Saturday, August 1, 2009
The masterful cool of Kenny Williams
By Scoop Jackson ESPN.com
The day before, he gave no impression, no idea. He walked around the offices of U.S. Cellular Field with a smile on his face while his team sent a message to the American League. No one knew.
The next day he came in calm. Same demeanor. But that was a disguise.
Whether greeting fans or pulling off a deal for a Cy Young winner, Sox GM Kenny Williams plays it cool.
When the news broke that the White Sox finally closed a deal that they had begun piecing together last season, bringing 2007 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy to town, general manager Kenny Williams had the same look on his face that he had had the day before. A look that gave no one any idea of what he had up his sleeve, what the hell he was doing. A look that gave away nothing despite Peavy's veto of a trade to the South Side just more than two months ago.
It was like one of the greatest hands of poker ever played. His own staff didn't know until that morning that he'd been working trying to make one of the biggest deals in team history. He made everyone around him think that everything was normal. I repeat, no one knew.
"Hold on," he said to me as he ran out of the clubhouse. "I have to go and put on this suit jacket." Even then, no one knew. The news had not yet been broken. But he knew. He knew very soon he'd be doing interviews, answering both intricate and mundane questions. He knew the spotlight was about to come his way. He was wearing all black. The suit jacket was gray. White Sox colors. He had to represent.
"If you remember, he didn't say, 'No,'" Williams said to the media during the dugout news conference, referring to Peavy's stance when the two teams tried to make the deal back in May. More like, "Not yet."
He sat there like the cat that swallowed the invisible mouse. So relaxed. So unnerved. Even with owner Jerry Reinsdorf saying, "I had to be talked into the deal." Williams said all the perfectly correct things in a tone that would have made the most interesting man in the world envious:
"I don't think we were in position to match up. [It's about] winning games in September. [It's about] how we play, how we come to play on a daily basis. You never miss an opportunity to get a No. 1 [pitcher]. [Now] take a look at our rotation for 2010."
He talked about renting a movie from Blockbuster, he pulled out a piece of bubble gum, he held a half-empty bottle of Gatorade in his left hand. So secure. Theo Epstein and Omar Minaya only wish they could come off like this.
When it was all said and done, he stepped to the side and was handed a phone from a White Sox public relations staffer for a radio interview. He leaned back on the bench, stretched one leg out. He got cooler. It was like watching him at home, only he was at home. For almost a decade he has been at the helm of a team that has floated under the radar of greatness and recognition. Not just nationally, but also in its own city. It's been said before that Williams is the GM of the most irrelevant and forgotten World Series champion in baseball history.
He's always done things in a way that people question but never doubt. The skin he's lived in, never thin. But to look at him in this moment, his possible moment of glory and victory, a moment that, if the White Sox win another World Series in the next three years, will be looked at as the tipping point, you'd realize that Kenny Williams is in a comfort zone that most MLB GMs never get to experience.
"What you have to understand is that I've been here nine years now, and I think we've traded more players during that time than any other team," he says to me after the radio phone call. "So you learn to just stay on an even keel. Hell, if I got my buddy over there as head of the United States now, talking about foreign policy, terrorism and [he stays] cool, how can I get flustered doing this?"
And it's inside this simple one-on-one with him that I realize that Williams is slowly defining his position and not allowing the position to define him. Winning does that. Staying relevant and in the hunt year after year does that. Taking the job seriously but never letting anyone -- not even your staff -- see you sweat, panic or act like you don't have everything under control is at the core of how this gets done.
Kenny Williams spent more than a year trying to figure out how to get Jake Peavy to Chicago.
I don't dare call Williams the best at this, but damn.
"The first person that comes up to me and pretends like they know everything about this game, it will be the shortest conversation you will ever see me in," he said. "I get away from those people because as soon as you start thinking that you know everything about this game, it'll bite you in the a--."
That said, I ask him whether I'm wrong. I ask him to tell me if I'm wrong about the notion that this move to get Peavy and put another No. 1 in the rotation isn't about this year, that it's about him looking further into his team's future. Many GMs make knee-jerk decisions at the trade deadline, and those are the moves that come back and bite them and the organization. Without hesitation, Williams, with the cool of a Babyface record but in the voice of Teddy Pendergrass, tells me I am exactly that: wrong.
"You're wrong. You're wrong! Because this division is going to be won in September," he says.
I sit corrected.
"If we play the way we've played -- with the exception of last week -- and continue to play the way we have and we're in competition for the division and we got a guy that we just brought in [Peavy] that can help us get there and we get there, we are [then] a dangerous team," he says.
"But you mentioned your rotation in 2010, so that leads me to believe " I say back.
"But it's today first, with the mindset that we are doing this for tomorrow as well," he says. "We're always planning our board to where, yes, we are taking care of today, but we're able to take care of tomorrow as well."
"We're about to have some good times around here."
And there it is, the core of Kenny Williams. The architect. The visionary. The most interesting man in baseball. He has this saying that he almost lives by as a professional mantra: "We're here to dream, dream big -- and win."
I ask, in a game whose business is only about winning, where does he find the room to dream?
"I ask, what is your goal at the end of the day?" he says. "Are you trying to be a team that gets to .500? Are you a team that's just trying to get to the playoffs, where people say, 'OK, that's good to have X amount of playoff appearances.' See, I don't care about playoff appearances. We went to the playoffs last year, and that was a miserable year. Why? Because at the end of the day, we were not equipped well enough to win it all.
"Beat me. But beat me with me feeling that you beat us, not with us feeling that we weren't prepared."
I ask him, is that how a team reaches greatness?
He says, as he leaves, "That's what the job is."