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Williams reluctantly accepts the spotlight
by Alan Schwarz
Flush from his team's magical World Series run, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams did what he likes best:
Never one for the spotlight, Williams avoided the media frenzy, preferring instead to recede into the Chicago background and his work for 2006. But he still took a few minutes to sit down and discuss his management philosophies, the building of a champion, and the sweetness of vindication.
ALAN SCHWARZ: Now that you've won a World Series, what have you learned about the job of general manager that you hadn't known before?
KENNY WILLIAMS: Honestly, the role of general manager is greatly overrated. Greatly overrated. Guys like (director of player development) Dave Wilder, who when I was looking for protection against Dustin Hermanson's back injury in midseason and was thinking about a trade, when I asked him 3-4 times about Bobby Jenks, he did not hesitate in putting his reputation on the line to recommend this guy be the closer for us. How important is that? (Assistant GM) Rick Hahn, I realized very early on that I was doing the organization a disservice by staying in the bulk of the negotiations with our free agents. He's simply better than me--so hand over the responsibility. How important was that? When I call Dave Yoakum and Billy Scherrer, our two major league scouts, I don't get flimsy answers--I get direct answers to direct questions and believe me, that is a luxury in this game that not everyone enjoys.
AS: It's a shame that you can't get your manager to ever speak up.
KW: We're working with Ozzie to express himself and open up a little more.
AS: Ozzie Guillen has said that he doesn't tell his GM "what he wants to hear." How rare is that, and are there pitfalls to having such an outspoken manager?
KW: It's not just him. We have the luxury of having guys that I've played with, guys that Ozzie's played with going back 20 years. Harold Baines and Joey Cora, Greg Walker, Tim Raines, on and on. So when we get in the room it's less about whatever anyone's title is and more about what needs to be done to get the organization to be better. Everyone respects the whole GM title thing sometimes, most times, but not so much that they're not going to lay it on the line as to what their feelings are. Any downfalls, I don't see any. Sure, we have some pretty good arguments at times, but so what? I wouldn't have it any other way.
It's impossible to tell me something I don't want to hear. I don't go into any situation thinking that my thoughts on the subject are the end-all. As soon as it gets to the point where I believe that, then it's probably time for me to go do something else. It's not uncommon for us to bring in interns to some of our meetings where--we sometimes exercise a little exclusivity--but we bring in interns, we bring in some of our support staff in the office, and it's teaching, it's learning. You're talking to a person who has been the beneficiary of being a farm director and sitting in on every conversation and every decision that was made.
AS: Looking now in retrospect, what do you think was the most influential move made in the last 12 months that helped you guys get as far as you did? Was it the Carlos Lee-Scott Podsednik trade like many people think, or do you see something else?
KW: I have been asked that and I have yet to come up with an answer. Where would we be without A.J. Pierzynski? Where would we be without Tadahito Iguchi or Dustin Hermanson? Jenks? Jose Contreras and El Duque? I couldn't find an MVP to this team. Paul Konerko, I guess with 40 home runs, but Paul would be the first guy to tell you that without the supporting cast we still wouldn't have gotten to where we've been. People are looking for these great ideas, these theoretical ideas on how we did this and what was the formula behind this is. Well, OK, sorry guys.
Basically, what we did is we got 25 grind-it-out type guys, unselfish, full of character, that when doubted throughout their whole careers responded to that and had success. Combined with them, a manager who has been doubted--and a general manager in the same mold.
AS: In what way do you fit that mold?
KW: When Jerry (Reinsdorf) made his decision to put me in the chair, one radio guy in town, as I was driving to the airport, the guy said that the only reason I got this job was because I was black and I was Jerry Reinsdorf's personal ass-kisser.
People talk about influences. The greatest thing that has influenced me personally over the last few years has been Terry Ryan's team kicking our ass. We were just trying to figure out a way to not come in second again.
AS: It feels to me that one of the main threads with your club, and some other clubs recently, is that more medium moves will generally win out over fewer big moves.
KW: Well, yeah. I'd appreciate it if you don't say that too loudly.
Something that I had forgotten is that the things that have been timeless in baseball, regardless of the newfangled theories and philosophies, are timeless for a reason--because it works.
AS: Talking about "newfangled theories" as you have, how do you interpret the firing of Paul DePodesta in Los Angeles and the resignation of Theo Epstein in Boston?
KW: I didn't mean that as an indictment to some others out there that subscribe to different theories. Because the truth of the matter is, the first thing I did when I accepted this position is I set up a department run by Dan Fabian--I call him the Director of Systems Analysis. Basically, I needed to understand and incorporate all of these different theories and try to stay ahead of that curve, so we very much still use the things that I described as being newfangled. We incorporate them on a daily basis, but my first question and my last question is always to the scouts.
I sympathize with some of the young guys coming in is they have--the old guard of baseball has a certain amount of resentment towards them. I still feel guilty that here I am sitting in this chair, and have been for five years, when there are so many other guys out there, so many longtime scouts or player-development people, good baseball people, that have more seniority than me in the game and haven't gotten the opportunity.
AS: There was so much focus this season, and particularly in the playoffs, on Ozzie and the players. But right after you guys won, when Fox was interviewing players on the field, Scott Podsednik and A.J. Pierzynski both mentioned the work Kenny Williams did--not Ozzie Guillen. What does that mean to you?
KW: I haven't seen any of those things yet, so it's the first I've heard about it. But it touches me, it really does. Because we have tried for years to make our players understand that we're all in this together. And I think this group more than anything has finally seen that, yes, sometimes we have to make some business decisions that don't go in their favor, but we are in this all together.
They embarrassed the hell out of me one day on the streets of Minneapolis. They were at this local pub getting ready to have some dinner and stuff, and they were having a few pops. Hermanson and (Aaron) Rowand and (Joe) Crede and Konerko, all of these guys literally embarrassed me on the street because I wanted them to have their space. But they weren't having any part of it: "Come on, you're always talking about togetherness, get your ass in here." So these guys, they know we care. Me and all of my coaches, we've been there, and it's a great feeling for them to finally understand that we're all in this together.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.