So maybe Rick Renteria will never be known as a master tactician, a La Russian runner of bullpens, a Hall of Fame-caliber manager.
That doesn’t erase the ugly lens through which baseball views him:
Good enough to run a team until the team gets good.
Renteria was fired Monday morning, shown the door for the second time in six years by a Chicago baseball club crawling from the depths of a miserable rebuild.
In 2014, it was the Cubs, who handed Renteria the job and a pitching staff that would finish 13th in the National League in ERA, its top starter, Travis Wood, lugging a 5.03 ERA through 30 starts.
Though he increased the Cubs’ win total from 66 to 73, Renteria was gone after one year. And the new guy, Joe Maddon, had all kinds of shiny gifts to open: A $155 million ace, Jon Lester. A Rookie of the Year and future MVP, Kris Bryant. A fully reborn Jake Arrieta and future All-Stars in Javy Baez and Addison Russell.
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Rick Renteria went 236-309 in four seasons with the White Sox. (Photo: David Richard, USA TODAY Sports)
A year later, Maddon led the Cubs to the World Series title, he and the executive suite led by Theo Epstein lauded for “turning around” a club that lost 101 games as recently as 2012.
Renteria? The White Sox hired him in 2017 after the ineffectual Robin Ventura regime and handed him a rotation including Derek Holland (6.20 ERA), Mike Pelfrey (5.93) and James Shields (5.23).
They lost 95 games, would lose 100 a year later, but, after an 89-loss 2019, gave him some tools to work with. Dallas Keuchel would join forces with All-Star Lucas Giolito. The trade of Jose Quintana forced Renteria through many grim nights of terrible pitching but now, promising outfielder Eloy Jimenez, acquired for Quintana, would play his first full season. International star Luis Robert arrived.
And despite a still-thin pitching staff, the White Sox won 35 of 60 games in pandemic ball and reached the postseason for the first time since 2008.
And that meant it was time for Renteria to go.
Rick Hahn made no bones about it even if he didn’t say it out loud Monday: A.J. Hinch, probably, will play Maddon to Renteria’s Renteria once Hinch’s one-year suspension for his part in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal is up. A prettier model arrived on the showroom floor so, once again, so Renteria is shipped to the used-car lot.
This is no new pattern, of course. GMs may hire a manager who really isn’t Their Guy, but rather is asked to withstand the hard times before a true No. 1 choice is identified.
There’s a reason for this: Losing sucks. Even in a year when expectations are low, failure breeds tension, which breeds distrust, which creates communication breakdowns. It is why proven managers carefully choose their destinations, avoiding even the shiniest franchises if it seems the runway to success is too long.
Yet in the wake of Renteria’s two-time two-timing by Second City franchises, it’s fair to ask: Who gets placed in these untenable positions? And who bounces back from them to get more plum assignments?
When he was hired in 2017, Renteria, a Mexican-American, was the lone Latino manager in the game. Since then, Alex Cora and Dave Martinez, both of Puerto Rican descent, have managed teams to World Series titles. You’d think that would speak well of MLB franchises’ hiring practices, but it does not.
Martinez had been highly regarded since 2008, when he began a stint as Maddon’s bench coach in Tampa Bay. He had to wait a decade for his shot.
Cora practically broke down the door, very highly regarded as the bench coach on Hinch’s Houston Astros teams, and the Red Sox pounced on him before another team could.
Hinch and Cora both served one-year suspensions this year for their roles in the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, which brings us to another root of this problem.
The Astros’ biggest imprint on baseball, incredibly, may not be the sign-stealing scandal but rather the enhanced “tanking” model that “inspired” so many teams to take several steps back in hopes of stockpiling young talent (while also saving a ton of money).
It’s easy to forget that now-disgraced Astros GM Jeff Luhnow’s first managerial hire was not Hinch but Bo Porter, who was handed a 107-loss team that, filled with unfinished and ill-fitting parts, lost 111 games.
He was fired in Year 2, the club 59-79 and suffering from communication breakdowns at multiple levels. Luhnow made few bones about checking out on Porter early, not even informing him that the club’s top pitching prospect, Mark Appel, was headed to Minute Maid Park for a workout, a scenario that created a rift with veteran players.
Porter, who is Black, has not yet managed again. Neither has Manny Acta, a native of the Dominican Republic who performed ably with some terrible teams in Washington and Cleveland. It’s somewhat fitting that in 2009, Acta was given a hideous pitching staff with which to work in Washington, and fired two weeks after the drafting of Stephen Strasburg No. 1 overall, the first glimmer after a five-year non-plan sputtered in D.C.
This isn’t to say no managers of color get a real, second chance. Fredi Gonzalez was hired to manage a good Braves team in 2011 after making do with some disjointed Marlins clubs for four years in Miami. He took the Braves to the playoffs twice; we’ll see if he gets a third chance.
More often, as a manager of color, you better be great immediately – and have the horses. Had the San Francisco Giants not tabbed Dusty Baker to manage in 1993 – the same year Barry Bonds signed with the club – there’s a decent chance we wouldn’t be singing his praises today, for a Hall of Fame dugout career that’s seen him guide five franchises to the playoffs.
This is why Cora will get another shot: He did amazing things with an amazing ballclub, the 119-win Red Sox. Right place, right time, kind of like Dave Roberts, who may become the first Black manager to win a World Series this year after five years with a usually stacked Dodgers team.
Other managers are rarely so fortunate. And it’s worth asking who it is we place into the no-win cauldron of managing a tanking team, and who we hire to push a more finished product over the finish line.
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