Ken Williams remembers standing next to his father and listening to the arguments. He was 9 years old, though he might as well have been 99, because innocence never was a luxury afforded to him.
Jerry Williams, a smart man, a loyal and honorable one, wanted to fight fires in San Jose, Calif. He spent his days fighting the city that didn't want him because of his skin color. A man who, literally, would run through fire.
That was the climate in 1972, the one in which Ken Williams was raised: Among Huey P. Newton, the revolutionary Black Panther Party leader, and his godfather, John Carlos, who might have the world's most iconic fist next to Muhammad Ali's, and his father, Jerry Williams, the smart, loyal and honorable man who sued the fourth-biggest city in California for racial discrimination and won.
And it was, too, the climate in which Ken Williams learned what he now applies as general manager of the Chicago White Sox: "The safe route will ultimately give you a mediocre result."
However Frostian that sounds, it is the application of the equal and opposite path – risks beget rewards – that has driven Williams from second-guessed to second to none in his profession. It also leads to some awfully tantalizing possibilities, this being July and all, and with the White Sox starting a three-game clash against the Detroit Tigers Tuesday night that could go a long way toward determining American League Central supremacy.
"When you're looking for impact-type guys to help you get to that ultimate level, you've got to take some risks," Williams said. "We will make every attempt possible not to do something stupid."
Sometimes Williams drops the serious glower – rest assured it is no facade – and reels off one-liners like that. Self-deprecating shots or incendiary jabs at others, they're Williams' defense mechanism, his reminder that for all of the shimmer of his World Series ring from last season, he is only as good as he is humble.
"When you start to think you've got this game figured out, that's the beginning of your downfall," Williams said. "You are constantly learning, whether it's on the scouting end, the player-development end, the mental aspects of the game, the thought processes of various people, the psychological, the management skills, dealing with the media. Once you start to think you have all the answers, you won't be employed for too long."
It's always that balance. Between confidence and arrogance, conviction and hubris, knowledge and bigheadedness. More than anything for Williams, it is between comfort and sloth. He is always thinking, always moving, always calling – sometimes too much, he's learning.
And it's that zeal that leaves Williams feeling every bit of 42, even though he's been running the White Sox for only six seasons. For all of the job's rewards – thanks from the merchants whose businesses stayed afloat thanks to the championship and the octogenarians who had lived without seeing a World Series victory in Chicago and the entire South Side – there is the edginess of July, the Maalox moments that accompany trade talk.
What, a championship would actually buy Williams some capital? Uh-huh.
"The first thing we did after the World Series was trade for Jim Thome, and people were saying he was a risk," Williams said. "We're like, Really? That's a surprise to us.' Because his track record when he's been healthy is tremendous. All we had to do was find out the medical prognosis. OK. We're comfortable. It's not risk without thought, without information, without analysis."
So go all of Williams' moves. Or, as White Sox enthusiasts want to hear: No, Williams is not planning on giving away Freddy Garcia or Javier Vazquez for two pouches of Big League Chew and a Pokemon card.
He does, however, see his White Sox as fallible. While Williams said this can be a championship team, he noted the White Sox have not gotten down bunts and sacrificed themselves as they did last season. Their defense is down, he said, and their pitching hasn't been what it was last season.
Thus, the trade talks. And that's all they are. With the starting-pitching market on Fen-Phen, teams asked Williams about his starters, seeing as with Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Garcia, Vazquez and Brandon McCarthy, he's got six candidates for a five-man rotation. Williams, as he customarily does, said: "Make an offer."
"I'm not planning to move any of our guys," Williams said. "I may need a bullpen piece. That's it.
"But it is July."
Yes it is.
And July is not for the safe.
In 2003 and 2004, Williams ignored the hazmat label and acquired Carl Everett in July. The first time, the White Sox, up two games on the Minnesota Twins in the Central on Sept. 9, went 8-10 the rest of the way and watched the Twins cruise to a division title. The next year, Williams made a deal as much for the future as the present: He traded Esteban Loaiza to the New York Yankees for a bust named Contreras.
Most of Williams' big deals happen in the offseason when he has more time to assess – or obsess, depending on who is doing the armchair analysis. If it's Williams' staff, they laugh at the way he analyzes every bit of every potential trade like an ornithologist in the Amazon. If it's Williams' wife, Jessica, she ladles on the grief, because the risky course involves so much more than the safe one, and the toughest balance to strike isn't at work. It's with work.
"I haven't really learned how to do this job yet in a manner that isn't all-consuming," Williams said. "And for my health and my long-term propositions to keep this job and to continue to give my all to it, I've got to find proper balance. More than anything, (my wife) has been able to break through the barrier to try and get me to understand how important that is. To everyone around me and my own health."
So on Monday, Williams took the day off in Detroit with his 15-year-old son, Tyler. They went to see old Tiger Stadium, which will be demolished soon, and then they saw a movie, "Little Man." They laughed and they learned – what fathers and sons do. And some people might call that a risk, spending a day in the heart of the season, in the middle of the general manager's vital month, away from baseball.
Ken Williams knows something about risks. And he knows better than to care what people think about his.
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