For Ventura, return to Queens a 'homecoming'
Along with White Sox manager, two of his coaches played for Mets
NEW YORK -- The White Sox in Queens. Why, it's unprecedented! And it hadn't happened before, either. Does this visit of the pale hose qualify as historic? It must. As mundane as it is in this era of cross-pollination of the American and National League, a first visit qualifies. There's a first time for everything, even developments that are mostly routine.
Nothing historic, however, for White Sox manager Robin Ventura and two of his coaches. Ventura, Joe McEwing and Daryl Boston are quite familiar with Queens. No matter that their time as members of the Mets predated Citi Field, this Interleague series is "something like a homecoming," Ventura said Tuesday. "But it's more about the faces you remember."
And the ones that are not accurately recalled.
So it was Tuesday that former Mets reliever John Franco walked on to the field at the Big Citi and recognized his former teammate.
"There's the skipper," Franco said aloud as he approached ... well, as he approached Jeff Manto, the Sox batting coach.
"Happens all the time," Manto said. "Every day, people get us confused."
But Franco and Ventura were teammates for three seasons. Then again, the resemblance of manager and coach -- particularly around the eyes -- is remarkable.
Two Mets employees who worked at Shea Stadium during Ventura's tour of duty mistook Manto for the Sox manager.
"Jeff just goes with it now," Ventura said, "Rather than try to explain it, he just signs my name or plays the part."
"Unless they're rude," Manto says, "Then I blow them off. And Robin has new enemies."
Manto never played with the Mets, though he was in their training camp in 1993 (as was Franco). He came to know Ventura through McEwing, Manto's brother-in-law. He too has a connection to the Mets, albeit an indirect one. Manto played with the Indians in 1990. He played some first base, mostly because Keith Hernandez couldn't. Hernandez's lone venture into the AL was an unfitting finale to a great career. His back and his performances were bad. But he did help Manto learn some of the nuances of the position.
"I was with the Phillies in the Minor Leagues a few years later," is how Manto's story goes. "I'm at first on some bunt play, and I played it the way Keith had suggested. After the inning, the manager calls me over: 'What the hell was that play?' He wasn't real happy.
"So I explained. And he says, 'Who the hell told you to do that?' And I said, 'Keith Hernandez.' He looks at me and says, 'Well, then you do that from now on. Hear?"
Super Joe McEwing, was a quality understudy with the Mets who was quite popular among his teammates and, really, anyone who came in contact with him. When Andrew Brown, the Mets' right fielder, came to bat Tuesday night, someone in the press box asked, "How could they give Super Joe's number  to Andrew Brown?"
It was McEwing who is recalled for, among other things, his take on 9/11. The Mets were in Pittsburgh when the attacks happened.
"I got up and didn't know anything," he said that day. "Then I opened the curtains in my room and looked across the street at the federal building. Soldiers were carrying M-1's. I said 'Uh oh, something's wrong.'"
Most of Boston's experiences with the Mets were of a much happier and lighter nature. He was a happy guy. Boston joined the Mets in Atlanta May 1, 1990, after he'd been claimed off waivers from the White Sox. Soon after his arrival, an enterprising reporter escorted he and Dwight Gooden to Darryl Strawberry's locker and placed Gooden between the two outfielders.
"OK, Doc, you're on," the reporter said.
Advised of the "Newhart" show and, as he had been coached, Gooden said, "Hi, I'm Larry. This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl."
Boston laughed about it again Tuesday.
Ventura created more than his share of Mets memories in his relatively brief tenure with the team. His mimicking of Mike Piazza on the wet tarpaulin at Yankee Stadium during a rain delay on June 11, 2000, was priceless. Some folks actually -- and mistakenly -- thought Piazza was the player wearing No. 31. As if he would ever would be so spontaneous and carefree.
Ventura and Todd Zeile had posted a large star with the No. 24 inside it on the left-center-field wall at Shea to mark the longest single in Mets' history on May 13 that year. It was something of an ominous gesture. They were having fun at the expense of Rickey Henderson, who had reached only first base after hitting a ball to the wall the previous night. Before many folks saw their handiwork, the star was removed and Henderson was released.
As a player, Ventura routinely demonstrated he had a Jiminy Cricket conscience. His ethics were recognized by the White Sox when they chose to appoint him as their manager. The episode with Henderson and one other paint a picture of the conscience and patience which apply in his current job.
It was in the summer of 2000 again. Ventura arrived as Shea and found an unfamiliar fella at the gate to the players' parking lot. He was denied entry. The guard said, "That'll be $7." Ventura being who he was, paid to park.
Piazza followed him. He, too, was told to pay. But he whizzed by instead. That episode certainly showed the marked difference between the two players. The little things never perturbed Ventura. The big things ... well, he could be pushed just so far (see Nolan Ryan, headlock, etc.) But Ventura usually found some good in most experiences.
Indeed, he recalled Tuesday that the Mets won and he had a productive game after he paid to park.
"So," he said, "I paid each game for the rest of the homestand ... I figured it was a bargain -- three hits and a win for seven bucks."
His Sox are last in the AL Central. And he's got an extra seven bucks in his pocket.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.