Kenny Williams was exchanging small talk with some writers in the White Sox’ dugout before a game when a latecomer joined the group and nudged the discussion in a more serious direction.
“Are you taking questions?” he asked Williams.
The formerly embattled general manager rolled his eyes and feigned exasperation. “Why would you want to talk to me?” Williams said. “The story is the guys on the field.”
Well, yes and no. Adam Dunn’s recapturing the power stroke that seemed gone for good as he flailed his way to a .159 average and 11 home runs last year is certainly a compelling tale.
Alex Rios’ numbers weren’t as awful as Dunn’s, but he looked nearly as lost at the plate before refashioning a batting stance that has turned him into a line-drive machine.
For three years Jake Peavy heard talk that he’d never regain the Cy Young-quality stuff that earned him pitching’s highest honor in 2007, but he has worked (and willed) his way onto the American League All-Star team.
Dunn, Rios, Peavy. Each of those payroll-gobbling acquisitions represented a leap of faith for Williams and a roll of the economic dice for a franchise that watches every dollar. When they didn’t immediately pan out, Williams was derided as a front-office charlatan, that 2005 championship dismissed as a happy accident.
But Williams’ White Sox were a first-place team as he chatted with reporters on an oven-hot afternoon, and even his most persistent critics had to acknowledge that two of Williams’ riskiest off-season moves were paying off:
— By allowing franchise icon Mark Buehrle to depart for Miami, he saved $58 million and opened a spot in the rotation for Chris Sale. Who knew the spaghetti-thin, 22-year-old lefty would pitch his way onto the All-Star team and into Cy Young consideration?
— Williams all but helped Ozzie Guillen pack after finally outlasting his chatterbox manager in an enervating power struggle. To replace the hot-wired Guillen, Williams chose low-key Robin Ventura, Guillen’s polar opposite. Ventura hadn’t spent a day in a major league dugout since retiring as a player in 2004, but he has been a calming presence in what had been a testy clubhouse.
To complete a makeover Williams refused to describe as rebuilding, he said goodbye to Guillen favorite Juan Pierre and traded closer Sergio Santos and slugger Carlos Quentin for mid-level prospects. The resulting new look did not seem promising; some of the most reputable publications out there pegged the White Sox for 95 losses and a fifth-place finish.
So they hit the All-Star break in first place, sitting on a three-game lead they built by winning nine in a row at one stretch and five of six on a home-stand leading up to the break. The crowds are grudgingly starting to respond—the Sox averaged 26,910 for two series with Texas and Toronto that closed the first half, up from the 22,518 they’d drawn for 40 previous home dates.
With an entire second half to play and powerful Detroit starting to rumble, Williams knows better than to gloat—not that it’s his style. He says he’s not as surprised by the Sox’ performance as he was by the gloom-and-doom forecasts that suggested the season wasn’t worth playing.
“I’d watch in spring training,” Williams said, “and I’d ask (front-office associates) Rick Hahn and Buddy Bell, ‘Am I missing something?’ I thought we had a chance to be pretty good.”
“As bad as things were last year, we were pretty much a .500 team and would have been if the last week hadn’t got away from us. With certain guys performing the way you’d expect them to perform, a 10- to 15-game improvement was not an unreasonable assumption. If you get that, you’re right there.”
Put Dunn, Rios, and Peavy in the “performing as expected” column. Who, besides Williams, saw all this pitching coming?
Jose Quintana, 23, a waiver-claim pickup from the Yankees who had never pitched above Class-A ball, has been less spectacular but nearly as good as Sale as the replacement for nominal staff ace John Danks and his sore shoulder.
The rookie Addison Reed has been a more reliable closer than Santos. At times he has had five fellow rookies keeping him company in the bullpen. Weren’t the Sox said to have the worst farm system in baseball?
“Credit scouting and player development,” Williams said. “Our scouts found guys they thought could pitch at this level, and our development guys got them ready.”
Williams has always been strong-willed and self-confident; thus it was inevitable that he and the like-minded Guillen would wear on each other. He tried to take the high road as their relationship deteriorated and studiously avoids criticizing his former manager, but it’s obvious their differences extended beyond the cheap-shot Twitterings of Guillen’s children.
Alejandro De Aza is a case in point. The 28-year-old Dominican has been a revelation as the Sox’ center fielder/leadoff man, an exemplary defender who’s hitting .283 with a .353 on-base percentage and 15 steals. “He’s just a good baseball player,” Williams said. “Some of us thought he should have played more last year.”
Guillen was wedded to an outfield alignment of Pierre in left, Rios in center and Quentin in right. Ventura is going with Dayan Viciedo in left, De Aza in center and Rios in right. It’s a significant two-way upgrade.
Williams remains strong-willed and self-confident, but he listens to Hahn, Bell and other members of his baseball cabinet. It took them about five minutes to decide Kevin Youkilis was worth pursuing when the Boston Red Sox made the disgruntled, displaced third baseman available, and another five to close a lineup-stabilizing deal.
“The best move in baseball this year,” a rival GM said.
Williams listened when Sale came to him to protest a proposed shift to the bullpen after Sale’s valuable left elbow flared up following a start in late April.
“It was borderline insubordination,” Williams acknowledged, “but I liked his fire.”
Williams recognizes insubordination and fire from his childhood in San Jose, Calif. His father, Jerry, was a track-star contemporary of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Lee Evans and the other sprinters who transformed San Jose into Speed City USA in the late ‘60s. Jerry Williams was also a participant in the social-justice discussions that culminated in Smith and Carlos’ memorably defiant medal-stand protest at the 1968 Olympics. He taught his son to stand up for what he believes in.
Despite can’t-miss NFL credentials as a wide receiver/kick returner, Kenny Williams believed baseball offered him a better future, so he left Stanford after one year to sign with the White Sox. A shattered ankle kept him from becoming the player he might have been, and he retired at 28 to take a job in scouting and player development. Now, at 48, he is the highest-ranking African-American executive in baseball.
There have been hits (A.J. Pierzynski, Alexei Ramirez) and misses (David Wells, Manny Ramirez), but the vision has remained the same.
“Every move we make,” Williams said, “is designed to bring a World Series championship to the White Sox and the city of Chicago.”
There is one in the books already. It’s too early to tell when another might follow, but this year’s Sox are looking more like contenders than most people expected.
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DAN McGRATH is the former sports editor of the Chicago Tribune and the current president of Leo High School.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo by Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo; De Aza photo courtesy Keith Allison/cc.