From the Pages of Vine Line: Moving forward with Rick Renteria
(Photo by Dave Durochik)
This offseason, the Cubs named former Padres bench coach Rick Renteria the 53rd manager in the organization’s history. Though he’s a first-time major league skipper, Renteria is a baseball lifer, spending the last 30 years in the game in some capacity. This month, Vine Line sat down with the 52-year-old to get a better understanding of his philosophy, his take on the job and much more. The following can be found in the January issue of Vine Line.
You could call it a premonition.
About 10 years ago, with the Cubs in the early stages of a successful run that saw them claim the NL Central crown three times in six years, Rick Renteria was coaching his son’s baseball team when one of the moms, who happened to be from Chicago, mentioned he would make a great manager for the North Siders. Perhaps it was his calm demeanor or the way he patiently explained things to the young players, but something struck a chord with her.
Renteria didn’t think much of it, but the conversation stuck with him over the years.
“Well, I hope she had a premonition that we’re going to have a lot of success,” joked the 52-year-old California native, who was recently named the 53rd manager in Cubs franchise history.
Renteria, a 30-year baseball veteran who has spent the last three seasons as the bench coach for manager Bud Black’s San Diego Padres, wasn’t the most likely choice or the highest-profile name out there. But what that team mom said a decade ago turned out to be surprisingly prescient. The first-time big league manager joins the Cubs organization with a reputation as a relentless optimist and an experienced shaper of young talent. And he might be the perfect fit for a team that is looking for a new voice and is stacked with high-upside young prospects just a year or two away from the major leagues.
Though Renteria is well aware of the Cubs’ recent history, it’s not his style to dwell on the past. It’s his job to take a franchise in the midst of a youth movement and help it improve and move forward. He credits much of his positive coaching style to his former Single-A manager Johnny Lipon, who coached Renteria at Single-A Alexandria in his third professional season in 1982.
“[He was] the most positive individual I’ve ever seen,” Renteria said of Lipon. “Here’s a guy who was a shortstop with the Detroit Tigers in a different era. He was an infielder. His demeanor was one that kept moving you forward, and that stayed and resonated with me.”
Renteria was officially hired on Nov. 7, 2013, but he didn’t make his first appearance at Wrigley Field until Dec. 5 because of offseason hip surgery. In his initial foray in front of the Chicago media, he certainly lived up to his reputation as an excellent communicator and an easy guy to get along with.
“I was struck by how comfortable I was watching him,” said President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein of Renteria. “Normally when you hire somebody new, and he meets the media for the first time, you’re kind of holding your breath to make sure he doesn’t put his foot in his mouth. We’ve worked with Ricky for a month now, and I was totally comfortable. I was actually checking emails while he was talking because I feel I already trust who he is as a human being. He comes from a genuine place, he’s extremely intelligent, relates to people really well, so it’s nice to really trust somebody in that role.”
The Cubs’ new hire has spent his early days as manager reaching out to his new players by phone or text and filling out his first coaching staff. He’s planning to head out to Arizona soon to see the new practice facility firsthand and to start working with his coaches on a plan for Spring Training. Vine Line was there for Renteria’s introduction to the Chicago media, at which he opened up about his plans for 2014, his notoriously positive disposition and his previous relationship with Cubs GM Jed Hoyer.
Vine Line: What was it that made you want to take the job here in Chicago? You may have heard from guys like Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella, this can be a difficult place to manage.
Rick Renteria: It’s a wonderful city, first of all. But the team that’s out there, the kids that are here, as you’re watching from the other side, they’re a very talented group. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to be here and be with this particular club. I’m looking forward to hopefully moving things forward and chipping away at whatever we need to chip away at to continue to advance the process. It’s just a great challenge. It’s a great opportunity.
VL: Is there any overall philosophical difference we’re going to notice from the first days of Spring Training?
RR: I think everybody comes in probably not trying to reinvent the wheel. We want guys that are going to give us great effort, guys that are going to hustle, guys that are going to prepare. I’m sure these are things that everybody asks of their players. They’re young players. [They need to understand] that, as professionals, this is part of who they’re supposed to be. We want to be a club that’s going to be aggressive on the bases, that’s going to be smart, that’s not going to be reckless. A club that’s going to hopefully continue to grind through at-bats, execute, and get beyond falling into the trap of if you get a bad call against you, you get bothered and that you continue to add to that spiral by not finishing out a plate appearance or a tactical hit or whatever the case might be. A club that’s there to pick each other up.
Hopefully, these guys come together as a kind of family. I think if you have that, you start to build your own chemistry, and it can be a strength.
VL: You said in your initial press conference that you think the team can compete this year. The Cubs lost 96 games last year and haven’t made significant improvements yet. What’s going to be different in 2014?
RR: Well, I can’t speak to the losses of the past. My mentality has always been to continue to move forward. What we can do is learn from that experience. What occurred? What kind of mentalities did we have? What approaches did we have? What were the things that occurred during a particular ballgame that maybe changed the dynamic of that particular ballgame? Those are the things we have to study and retrack and retrace and use to our advantage.
The players we have, they’re intelligent. They’re gifted. Starlin Castro, [Darwin] Barney, [Anthony] Rizzo. You had a combination of guys at third base with [Luis] Valbuena and [Donnie] Murphy. Then you had Welington Castillo and Junior Lake, who came up later on during the year. These are guys that have talent. [Ryan] Sweeney. Nate Schierholtz is an experienced player who’s been around a little bit. You have the makeup of a club that can do some things. I think you’re playing in the big boy division [in the NL Central]. We all grew up wanting to play against the big guys. Well, here we are. That’s our lot. That’s the challenge. We have to accept it and do what we can with it and move forward.
VL: This is a team that’s going through some growing pains right now. So how is a guy with your positive disposition going to manage that?
RR: I try to maintain an even-keeled approach. No player wants to go out there and fail. They want to do well, and I think I understand that. We know that the game is about the players and that sometimes we need to help them through those moments when things aren’t going very well. Hopefully, we’re able to articulate what it is they need to do to improve, whether it’s their approach or if it’s a physical action that we’re able to address and help them move forward.
VL: Did you put your coaching staff together with that in mind?
RR: I think so. Speaking to all of the [coaches], their attitudes are extremely positive. They’re going to bring in the idea of wanting to continue to teach. Sometimes we forget that players still want to learn. They’re never not learning. We have to be able to present a consistent message. I think all these guys that are going to come on board have that ability.
VL: You talk of being even-keeled. Do you have a temper?
RR: Oh, I can get hot. Any competitor can get hot. You’ve got to pick your spots. I don’t think players appreciate people just losing it for the sake of losing it. Will I do it for the sake of people watching me do it? No. You may not see me do it at all, but I can’t guarantee that. When it happens, it’s got to be the right time. Those things kind of take care of themselves. It’s a feel thing. If you’re a guy that’s pretty even-keeled and then you end up losing it, [players] understand that you mean business, that it means a little bit more. But, for the most part, I think conversations need to be had behind closed doors.
VL: This organization has a lot of potential stars that are perhaps a year or so away. Have you looked at some of those players, and how excited are you to manage them down the road?
RR: Obviously, I’m very excited about the guys we have right now. And I look at the players that are coming, and we have some talent in the organization. They’ve done a wonderful job in drafting and selecting some of these players. Right now, my focus is going to continue to be on the guys that are here. They’re extremely talented, and—it’s like anything—they have to put it forward between the lines.
I think if we maintain a consistent and positive message, we’ll be able to have some of these players do what they’re capable of doing. There are peaks and valleys, but that’s where, as a manager and a coaching staff, we have to remain even-keeled and give them an opportunity to keep moving forward.
VL: Castro has been in that valley for a while. What’s your approach to turning a young veteran like that around?
RR: People ask me about Starlin, and I watch him from the other side and think, “Gosh, what a tremendously gifted athlete.” First of all, I’ve got to get to know him as a person, and I have to figure out what it is that moves him. He’s a wonderful kid. I actually was able to speak to him at length. He was one of the first guys I called, and he’s willing to do anything we ask him to do. I know people talk about him losing focus and having bad at-bats and things of that nature, and we have to address those things.
Sometimes we don’t have conversations thinking we don’t want to have a confrontation or maybe we won’t like the answer we’re going to get. But the reality is you have to have dialogue. The only way you can improve things is to converse and to try to [give players] a plan or an idea of how they can move forward. That’s one of the things we’re going to have to do as teachers. The whole coaching staff is going to have to approach this as being teachers.
VL: What’s your take on using advanced metrics to influence pitching decisions, defensive positioning and the like?
RR: I think all information is actually quite useful. It’s how you decipher it and how you use it—how you apply it. If you limit your understanding, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I use numbers. I’ve used numbers since I was in the minor leagues. I used to keep numbers on my board when people weren’t using numbers. But it’s how you use them and how you apply them [that determines] how beneficial they really are.
It’s basically consequences and outcomes. It’s telling you what guys have been doing. Sometimes you still have to put your eyes on those guys to have an idea of what they’re doing at that particular moment. You can’t limit yourself. You’ve got to use a combination.
VL: You have a reputation for connecting with young players. In your career, you’ve done just about everything. You’ve played, you’ve managed in the minor leagues, you’ve coached in the major leagues. Is that what allows you to understand what players are going through?
RR: Probably that and probably the idea that, you know, I was pretty much a grunt coming up through the systems [as a player]. I fought and hustled through every ground out and everything I could possibly do to play this game. I understand and appreciate the privilege it is to be here as a player. I understand that most people when they come out to see a ballgame, they want to see somebody give you a good effort—beyond winning. They want to know that you’re invested in what it is you’re doing. Hopefully, that comes out in how I approach the players, because I am invested in this.
VL: Describe your relationship with Jed Hoyer. You worked together in the Padres organization. Is that familiarity one of the factors that made you want to come here?
RR: Jed, you know, was in San Diego. And when he was there, we used to have conversations when he’d come down to talk to Buddy [Black] and what have you. For me, it’s nice to be in a familiar setting, knowing the people I’m going to be working for, or alongside. That played a factor in how things progressed. I expressed that this was the place I wanted to be. I saw the makeup of what’s coming up. I like who we have here now, and I think it’s going to be something that we can move forward.
VL: Everybody has an opinion about playing at Wrigley Field. You’ve been here as a player and as a coach. What was your take on this place as an outsider?
RR: Awesome. I don’t think there’s any player that ever comes into Chicago thinking, “This is a bad place to play.” We loved coming here. Everybody does. It’s a great city. The fans are always there. Even if they’re booing against you, at least you know everybody’s in it. That’s a tremendous asset for this team to have, quite frankly. Their home-field advantage is their community—is their fan base. When we understand it and use it and take it to our advantage and really understand how it works, hopefully we’ll be able to articulate that message, and we’ll get it, and we’ll be able to do some things that make the fans feel really good.