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Nightengale's Notebook: Ken Williams disappointed with MLB's diversity efforts – 'same as it was 20 years ago'

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PHOENIX — Ken Williams pulled up into his Chicago neighborhood, looked out his car window and gasped.

He stared at the sickening graffiti message on the side of his home.

"No (racial slur) is going to run the Chicago WHITE Sox."

The year was 2000 when Williams was just hired as Chicago’s general manager.

Here we are 22 years later, celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week and Williams still is proudly standing: executive vice president for the Chicago White Sox.

He will join Ozzie Newsome of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens at the season’s conclusion for the longest tenure, 22 years, by an African American to head operations of a major North American sports franchise.

Williams, 57, wants to leave a legacy as a man who valiantly fought for equal opportunity in an industry inundated with dismal minority representation among front offices and field managers.

It has been nearly two years since Major League Baseball stood up and publicly embraced the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, pledging diversity in front-office hirings.

Look around, and nothing has changed.

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There have been 15 GM and president of baseball operations openings in the past two offseasons, and not a single Black person was hired.

There has not been a single African-American hired as a GM or vice president of baseball operations since 2014 when the Arizona Diamondbacks hired Dave Stewart, only to fire him two years later.

There have been just three hired as a GM or vice president/president of baseball operations since Williams in 2000, and he remains the only African-American leading a baseball department.

"The literal complexion of the room today," Williams told USA TODAY Sports, "is the same as it was 20 years ago. Can you imagine if the whole room was Black for 22 years and you walked in and said, 'Man, we just can’t find any qualified white people anywhere.’ How insulting would that be?

Williams looks on during spring training in 2019.
Williams looks on during spring training in 2019.

"When you hear people say, 'I can’t find any qualified Black candidates for these jobs,' that’s just a false statement. I can go to the Buck O’Neil Scouts Foundation dinner and I can find people who have advanced degrees who have been in baseball for 10, 20, 25 years. You want scouting experience? You want player development experience? You want managing experience. People with analytical backgrounds? There’s a whole room full of them in baseball right now."

Yet, while Al Avila of Detroit, Farhan Zaidi of San Francisco and Kim Ng of Miami are the only other minority leaders of baseball teams, the jobs are constantly being filled by white men.

Williams' father fought for the integration of the San Jose, California, fire department. His godfather is famed 1968 Olympic sprinter John Carlos, who displayed the Black Power salute on the medal podium. His biological mom was a member of the Black Panthers. So Williams is not going to stand quietly by without trying to make a difference.

"The spirit of Dr. King, he preached non-violence," Williams said, "but he did not preach silence through oppression. For if these things go unsaid, then how much longer will it take for change to occur?

"If I don’t honor the very people that helped me get where I am, if I don’t speak on behalf of the people that cannot speak for themselves, that’s not in the spirt of Dr. King."

Williams, who played football and baseball at Stanford before a 10-year professional playing career, including six years in the major leagues, closes his eyes and listens to the voices that helped him throughout his career.

Frank and Barbara Robinson. Joe Morgan. Bob Watson. Ernie Banks. Billy Williams. Jimmie Lee Solomon. Reggie Jackson.

"I’m not sure in those early years I would have continued on had it not been for Frank and Barbara’s mentorship," Williams says. "There were many nights we had some very deep conversations about what Frank had gone through in his career and some of the things he had to navigate through.

“People like Joe Morgan supported me early on, inspired me, when things got tough. Ernie Banks would call. Reggie just called me the other day to check in.

"So, if I don’t honor these people by continuing to be a voice, what does that say about me? What does that say about me when I still hear Muhammad Ali’s voice whisper to me in Cincinnati at the Civil Rights game: 'I’m proud of you. I’m proud of you. Keep telling it like it is.' "

He talked about the lack of diversity at the General Manager meetings in La Costa, California, in November. He has spoken at MLB's owner meetings. He has addressed his concerns in front of some of his heroes like Martin Luther King III, Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, Rachel and Sharon Robinson, Hank and Billye Aaron and Willie Mays.

The message resonates with everyone, but is not universally well-received. When Williams spoke at a dinner in Memphis before the 2007 Civil Rights Game, he drew backlash when he said that he wasn’t overly concerned about the decline of Black players in MLB.

"I know that was a strange comment coming from a sitting GM," Williams said, "but I told them I cared more about the murder rate, the incarceration rate, the teen pregnancy rate, the high-school diplomacy rate. Those are the things that are important to me. If they happened to be good enough to be a major-league player, great. But I didn’t want the aspiration to supersede the things that would last a lifetime.

"It was right after Hank had said that he wanted to see more African-American players in baseball, so Hank wasn’t happy with me for about two years."

Williams explained his thoughts a couple of years later in front of Aaron, Mays, Robinson and other baseball dignitaries at a dinner in Chicago and by the end of the night, each spoke privately to Williams and thanked him.

"I still get goosebumps because my heroes said they were proud of me," Williams said, "and it had nothing to do with accomplishments on the field, but everything to do in how I represented them. Each person said a little something. It was overwhelming.

"It made me realize my responsibility not to just me and my family, but to my extended baseball family."

Williams is one of the few front-office executives unafraid to publicly convey his thoughts. Baseball’s Black community quietly seethes over clubs’ front-office and managerial hiring practices. There’s not a single Black GM in the game. Williams is the lone vice president in charge of baseball operations. Derek Jeter is the only CEO. Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts are the only Black managers.

The overwhelming fear is that speaking publicly over the racial injustice in the game would be a career death sentence. Go ahead and speak privately, or anonymously, but better stay quiet if you still want to work in baseball.

"Everyone has their own cross to bear, some people are more comfortable speaking about it than others," Williams said. "Everybody has families to take care, mouths to feed and careers to look after as did I for a number of years. Fortune has allowed me now where that’s not necessarily a worry.

"I do realize speaking out in the fashion I have could cost me future (business) opportunities, but I owe it to all of those people that counseled me through the years and helped me where I am today.

"If I can look back and see maybe from the timing of speaking a little more aggressively and challenging the institution a little bit and say, 'Wow, from this point on, more people got opportunities,’ then whatever happens to me down the line will be worth it."

There are about 15 owners who have approached Williams asking for guidance or vowing to make a difference in their organizations, which gives Williams hope.

Two Black executives, Danny Montgomery of the Colorado Rockies and James Harris of the Cleveland Guardians, were promoted to assistant GM positions this winter. Albert Gilbert became the first member of MLB’s Diversity Fellowship program to be hired in a key front office role as the Rockies’ director of baseball administration.

There also are new amendments to the Selig rule – requiring teams to interview minority candidates for GM and field manager positions – that if clubs “promote a non-diverse person for a key front-office position, a diverse candidate must be promoted or hired to fill the position."

Teams also must provide the Commissioner’s office with a succession plan for all senior baseball operation positions that include diverse candidates.

"I think if more owners were exposed to African-American candidates, even in social settings," Williams said, "then I think greater comfort would come as a result of it. That might lead to some things.

"But there’s a wide net cast over baseball ownership that I think is unfair. There are clubs doing some wonderful things. So I choose to be optimistic just based on those conversations.

"Really, I have no choice.

"The alternative is depressing."

Balkovec breaks barriers

It was eight years ago when Rachel Balkovec became the first full-time female strength and conditioning coach with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Two years ago, she was the first woman to become a minor-league hitting coach with the New York Yankees.

This year, she will become the first full-time female manager in professional baseball at any affiliated level for the Yankees’ Class A Tampa Tarpons.

"Bias and stereotypes are going to be around forever, but I do think we’ve made a ton of progress," Balkovec said. "I mean, there’s going to be (10) women in uniform next year. Looking back on those days it would have been incomprehensible to understand what the next decade was going to look like for myself and for others."

Balkovec, 34, who grew up in Nebraska, played college softball at Creighton and New Mexico, received an outpouring of support from everyone from tennis icon Billie Jean King to Marlins GM Kim Ng.

"Just the way that people react to me and the way that they talk to me," she said, "it’s becoming more normal. It’s pretty apparent and it’s just exciting to see how much progress we’ve made. We definitely have a lot of room to grow, but it’s really exciting.

"There were many times in my career where I felt extremely lonely and I literally didn’t have anyone to call who had been going through the same experiences."

Balkovec in 2019.
Balkovec in 2019.

Balkovec, who’s bilingual and has two master’s degrees, was beaming during her Zoom press conference that included more than 100 reporters.

"If you know my story and you have a pulse, I think it’s pretty hard not to get behind what’s going on here," Balkovec said. "It’s the American dream. There’s definitely been some dark times that I’ve been able to overcome, that I think that everybody can enjoy a piece of my story."

Balkovec was pursuing a job in professional baseball in the fall of 2012. She knew she had a phenomenal résumé with her six internships and her two degrees, but couldn’t get anyone to return her calls or respond to her résumé. Finally, she was about to be hired by a team in the middle of the 2013 spring-training camp in Arizona. The job was hers. Just needed the paperwork to be completed.


"Finally, several weeks later he called me," she said. "I’ll never forget this phone call. He said, 'Hey, I’m really sorry, we’re not going to be able to hire you. I do want to let you know it's because you’re a woman. ... I don’t have any problem hiring women. I took it to our leadership and they said no.

"He was apologetic, and trying to be honest what I was up against. I thanked him for being honest. He said, 'Well, it gets worse.’ I’m thinking, 'How can this possibly be worse?’

"He said, 'I took a long time to get back to you because I called all of the teams that had jobs posted and they also said the same thing.’

"That’s when I would say the dark times really started."

She went to work as a waitress, took an internship with Arizona State, continued to apply for baseball jobs, and even changed her name on résumé to "Rae." It worked until a team called and her voice revealed she was a woman.

Balkovec finally got her break in 2014 when the Cardinals hired her to be their strength and conditioning coordinator for their Class A Johnson City, Tennessee team. She went to the Houston Astros two years later to be their Latin American strength and conditioning coordinator. She was hired by the Yankees in 2019 as a minor-league hitting instructor.

And Balkovec continues to make history.

"I’m glad my path was difficult," she said. "When people want you to give up, that’s the moment where you need to say thank you. I want to say thank you to the people who discriminated against me because it changed me as a person, and as difficult as it was, I’m very glad I went through that experience. …

"I’m so glad I didn’t give up."

Lester during Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
Lester during Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

The legend of Jon Lester

Jon Lester, who announced his retirement this past week after 16 seasons, embodied everything about old-school baseball.

You think wins for pitchers are overrated in baseball?

Please, don’t insult Lester, who won 200 career games.

"Wins are everything," Lester told USA TODAY Sports one spring. "I never understood who don’t believe that. If not, why are we out there on the mound, to get a participation trophy?

"Even in the minor leagues, you’d hear coaches say, 'We don’t care if you win or lose, we want you to develop.’ I’m like, 'I care more about winning than developing. I’d rather win this game than work on my changeup.'

"There’s still a reason where you look at the box score in the paper the next day, and it says, 'Winning pitcher. Losing pitcher. Save.' That’s something you can’t change. Winning games is huge. You want to say (Greg) Maddux’s 355 wins don’t mean anything?"

Every year he wanted to win at least 15 games, pitch at least 200 innings, and reach the postseason.

Anything less was considered a failure.

This is a man who started 241 games for the Boston Red Sox from 2006 to 2014, and he pitched at least six innings in 178 of those games. He pitched at least 200 innings in eight seasons.

Most important, he also helped his teams reach the postseason nine times.

"He taught us all how to be professional, how to do it the right way," former Cubs teammate Anthony Rizzo often said, "and how to win."

Lester will be missed – and has a strong Hall of Fame case.

Buck starts here

Buck Showalter is getting restless around the house these days, and even though no date is set for spring training, Showalter says he may just pack his bags and head to Port St. Lucie, Florida, the first week of February, and await everyone’s arrival.

Showalter, managing for the first time since 2018, may be the most intriguing newcomer for the 2022 season, trying to lead the New York Mets to their first World Series title since 1986.

"It’ll be interesting to watch Buck Showalter because he’s the type of guy who could really impact the decision-making on an industry-wide basis," ESPN broadcaster David Cone said. "Count me as one of his fans. I’ve seen him evolve over the years.

"He was different in 1995 with the Yankees his last year. He was different in Arizona. He was really different in Baltimore. He really evolved in Baltimore in terms of allowing the players to be themselves, allowing the players to show more emotion. The days of criticizing Ken Griffey Jr. for wearing his hat backward while taking BP are over. Buck understands that. Even if he may have been on the other side of the fence years ago, he’s clearly evolved in that area and understands that today’s players … it’s different.

"It’s a different game and I applaud it. They should be able to show legitimate emotion on the baseball field, and there’s a big difference between legitimate emotion and the in-your-face disrespectful things we see at times. I think Buck’s going to surprise some people. He’s much more progressive in his thinking than he’s been given credit for."

A fitting honor

The Mets, who have long been criticized for doing a poor job celebrating their past, will retire Keith Hernandez’s No. 17 this summer.

Hernandez, traded in June of 1983 from St. Louis to the Mets, immediately helped turn the franchise into a winner.

"He brought a winning culture, just the way he moved and the way he acted and the way he played," said Ron Darling, Hernandez’s former teammate and current broadcast partner.

Baltimore bandbox no more

The Baltimore Orioles, believing their path to recovery is through pitching, are dramatically changing the dimensions of Camden Yards.

They are moving the left-field fence back by 30 feet and raising the wall from seven feet to 12 feet. It was the shortest left-center field wall in baseball and now will be the sixth-tallest. The center-field wall, 400 feet away, will remain at 7 feet.

More home runs, 5,911, have been hit in the 30-year history of Camden Yards than any ballpark in the majors, despite the Orioles hardly resembling the Bronx Bombers. There have been 72 more home runs hit at Camden Yards than any ballpark in baseball over the past three seasons, with 57% of the home runs hit by opposing teams.

The move makes sense.

"For any team, for any park to be toward the very, very extreme in either direction," Orioles GM Mike Elias said, "it’s a bit of a challenge. It’s something that has posed a challenge for this franchise, and we think that this will improve the playing conditions and the style of play in this part of the park and be beneficial towards us and the type of competition that occurs here going forward.

"A ball leaves the bat and it’s a home run and no one expected it to be, nor is it a home run in 28, 29 other major league parks, and the players feel that."

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ken Williams disappointed with MLB's progress on diversity