- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Chicago White Sox had just gathered for their first full-squad workout of the spring when general manager Kenny Williams gave his obligatory let's-get-reacquainted address to the players.
The CliffsNotes version goes something like this: Welcome to Arizona, guys. Let's play hard, be on time and use plenty of sunscreen. And try not to let that raucous Tucson night life sap you of all your energy.
Then Williams' competitive instincts kicked in, and his planned five-minute chat stretched to 10. By the time he relinquished the floor and checked his watch, he discovered that he'd bared his soul for 35 minutes.
Some seasons are destined to be remembered and others are best forgotten. For Williams, the 2007 campaign simply needed to be purged.
"As the introductions went on, I thought, 'I've been pissed off for the last eight months and I've been holding it in. Somebody's got to hear about it,''' Williams said.
That's understandable. After compiling a combined .583 winning percentage in 2005 and 2006 -- second best in baseball behind the Yankees -- the White Sox were an unmitigated disaster last season. Sure, Jim Thome provided a feel-good moment with his 500th career home run in September. But a fading bullpen, an underperforming lineup and a sketchy rotation guaranteed that the cheering would be strictly ceremonial.
The White Sox finished with 72 victories, and even Hawk Harrelson gradually ran out of silver linings.
Five months later, the Sox are back and trying to reassert themselves in one of baseball's least forgiving divisions. The Detroit Tigers have the talent to become the first team since the 1999 Indians to score 1,000 runs, and Cleveland returns with essentially the same roster that fell a game short of the World Series.
The White Sox? They've got some aging position players, questions in center field, a free-for-all at second base and uncertainty at the back end of the rotation, where Jose Contreras, John Danks and Gavin Floyd all need to perform. But as Williams made clear in his introductory speech, Chicago management is ready to write off 2007 as an aberration. That's why he spent the bulk of the offseason trying to add veteran pieces to the equation.
"Some clubs would take the position, 'Let's break it up and start over,''' Williams said. "Hell, no. These ain't your daddy's White Sox. This is a new way of operating. We're going to keep going after a championship as aggressively as we can.''
Williams quietly had a very busy winter. He traded starter Jon Garland to the Angels for shortstop Orlando Cabrera, sent prospects Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos and Ryan Sweeney to Oakland for Nick Swisher and acquired outfielder Carlos Quentin in a deal with Arizona. Williams spent $30 million on multiyear contracts for relievers Scott Linebrink and Octavio Dotel, and was in the hunt for Torii Hunter, Kosuke Fukudome and Aaron Rowand before those players opted to sign elsewhere.
Are the White Sox blissfully delusional in thinking the talent in their clubhouse can match up with the Tigers and Indians, or are they justified in viewing themselves as a turnaround play? Based on the way the preseason magazines are discounting their chances, the consensus choice is blissfully delusional. But don't tell that to the men in charge.
As they enter their fifth season together, Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen are now the fourth longest-running GM-manager tandem in baseball behind Colorado's Dan O'Dowd and Clint Hurdle, Cleveland's Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge and Milwaukee's Doug Melvin and Ned Yost. They've swigged champagne during the good times and consoled each other during the bad, but they've never gotten complacent or lost their edge.
Some clubs would take the position, 'Let's break it up and start over.' Hell, no. These ain't your daddy's White Sox. This is a new way of operating. We're going to keep going after a championship as aggressively as we
--White Sox general manager Kenny Williams
Their intensity resonates throughout the camp. Guillen reacted to some shoddy bullpen work during a recent Cactus League game in Hermosillo, Mexico, by breaking a couple of chairs in the clubhouse. And when Swisher jogged out a ground ball during an intrasquad game, it was Williams who could be heard in the stands shouting, "This ain't Oakland. You're supposed to be a hard-nosed player. Well, show me.''
Guillen, profane, outspoken and unflinchingly honest, is so entertaining the beat writers should give him a daily cut. Williams, self-assured to a fault, will digest the inevitable criticism, then let you know whose opinion really matters.
As a duo, these guys run out some of the liveliest baseball dialogue since Abbott and Costello.
• Williams on the pressures of the job: "Boston. New York. Chicago. Philadelphia. These are very demanding sports towns. If you don't recognize that one basic principle, it will swallow you up. So I wake up every day knowing that to a large segment of our fan base, I'm the village idiot.''
• Guillen on the lack of respect accorded Williams: "People forgot how good Kenny was for four years. People forgot he didn't finish worse than second. It's a funny thing about this game. We win the World Series and Kenny makes three key moves to winning, and the guy in Cleveland [Shapiro] wins the Baseball America Executive of the Year. That's a bunch of s---.''
• Williams on the pecking order in Chicago: "Our fans don't care about injuries and other things that happened last season. It's all about what you do on the field. There's only one sports team in Chicago that will get a pass. I won't name them. But it ain't us.''
• Guillen on his "hate-love'' relationship with Williams: "Last year Kenny and me stuck together. We fought together. We sat together. We were upset together. We blamed each other. We found out who was behind us and who wasn't. Ninety-nine percent of the people weren't behind us. Hey man, this game is a bunch of front-runners. If you're good, they kiss your butt. If not, you're horse s---.''
• Williams on the hits he took for signing Linebrink to a four-year, $19 million deal: "I don't know why that's perceived as an out of line deal, when Justin Speier signed for pretty much the same thing with the Angels. The market was already set. We needed bullpen help, so we did what we had to do and make no apologies. If other clubs want to take issue with it, they don't have to face the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers.''
• Guillen on White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf: "The media in Chicago should kiss Jerry Reinsdorf's butt every day, because he put sports back on the map in Chicago. He won six rings with the Bulls and he has one in baseball, and he helped build the new ballpark and a new basketball court. Nobody gives him any credit, and I don't think that's fair.''
• Williams on the mood in Chicago's camp: "I love the camp, the intensity. You can see right off the bat that guys are a little embarrassed by what happened last year. We did some historical things -- and not in a good way.''
• Guillen on how he'll react if the Sox win another title: "We made a big mistake when we won in 2005. We never took credit. Me and Kenny, we just did our jobs and never went out of our way to rub it in people's faces that we were the champions. If we win it again, I'll be a cocky, arrogant, SOB. I'll be wearing my World Series rings hitting fungoes in the field.''
If recent history means anything, front office folks better bask in the afterglow of winning while they can. It's been 2½ years since Juan Uribe threw out Orlando Palmeiro for the final out of the 2005 World Series in Houston, and Williams and Guillen were hailed as heroes for bringing the White Sox their first title in 88 years.
If they needed a reminder that honeymoons are fleeting, it came in August, when Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. fired GM Tim Purpura and manager Phil Garner under the theory that the team needed a "fresh start.''
Williams acknowledges that he took note of the change in Houston. But he's never operated out of fear of losing his job, and he never will.
"To be honest with you, it ain't that great of a job to worry about losing,'' Williams said. "Ozzie and I have that same mind-set, so it allows us to a great degree to be who we are.''
Question is, are they the feisty and combative saviors of baseball on the South Side, or Village Idiots A and B? White Sox fans will have a lot to say on the matter in the coming months. We suspect their answer will come down to just how well the Chicago players play.
Are Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen the feisty and combative saviors of baseball on Chicago's South Side, or Village Idiots A and B? How the '08 season plays out will determine that.