Nothing amuses Arroyo Grande (Calif.) High School athletic director Dwight MacDonald more these days than looking at the American League Central standings.
But scanning his baseball coaching roster with colleagues comes close.
"We have fun trying to figure out which assistant coach is going to the majors next year,'' MacDonald kidded Thursday.
To the delight of everybody at Arroyo Grande, the top step of the dugout at the school's baseball field inadvertently served as a steppingstone for White Sox manager Robin Ventura.
A year ago at this time, a Friday homecoming for Ventura meant barbecuing ribs as one of the more active parent volunteers before the big football game. A year later, the school's former unpaid assistant baseball coach returns to his native California as manager of the first-place Sox — and count his former boss among the few observers who saw this coming.
"It doesn't surprise me,'' said MacDonald, who coached youth basketball with Ventura. "What people don't realize because Robin's so calm and cool is his attention to detail and how much pride he takes in everything.''
To illustrate that, MacDonald likes telling his favorite story about the day Ventura shoveled dirt for hours in the rain to prepare a baseball field. By game time, the only thing MacDonald remembers more obvious than the mud all over Ventura's body was the smile on his face. That example has nothing to do with being a good major league manager but it says everything about the humility and hard work Ventura brought to the Sox.
The way Ventura combined his California cool and South Side grit helps explain why the Sox lead the AL Central with 13 games left. As caught off guard as Ventura acted when general manager Ken Williams offered the job, friends suggest he wasn't as unprepared as it seemed.
"I can remember Robin watching the Sox and seeing a guy like Adam Dunn struggle,'' Arroyo Grande baseball coach Brad Lachemann said. "He thought if he could have some time with a guy like that he might have an impact."
Lachemann's father, Marcel, is a former manager and now an Angels special assistant.
"I grew up around enough clubhouses to know guys would respond to a guy like Robin who knows what they're going through and has their backs,'' Lachemann said. "I know from my dad's experiences that being a major league manager is about relating to people.''
People in the quaint central California town of Arroyo Grande (pop. 17,252) savor Ventura's first-year success, one of baseball's best stories. They consider Ventura more theirs than ours. Two daughters attend college but Robin and Stephanie's youngest daughter, Grace, and son, Jack, remain in the Arroyo Grande school system. Ventura remains connected enough to buddies back home that when MacDonald sent a congratulatory text after the Yankees sweep, the reply was immediate.
"I see guys with White Sox hats I've never seen wearing White Sox hats,'' MacDonald said.
A large group of those fans plan to travel 200 miles south on Hwy. 101 to watch the Sox play the Angels, MacDonald said. Those who don't can stop by the Rooster Creek Tavern, an A's and Giants bar that televises every Sox game too out of loyalty to Ventura.
"He's loved here,'' tavern manager Eric Dematteo said. "Anybody who has lived in our community long enough knows Robin because he was so active."
So content was Ventura the philanthropist as part-time coach and full-time dad that his decision to take the Sox job stunned even close friends. Guys like Jim Abbott, the former Sox pitcher rooting against his favorite childhood team, the Tigers, because of Ventura.
"I knew he was so happy,'' said Abbott, a southern Californian who hopes to see Ventura this weekend. "But looking back as a teammate, I always thought he would be a great manager if he wanted. He has an equilibrium inside him we all marveled at.''
Guys like Kirk McCaskill, another former Sox pitcher who remembered apprehension in Ventura's voice the day he was hired. McCaskill kidded Ventura about having won nothing more than a youth volleyball title as a coach but quickly sensed the serious approach adopted by the teammate he recalled being "our leader in a clubhouse with lots of personalities and egos.''
"He knew the gravity of the position but thought, like some people, he needed time to manage elsewhere first,'' said McCaskill, who plans to trek north from San Diego for at least one Sox-Angels game. "But everybody convinced him he would be good at it.''
With the Sox on the brink of the playoffs a year after Ventura abruptly left the state that still misses him, looks like everybody was right.