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Saturday, January 23, 2010
The Kenny and Ozzie show

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- When Mark Buehrle 's 2½-year-old son Braden came barreling across the stage midway through Saturday morning's SoxFest fan session with general manager Kenny Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen, you half expected the toddler to pull up, grab a mike and deliver a pointed inquiry on the state of the team's bullpen.

Instead, he flew into Guillen's arms and the Chicago White Sox manager showered the little boy with kisses. It has been a postgame tradition between the two and clearly, both had missed it. But you figure Guillen was also relieved by the affection after fielding a barrage of questions from very informed and demanding children and very curt, irate adults.

Kenny Williams
Kenny Williams took over as White Sox general manager in 2000.

"I think the fans have more information than I have," Guillen said later. "It's amazing when an 11-year-old kid asks a better question than a 45-year-old. At that age, I was worried about playing in the street, and they come out and ask a question and I'm like, 'Where did you come from?' One kid asked me about our first-round draft pick last year. I turned around and said, 'Who's that guy?' But I think it's fun when they know more than we do."

The natural follow-up would have been, "How about when they just think they know more than you do?" but we missed our chance. In any event, Williams and Guillen were put through the proverbial ringer by a revolving group of young inquisitors who looked suspiciously like the same kid. The grown-ups were actually far more charitable after the team's 79-83 third-place finish last season, 7½ games behind the American League Central champion Minnesota Twins.

But a month short of pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, they let the GM and skipper know that their biggest concerns, in no particular order, are the bullpen, Alexei Ramirez's competence at shortstop, Alex Rios' overall competence and the Sox payroll.

One fan made the mistake of suggesting that he was concerned about the bullpen, that Bobby Jenks was "on the decline" and that the team had three potentially better closers in Tony Pena, Eider Torres and Matt Thornton.

"Wait," said Williams, never one to roll over in these settings. "You just said you were concerned about the bullpen. And then you said the closer, who has had success over the years and is in the best shape of his life, by the way, [was on the decline] and then you mention three other possibilities of guys who can close. So they're pretty good. And you're so concerned about the bullpen?"

Point taken. But Williams was actually pretty relaxed and not that defensive, except maybe a little when one fan said some Sox players were unfriendly during spring training when asked to sign autographs. It eventually segued into a mini-soliloquy on the type of players the Sox are going after now.

"We try to bring in good, quality people and I had to learn some lessons early on in my tenure because for me, it used to be about throwing as much talent against the wall as possible and let's see if it manifests itself in terms of winning," Williams said. "What I found is the better people you put in the same room, the better fit you have in the room.

"So sometimes I will pass on what you may see as a logical move and a logical player because I may know something about that player or the fit that player will have -- maybe not so much on the field but [a player who] in the clubhouse may be a disruptive force. And I will move onto the next guy who is a tremendous clubhouse person and a guy who is more accepting of the responsibility that comes with being a [team] guy, because it is a responsibility."

But no one was interested in the personality of the White Sox shortstop. All they cared about was his 20 errors last season, and one fan asked Guillen point-blank why Gordon Beckham did not move from third base to short, rather than second.

"Because Alexei Ramirez is a better shortstop than Gordon Beckham, that's why," Guillen said. "I never followed Gordon's career in college but this kid played four years. I think the reason he struggled in the field was because he wasn't hitting. To me, and I know a little bit about shortstops, Alexei is one of the top three shortstops in the American League right now."

Alex Rios
Alex Rios hit .199 with the White Sox after being claimed off waivers in August.

Questions persisted about the addition of Rios and subtraction of Scott Podsednik.

"We made an attempt to sign Scott Podsednik right off the bat in the offseason," Williams explained. "He wanted a multiyear deal at significantly more dollars and it just didn't work out. There came a time when I expressed to them, 'We're moving on,' and I don't know if it was believed or not, but we moved on."

With Rios batting .199 in 146 at-bats after his move to the Sox in early August, there has been no ducking the Rios subject.

"I talked to Alex last week in Miami and asked for feedback for why he was so bad," Guillen said. "When he came to Chicago, he told me he thought he would be the savior and a lot of things went through his mind, a lot of pressure and he couldn't perform. I talked to him for a couple of hours and told him exactly what I need from him. To try to take pressure off, I told him, 'You're not the man in the lineup.'

"I'm looking for Alex to have a tremendous year. I hope next year at this time you guys are thanking us for getting Alex. "

Williams cited Rios' stats: a 28-year-old two-time All-Star with a career .280 average.

"That doesn't just disappear," Williams told the crowd, "and we saw that the last two weeks of the season [when Rios was 5-of-9]. But then, according to the TV ratings, a lot of you may not have been watching then."

Big laughs, but a painful subject in White Sox land, where TV ratings and attendance are no laughing matter.

"People don't understand why in April, when we lose a tough game or a game we've just thrown away, why I walk out of the ballpark and my stomach is churning and I can't sleep," Williams said. "My friends say, 'It's April, it's one game.' Well, for me, I know that one game is going to cost us. And especially in our situation, if you don't start off well and show White Sox fans that we're going to be a team to be reckoned with, then you're not coming.

"We have to show you and show you very quickly so we can be in a position financially to go out and get players [at midseason]. It's a very difficult conversation to walk in and request X amount of dollars and see the attendance numbers."

At that point, he could have used a hug from Braden.