he’ll still be judged foremost for his energy and positivity. Neither seem to be in doubt.
Regarding the former, Renteria said one of his goals was to show up later. He said he planned to be at the park at 11, which Hahn said was a revision from his initial vow to show up at noon. Zack Collins described Renteria as a guy who sounded like he’d been up for 10 hours by 7 a.m.
The White Sox’ big leaguers lauded him for his open lines of communication. White Sox prospects appreciated the way he treated them like big leaguers. Ozzie Guillen used to say he had no use for prospect updates, as it was his job to focus on the 25 men in his clubhouse. That idea has merit some years, but not now. Here, Hahn said Renteria already had 2020 lineups on his office whiteboard, which is the lead item for the “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” portion of next season’s yearbook.
One year in, relatability is a big part of Renteria’s appeal, and not just because he may geek out over similar things. Fans can actually connect what people say about him with what they can see and hear themselves. That doesn’t sound like much, but Ventura was inscrutable even in his best days, and fans couldn’t detect the difference he made around the time his team stopped taking infield before games.
Lest it sound that I’m revisiting Ventura’s excruciating decline, I’m more interested in what it says about Renteria. The maxim is that the new manager is brought in to be the opposite of the last guy, and I keep finding new ways that’s true. Perhaps that highlights the unfathomable depths the previous situation sank to, but it’s probably best to follow SoxFest’s lead and turn the page. In due time, Renteria will be judged on his own merit, with the spotlight bringing his flaws into starker relief. Until then, keep enjoying the honeymoon. It’s bad form to complain that it lasted too long.
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