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Money Player

Over the past five years, working with a middle-of-the-pack payroll, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams has made a series of bold, sometimes controversial moves. Will they make him this season’s real MVP?

Photo:Alec Huff

 
“If you don’t go after what you want full steam ahead, then you have nobody to blame but yourself,” says Williams.

Last January, White Sox general manager Ken Williams sat on a stage at the Hyatt Regency Chicago for SoxFest 2005, and he had every reason to be miserable. He was fighting off the flu-not to mention memories of the savaging he’d received from die-hard fans at the same event the year before. At that 2004 “town hall meeting,” the crowd had complained about the team’s numerous losses of free agents and the hiring of Ozzie Guillen, an untested manager. All this had led Williams to lash out. “The problem is that everyone is looking at what we don’t have,” he barked. “Not what we do have!”

But maybe this year’s event would be different. Working within the Sox’ famously tight budget, Williams had spent the off-season negotiating deals to acquire a slew of new players including Scott Podsednik, Jermaine Dye, Orlando Hernandez, and Dustin Hermanson. He had painstakingly assembled the kind of team that Guillen wanted-a fundamentally sound crew of veterans and scrappers to offset the loss of Magglio Ordóñez and Carlos Lee, two Sox staples. As the crowd began to ask questions, Williams, 41, relaxed a little. The griping by fans had vanished, replaced by something novel: optimism. A glimmer of preseason hope is common-but Sox fans seemed downright giddy about the team’s chances in 2005. One guy suggested that Williams was the team’s most valuable player. Another added a spirited “You da man!”

Guillen, who never passes up an opening for a joke, grabbed a microphone onstage. “Last season, all you people wanted to fight him,” he said, doing a little karate kick. “Now you think he’s a genius!” Everyone laughed, many in the room wondering the same thing that Kenny Williams did from his seat next to Guillen’s: could this finally be the year?

Between 2001 and 2004, the White Sox were monumentally mediocre. With a loaded lineup that included Frank Thomas, Paul Konerko, and Magglio Ordóñez, they won 333 games while losing 315, and were tagged around the league with the dreaded “U” word: underachievers. It wasn’t entirely fair-the team’s payroll has always hovered around the middle of the pack-but year after year the final record left fans feeling they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth. Currently, the budget comes in at about $75 million, which is 13th highest in the majors; it’s $25 million lower than the Cubs’ payroll, and $133 million lower than the Yankees’. Today, the real question is not, Why have the Sox underachieved? but rather, How have the Sox managed to gather so much talent and pay them so little?

The answer is Ken Williams. And after almost five years of aggressive dealmaking with middling success, he seems to have found the right formula. At press time, the White Sox were on pace to win 101 games, the most in the team’s 105-year history. It wasn’t long ago that Williams was the punching bag of the Chicago media. Last December, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch referred to him as “the Ralph Kramden of GMs, dreaming big, inventing schemes, then failing miserably, comically.” Now many regard him as a baseball mastermind who has shuffled the White Sox deck brilliantly, employing a long-term plan all along.

Williams, however, says nothing has changed, other than the team’s winning percentage. He has consistently followed the same formula: study the numbers, work with what you’ve got, think big, and roll the dice. Often. “That’s the only way I know,” says Williams. “If you don’t go after what you want full steam ahead and you don’t attain the things that you want in life, then you have nobody to blame but yourself.”

In an environment where one blown deal can get a GM fired, Williams has shown himself willing to buck conventional wisdom. He has grabbed players with abrasive reputations (A. J. Pierzynski and Carl Everett), lured players from other hemispheres (Japanese all-stars Tadahito Iguchi and Shingo Takatsu), and snatched free agent pitcher Esteban Loaiza (lifetime 69-73), who then went 21-9 for the Sox.

His risk-taking has not always paid off, of course. In one controversial shuffle, he traded three established pitchers for the tired starter Todd Ritchie, who was, in fact, washed up. Perhaps his smartest move is the one he didn’t make: he stuck with starting pitcher Jon Garland for five mediocre years, sensing that he was ready to break out; now Garland, who has led the American League in wins for much of the year, is a legitimate candidate for the 2005 Cy Young Award. “Everyone says [Williams] is doing a great job because we’re winning this year,” says Everett, a Sox outfielder who has so far minded his manners. “Put a winning team on the field, you’ve done a great job.”

But being a general manager is more like being a pilot or an umpire-the less you’re noticed, the better. In his five years as the Sox GM, Williams has been noticed a lot. He has alienated players, such as Ordóñez, who accused Williams of hurting his trade value by publicly questioning the health of his knee. He infuriated fans by implying that the lackluster attendance at U.S. Cellular Field was to blame for the team’s modest payroll. Reporters have never warmed to him, mostly because he’s not interested in providing good copy. “Kenny has taken a lot of punches in the past in Chicago,” says Guillen. “But if you’re gonna have the job he has, and you worry about whether people like you or not, you should get another job.”

Williams grew up in San Jose, California, amidst racial and political turmoil. “There were hippies on one side of the street and Black Panthers on the other,” he recalls. His parents, Jerry and Ethel, were strict and goal-oriented. Jerry, a former track star at San Jose State with John Carlos and Tommie Smith (the sprinters who gave a black-power salute from the 1968 Olympics medal stand in Mexico City), battled to integrate the San Jose Fire Department. Ethel was among the first African American executives at Pacific Gas & Electric Company. Williams watched it all. “From the time I was a kid, there were constant political discussions about the times,” he says.

Williams was a talented athlete and deeply competitive, but his family kept him grounded. He recalls challenging his father and Carlos to a race when he was young-and finishing a distant third. While a baseball star at San Jose’s Mount Pleasant High, Williams got his break when Roland Hemond and Jerry Krause-the Sox general manager and head scout-flew out to watch him play. What they found was not a typical 17-year-old. “We noticed that after Williams was done hitting, he would run down and coach third base,” Krause told the Chicago Tribune in 1985. “Now, that’s a kid who wants to play baseball.”

Initially, Krause was wrong: Williams opted to play football for Stanford. He made waves during his freshman year as a speedy defensive back; his 69-yard kickoff return against the University of Southern California was nothing short of electrifying. “He was so fast,” says Paul Wiggin, his head coach at Stanford. “He was clearly in a class by himself and had a lot of belief in his abilities.”

At Hemond’s urging, Jerry Reinsdorf, the White Sox’ chairman, flew out to California to meet Williams. “I never got involved in signing players,” says Reinsdorf. “Never, before or after, have I done that.” He persuaded Williams to split time between Stanford and the Sox’ minor-league system.

Eventually, Williams quit school to play baseball, a choice he still regrets. “It remains the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life,” he says. Wiggin maintains that Williams could have been a star defensive back in the National Football League, but many in the Sox organization saw him as the future of its outfield, and he was eager to prove them right. He showed flashes of greatness during his 1987 season, hitting .281 with 11 home runs and 21 stolen bases in only 116 games. But he was never able to build on it; injuries slowed him, and his game never blossomed. In a six-year run for four different major-league teams (1986-91), he finished with a career .218 average. But he worked hard every day, and soaked up everything he could. Though he had no intention of going into management, he was naturally curious and asked a lot of questions. It didn’t hurt that he was sitting on the bench next to baseball legends like Sparky Anderson and Alex Grammas in Detroit and Cito Gaston in Toronto.

He had kept in touch with Reinsdorf during his career, even spending one of his off seasons working as an intern in the Chicago Bulls’ marketing department. In 1992, Williams called his old boss-a conversation that Reinsdorf remembers well. “He told me nobody was scouting the inner cities for baseball because they were afraid,” says Reinsdorf. “So we hired him for the job. After a couple of years, he came to me and said, ‘They’re all playing basketball in the inner city.’” But Reinsdorf liked the way Williams handled himself, and decided to make him his personal assistant. “I decided I would teach him the whole business,” Reinsdorf says. Again, Williams asked lots of questions and worked tirelessly.

By 1997, Williams had worked his way up to vice president of player development. He’d built up the team’s Venezuelan and Dominican facilities and singlehandedly turned around the Sox’ once-lackluster minor-league system. “He came across as intelligent and a man obviously on his way up,” says Rob Neyer, a baseball columnist for ESPN.com who crossed paths with Williams in the mid-nineties. “Getting there as quickly as he did really says something about him.”

After the 2000 season, when the Sox got swept out of the playoffs, general manager Ron Schueler went back to scouting. Reinsdorf asked Schueler who should replace him. “He said Kenny, and I agreed,” says Reinsdorf. In a move that surprised outsiders (but that Williams knew about a year ahead of time), Reinsdorf passed over Schueler’s assistant GM, Dan Evans, for Ken Williams. He became the only African American general manager in the league-and only its third ever.

Williams, 36 at the time, went to work immediately. “He had a pad where he wrote out what he was going to do every single day for the first 30 days on the job,” says Reinsdorf. Before the season began, Williams found himself entangled in controversy when his first big move-a six-player trade with the Toronto Blue Jays that involved giving up Mike Sirotka for David Wells-threatened to fall through. The Jays’ doctor found that Sirotka had a torn labrum in his shoulder; Williams insisted that an earlier MRI scan had shown no tear of the labrum. The Blue Jays wanted the trade voided, but the Sox refused. Eventually, commissioner Bud Selig ruled in favor of the trade, citing the major leagues’ longtime trade policy of “buyer beware.” As it happened, there were no winners in the deal: Wells missed the second half of the season with back troubles and was traded to the Yankees; Sirotka never pitched again.

There were other moments in Wil-liams’s first few years that he’d just as soon forget. In July 2001, he dealt the former all-star James Baldwin to the Dodgers, thinking he was getting a promising 23-year-old pitcher named Jon Berry in return. He had actually accepted a not-so-promising 32-year-old outfielder named Jeff Barry. In Michael M. Lewis’s book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, the Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane, claimed he had repeatedly got the better of Williams in deals from the 2000 to 2002 seasons-a reputation that has been hard for Williams to shake. “I think at the beginning people thought he didn’t know what he was doing,” says Hal Vickery, a writer for whitesoxinteractive.com.

The Sox, who had been favored to win the division in 2002 and 2003, finished in second place both years, a fact that Williams had to hear about everywhere he turned. “Even the CEO of IBM doesn’t have thousands of bloggers and reporters questioning every move and thinking that they know better,” says Rick Hahn, Williams’s assistant. After the 2003 season, the team fired Jerry Manuel, its soft-spoken manager; it was obvious the organization needed a jolt.

That jolt was Ozzie Guillen, a motor-mouthed former Sox shortstop whose last real interaction with the club had been in 1997 (and that had involved slamming them for not renewing his contract). Guillen and Williams had played together for the Sox in the eighties, and Guillen had made a strong impression. “I thought he was nuts,” Williams says. “He used to manage on the field, and would always express how he felt.” In Guillen, Williams knew exactly what he was getting: a forceful leader who would stand up for his players. The flamboyant three-time all-star seemed like a strange fit for an organization that had always played its cards close to the vest, but bringing him in had a compelling logic: he could be the mouthpiece, take the heat, and enable Williams to fly under the radar.

From the beginning, Guillen wanted to pack the team with guys in his own image: scrappers who would do the little things like bunt and dive for the ball and get their uniforms dirty. A quick look at the plodding White Sox lineup made it obvious that the team didn’t have the personnel to do it; the 2004 season was another disappointment. Again, Williams went to work in the off-season, only this time he was able to sign the kind of players that Guillen wanted, building the team around pitching, speed, and defense. One transaction in particular raised eyebrows around the league: Williams dealt Carlos Lee to the Brewers for a speedy outfielder, Scott Podsednik, the middle reliever Luis Vizcaino, and a minor leaguer. Podsednik was coming off an abysmal year, while Lee was a rising star-and a Sox fan favorite.

Perhaps symbolizing the Sox’ serendipitous year, the trade worked out perfectly for both teams, as has been widely noted. “Oh, yeah, the trade was good for both ball clubs,” says Podsednik. “I’m sick of hearing how good it was for both teams.” Lee is having a breakout year in Milwaukee, Vizcaino is an active part of the Sox bullpen, and in July, Podsednik, the league leader in stolen bases, made his first All-Star appearance. “You don’t really set out to snooker a team when you make a deal,” the Brewers’ manager, Ned Yost, said during the All-Star break. “You want to help both teams, and that’s what this one has done.” For Williams, it was a complete reversal from the shared misery of the Wells-Sirotka debacle.

With all the new faces in the dugout, the White Sox’ 2005 success has been the biggest surprise in baseball. That it has happened so quickly-and in exactly the way Guillen and Williams envisioned-makes it even more remarkable. “The chances he’s taken this year, he’s shown me what kind of guy he is,” says Guillen. But you wouldn’t know the Sox were running away with the American League from looking at Kenny Williams-he appears to be working even harder than before. Now that the Sox have their best chance at a World Series title since 1917, Williams feels 88 years of history weighing on him. Every move feels monumental, taking him closer to his goal: to be remembered as the guy who did whatever it took to bring a World Series to the South Side. “Then I can ride off into the sunset,” he says.

He’s still got a ways to go. In August, just days after the trading deadline, Williams was eating breakfast at a restaurant in the Loop when another patron recognized him. “You blew it!” the guy yelled across the room. “You had the best team in baseball and you sat on your hands and didn’t make a trade!” A manager was compelled to escort the enraged customer out the door. Williams shrugged it off and went back to his breakfast. “It just happens to be a job where everybody believes they know more than you do,” he says. “And it’s all out there for everyone to see.”

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