There were skeptics when Kenny Williams was hired as the White Sox general manager in 2000. There are no more questions. It’s clear Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf made the right move when he promoted Williams and his burning desire to win. With a World Series title under his belt and the Sox competing for another, he has become the model for what a GM should be.
In this interview, Williams explains why a good minor league system is key to an organization, talks about interviewing Ozzie Guillen in 2004 and why he’s not afraid to lose his job.
The Heckler: When you were hired as the general manager of the White Sox, did you already have a plan in place on how you wanted to build this team?
Kenny Williams: I had 265 days of daily activities outlined and a plan of action developed from all the years in the minors and being up close and personal with the team, so the answer would be yes. But it’s not what everyone thinks. Everyone thinks the goal was to the win the World Series. Yes, that was part of it. But the second part of it was to show the franchise that people here in Chicago will come out with on-field success and how we conducted ourselves. It’s still a work in progress.
TH: What was your plan to build a successful organization?
KW: I wish I had the manual for that. There are so many decisions and adjustments you have to make on the fly, but if I had to put one common denominator on it, it’s to make sure that you surround yourself with people smarter than you.
TH: Who do you normally bounce things off of in the organization and who do you think has helped you the most?
KW: I hesitate to even name names because ultimately I’m going to leave somebody out. We’ve all been together a long time, me and the front office guys and the coaches. Most of us played together, or in some cases, competed against each other. It’s an all-inclusive management style, so we just get in a room and try to figure it out. There are no big secrets or theories here other than hard work.
TH: How important is it for a club to develop a good minor league system?
KW: It’s the foundation, unless you’re prepared to spend $200 million a year. If you don’t develop your own players, you’re not going to be very successful. That lends itself to relying on the scouting and player development in conjunction with that. It’s working together with scouting that allows me to go out and get information on trades and prospects. The one thing I think that has been invaluable here has been that Jerry Reinsdorf has allowed me to bring in old White Sox, guys who know the organization. We all know one another so the dialogue is lost. Without any political correctness, we get behind closed doors and we have that relationship so we get down to brass tacks. So far it’s worked. I’m sure there will be a time relationships are tested, but we’ll get through it because we’ve got each other’s back. We’re all supportive and have to look out for one another.
TH: Is there a set system you have in place in the minor leagues? Do you work with every ballplayer the same way?
KW: No, absolutely not. That’s taboo. Some organizations do that. They have a one philosophy, cookie cutter approach, ‘Here’s how we do things.’We like to take people and work their abilities and allow them first to do it their way. If their way isn’t successful, we then have suggestions for them to improve their game, both mentally and physically. So the answer to that is literally everyone who walks through the door gets individualized attention.
TH: Ever since you became GM, it seems like every move you made has been with the intention of winning the World Series. Would you agree with that?
KW: Oh yes. If we ever get to the point where we’re rebuilding, I’ll let you know. Our fans deserve that. I’ll let you know every step of the way what our plan is. Until I say that, we’re in ‘win now’ mode. It’s healthier too, because we’re miserable people when we’re losing so it’s probably a good idea we just keep trying to win.
TH: You don’t seem to be afraid of receiving criticism when it comes to making a trade if it doesn’t turn out well. Is that something a GM needs in him to build a winning organization?
KW: I think you can not be afraid to lose your job by making decisions you believe in. Sometimes they are going to be very unpopular with the fans. You have got to be able to suck it up and look like the village idiot in order to get the job done. I’m like everybody else. You’d rather people like you than not like you, but I understand that no matter what I do, a certain segment of our fan base is going to say, ‘What the heck was he thinking about?’ I sit here in front of you saying there are going to be many more times where those people are going to be absolutely right. I might even go behind closed doors afterwards and say, ‘What the hell was I thinking about?’ You’ve got to take the good with the bad. Ultimately, whenever I walk out the door for the last time, I want to feel comfortable with myself and say, ‘You know what, we gave it everything we had and went for it every year.’ People can say whatever else they want about me and my personality, but if they say, ‘That son of a gun, there was no mistaking his intentions,’ then I’m all right with that.
TH: Normally teams that win a championship rest on their laurels and don’t make many changes. You got Jim Thome, Javier Vazquez, Alex Cintron and Rob Mackowiak. Weren’t you convinced this team could win again if you brought everybody back?
KW: We weren’t good enough. I don’t mean any disrespect to what we did last year. We were a great team for 2005. But 2006, the American League is stronger. So to ignore what we believe to be a stronger league, I think would have been irresponsible on our part. It wouldn’t have been fair for all of the people that are supporting us. We finally have a fan base again that’s proud to wear our colors. So, damn it, let’s give them what they deserve.
TH: You were originally reluctant to hire Ozzie Guillen as your manager, and gave him an interview at the request of Jerry Reinsdorf. What did he do that made him stand out where you said ‘This is my guy’?
KW: Because he wasn’t afraid of me and he wasn’t afraid of not getting the job. He wasn’t going to be afraid of losing the job. When you’re not afraid of losing your job in this dugout, you can command the respect of the players that is necessary to keep your team fighting every day. He sat down and we talked through the first 15 minutes of it, and I tested him with some hard questions, and he came back at me hard and I said that’s good. We’re going to have some conversations that aren’t always going to be comfortable, but I’m not looking for comfort, I’m looking to win. I played with him, so I knew what kind of baseball knowledge he had. I also knew there would be some things that we had to work through. I knew that I would have to support him in those times. It’s also my job to let him know what I see in front of him if he continue to go down some roads. There are examples of people whose career was here on Monday and then on Tuesday morning … bam, bottom of the pit, because they didn’t master the art of telling it like it is. Be who you are, but with a limit. You’re not going to change Ozzie Guillen, but if I don’t try to protect him, if I don’t try to educate him on our society’s ways, who the hell is? So sometimes that means I’ve got to be a little tougher than others.
TH: You mentioned that Sox fans are again proud to wear team colors. This is a two-team town and it seems like the Cubs have been the fan favorites forever, while your team has to win to get the fans’ support. Do you think the Sox are overtaking the Cubs in popularity right now and does that matter to you?
KW: I stopped caring even before we won and I worried about what we do. Honestly, I’ve got goals of capturing some of the marketplace like any other corporation. You have to win the right way. If you notice, we have a large population of children at our games. As I was saying earlier, I want kids to be proud to wear this jersey, but I also want them to be competitive and win the right way, not with any arrogance or any attitude. Handle your business like Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko. Handle your business in that way.