Kenny Williams, former Stanford University two-sport star and Chicago White Sox general manager since 2000, is perfectly happy to talk about the weather, traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway, Stanford's Rose Bowl aspirations, the state of minority hiring in baseball or the outlook in the American League Central Division. He might even offer up an opinion on the employment prospects of A.J. Pierzynski and Paul Konerko.
But if you want to have a congenial discussion with the man, it's best to avoid one popular topic. As Williams made clear during the recent Major League Baseball general managers' meetings, he is finished slicing, dicing, assessing and dissecting his personal relationship with the White Sox's manager.
"If I have to talk about Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams anymore, I am going to throw up,'' Williams said. "Seriously. This game begins and ends with the players and the fans. That's it. All the rest of us are stewards of the game, and caretakers, and that's it.''
Jim Hendry, the GM on the other side of town, is perfectly happy to discuss the merits of his manager. Mike Quade fashioned a nice little "Rocky'' story during a late-summer audition in the Chicago Cubs' dugout, after the organization chose him over Hall of Famer and fan favorite Ryne Sandberg to replace the departed Lou Piniella. Quade, formerly the Cubs' third base coach, led the team to a 24-13 record and impressed the brass enough to land a two-year contract with a club option for 2013.
Quade, 53, grew up in Evanston, Ill., and spent 16 seasons as a minor league manager. When his big opportunity finally arrived, he projected a sense of preparedness and calm and a refreshingly long-term view. Quade handled the media with aplomb, and dealt with the daily brushfires before they had a chance to spiral out of control. When rookie shortstop Starlin Castro had a mental lapse in early September, Quade sat him on the bench for two days, sans histrionics, and made his point quietly, forcefully and efficiently.
"I've seen it before, where guys get the 'interim' tag and think that every win is going to get them or lose them the job,'' Hendry said. "Mike didn't manage the last six weeks like a guy who was desperately trying to get the job. He protected his pitchers. The 'pen guys didn't get taxed. He played the kids. He managed the team like he already had the job.
"Here's a guy who's given his life to the game and never promoted himself. He's a really good baseball guy, and you can't fool players. These guys ran through the wall for him and he deserved the job. It wasn't as if I had a long history with Mike Quade. It was a wide-open thing for me, and at the end I thought Mike was the best fit for the Cubs.''
As the Cubs look forward to the Mike Quade regime, it means less time for Hendry to hash over his decision not to hire Sandberg as manager. This is what's known in both sports and business circles as a "fringe benefit.''
Chicago: Drama central
It's been a chaotic couple of months in the managerial ranks, with 15 teams either making changes in the dugout or deciding to maintain the status quo. But no market does managerial drama like Chicago, where the intrigue is so abundant they serve it in two varieties -- deep dish and thin crust.
Ultimately, the manager can do only so much to determine the fate of the city's two big league franchises in 2011. The White Sox have holes in their lineup, a so-so farm system and big decisions in front of them on Konerko and Pierzynski. As for the Cubs, they have about $95 million invested in eight players next season. And now that Micah Hoffpauir has signed with the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan, the depth chart on the right side of the infield consists of Tyler Colvin or Jeff Baker at first base and Blake DeWitt at second.
But no matter how the Hot Stove turns, the conversation inevitably seems to drift back to the manager's office. For the past few months, baseball talk in Chicago has resembled a Wrigley Field touchdown drive: It always heads in the same direction.
During the GMs meetings in Orlando last week, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf told the Chicago Sun-Times that when the Florida Marlins sought permission to interview Guillen during their recent manager search, the Sox proposed a trade that would bring an elite prospect back to Chicago. ESPN.com confirmed through a baseball source that the player in question was Logan Morrison, an on-base machine who would have been a nice fit in the Chicago lineup in 2011. The Marlins ultimately decided to stay in-house, and retained interim manager Edwin Rodriguez.
Reinsdorf, through a club spokesman, declined to comment for this story. But he told the Sun-Times' Gordon Wittenmyer that reports of friction between Williams and Guillen have been overblown.
"There's a natural tension between managers and general managers,'' Reinsdorf said. "That's true with every club. But these guys get along.''
For the longest time, the Ozzie-Kenny dynamic was guaranteed to entertain because of the principals' contrasting styles. On one side was Ozzie, bombastic, shooting from the hip and oblivious to the fallout from his outlandish comments. On the other side was Kenny, blunt, self-assured and not afraid to remind everyone that he's the smartest guy in the room. Regardless of what happens in the end, they will forever be linked to 2005, when they combined to win a World Series and end 88 years of frustration for the White Sox.
But there comes a point when familiarity brings diminishing returns, and the Sox might be at that point. The GM-manager tandem has been together since 2003, when Guillen arrived from the Marlins' coaching staff to replace Jerry Manuel. With seven seasons together, Williams and Guillen are tied with Boston's Theo Epstein and Terry Francona for the longest continuous GM-manager tenure in the game.
Things began unraveling this summer when Guillen's general wackiness and penchant for making mountains out of ant hills became contagious. First Guillen's middle son, Oney, resigned after a Twitter-related uproar in spring training. Then Ozzie lashed out publicly after the White Sox refrained from picking his youngest son, Ozney, until the 22nd round of the June draft. Inevitably, the fabric of the leadership dynamic at U.S. Cellular Field began to fray.
"This is what happens when you have two passionate guys who are strong-willed and opinionated about what they do,'' said a person familiar with the White Sox' situation. "There are going to be clashes. The only difference this year is that it became a little more public, and there was a family element to it. That obviously makes everything more complicated for people.''
Williams has always had little patience with media second-guessing, and now he's not so much tired of the routine as tired in general. In September, he told writer Joe Posnanski that his dream job is to run the Oakland Raiders. Whether it was a joke or a confession, only he knows for sure.
Can creative tension between a general manager and manager can be a productive thing? On this issue, Williams is noncommittal.
"I think it's healthy sometimes,'' he said. "Other times, if it's not working, it can be destructive.''
The Williams-Guillen relationship probably falls somewhere in the middle. Reinsdorf, by all accounts, is a huge fan of both men and committed to keeping them in Chicago and making things work. But Guillen's contract runs for only one more year, with a club option for 2012. If you think the soap opera has chewed up lots of bandwidth, just wait to see what happens if the Sox get off to a slow start and Ozzie starts venting about his future.
"We can win the way we are right now,'' Williams said. "All we care about is baseball. The peripheral stuff -- that's everybody else. We're not paying attention.''
A tough call
On the north side of town, it's change rather than continuity that keeps things interesting. Hendry has spent a lot of money on Dusty Baker and Piniella, and now he's entering his 10th year and working on his third manager. Even he's realistic enough to concede there probably won't be a fourth.
As one NL scout observed, the Quade hiring took "big [guts]'' given the alternatives. Sandberg made a major personal sacrifice by swallowing his Hall of Fame pride and spending four years in the minors learning how to manage. But several Cubs executives traveled to Iowa to watch him this summer, and some combination of factors that we'll probably never know or fully understand convinced Hendry to look in a different direction.
"The guy has come light years from where he was in terms of communicating with players and the media,'' said a scout who has followed Sandberg's managerial journey. "But managing the Cubs? I think he needs to start in a place like Kansas City or Pittsburgh, where he won't have 10 people every night asking him, 'Why did you do it this way?'''
Even Cubs fans who think Hendry blew it by not hiring Sandberg have to concede this much: Hiring Sandberg would have been the easy decision. Right or wrong, Hendry did his homework and picked the guy he thought was best equipped to win baseball games in 2011 and beyond.
Sandberg, understandably disappointed, signed on to manage the Phillies' Triple-A team last week. The Cubs, understandably, aren't thrilled with the perception in some quarters that they failed to give him a fair shake. Hendry, assistants Gary Hughes and Randy Bush and farm director Oneri Fleita all spent time in Iowa making evaluations, and at the end of the day, all roads led back to Quade.
"Ryno did a very good job for us,'' Hendry said. "He's a terrific guy. I certainly understand why he feels it's in his best interests to go work for another organization and get noticed, and hopefully he gets his chance someday.
"We have a great fan base, and their hearts are going to be with our marquee players. Ryno was certainly one of them, and I'm sure a lot of people would have liked him to be the guy. But I have to make the call, and it wasn't an easy call.''
Hendry has two years left on his deal, and for the sake of his future, it better be the right call.
"You can't always do the popular thing,'' said a National League GM. "But it's Jim's ass [on the line].''
With his new manager in place, Hendry can now focus on trade talks, phone calls with agents and the chore of building a team to satisfy a devoted, long-suffering and increasingly testy fan base. Only in Chicago could that seem like a respite.