Ozzie's School of Management

Lessons from the Dugout, the Clubhouse, and the Doghouse

Rick Morrissey

Times Books

1
ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL, IN THEORY
 
 
An older gentleman stood near the dugout at U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the White Sox, between innings of a game against the Oakland Athletics in June 2011. His seat was far away from where he was now standing. Joey Cora, the bench coach, had watched the man make his way purposefully down one of the aisles in the premium box seats.
Ozzie Guillen likes to stand on the top step of the dugout in part so he can take in the crowd while he’s working. To put yourself in the line of fire of fan abuse would seem to be masochistic, but Ozzie isn’t like most other major-league managers. He wants to hear and be heard, to see and be seen. Every baseball game is a happening for him, an experience, and part of that is the interaction with the fans. To sequester himself would be like U2 choosing to play a concert in a garage.
And Ozzie would have no one to talk to when he got bored.
Now the old man was saying something, and Guillen could tell by the earnest expression on his face and the way he leaned over the railing that it was important, or at least important to him. But with the music pounding from the stadium’s loudspeakers, Guillen couldn’t make out the words.
“What’s he saying?” he asked Cora.
“He’s saying that Dunn needs to go to the eye doctor,” Cora said.
“He just hit a fucking home run!” Guillen boomed.
Ozzie was laughing now, a big improvement over his mood of a few innings earlier, when the home crowd had stood and cheered after Adam Dunn had been hit by a pitch. That’s how bad things had gotten for the Sox’ designated hitter, a $56 million free-agent signing in the off-season. It was a cheer slathered with derision. Dunn finally has found a way to get on base! If it takes a 90 mph fastball to the elbow to get him there, we’re all for it!
It had been a miserable first two months of the season for the hulking home run hitter. His batting average was a sickly .178, and he had spent most of his time picking dirt off his uniform from the deep hole he had dug for himself. After each strikeout—and there had been lots of them—the crowd booed him as if he were guilty of war crimes.
At its heart, managing is not about poring over statistics during games and making the perfect move at the perfect moment. It’s not about deciding when to bring in a reliever or when to change the batting order. There’s a romanticized image of the major-league manager as a steely-eyed strategist and master move-maker who relies on a treasure trove of statistical data to outwit his opponent. That’s part of managing, the way sliding a cake into an oven is part of making a cake. What Guillen had to do in dealing with Dunn—show unflinching faith through bits of thick and loads of thin—that’s managing. It’s dealing with human beings who have feelings, families, bad days, money problems, large egos, and torturous doubts. It’s dealing with different players in different ways.
It’s doing things behind the scenes that have nothing to do with whether a right-handed hitter does well against a particular left-handed pitcher whenever the relative humidity is at 57.8 percent in the seventh inning. It’s managing people, not numbers.
It’s leaving open the possibility you might be wrong and pushing forward anyway, shoulder down, into the gale. It’s doing it with a flair that only Guillen possesses.
So this fan standing there wanting the manager to schedule an eye appointment for his slumping slugger? Ozzie listened, and he didn’t listen. He laughed and waved to the man. He took it in and ignored it, just as he had ignored the wall of sound that had been pleading for Dunn’s benching for weeks.
Guillen refused to desert Dunn, which is exactly how he viewed a potential benching—as a desertion, a betrayal. If he didn’t stand up for his player, he risked losing him. He was convinced that most managers, if they had been in his position, would have caved in to public pressure and taken Dunn out of the lineup.
This was a case of spine over matter. Ozzie would take his lumps, and there would be a lot of them, although he didn’t know that as he laughed at the fan. The season would swirl toward the drain partly because of Dunn, and Guillen’s reputation would take a beating. But the manager refused to budge. In hindsight, it would have been better if he had budged and sent Dunn to the bench.
Ozzie knows a place where you can stick your hindsight.
“There are a lot of managers who worry about what the fuck fans are going to say or that they’re going to be criticized because of a move,” he said. “And they don’t worry about the real thing. The real thing is the player. If you kick the players in the ass because you’re afraid of the fans booing you or what the media is going to say, then you’re losing three things. You’re losing the fans, you’re losing the media, and you’re losing your players.
“The most important thing is your player. He’s the one who’s going to perform for you. He’s going to make you look good, or he’s going to make you look bad. Believe me, 90 percent of the managers out there, they try to protect their ass instead of doing what they’re supposed to do. I don’t give a shit what they say. I played baseball. I know what those managers are doing.”
One day, when Dunn was at his lowest, Guillen called him into his office. The manager had a fine line to walk. He wanted to let Dunn know he supported him, but he didn’t want to make him feel as if he were overly worried about him, even though he most certainly was. What he wanted to convey more than anything was that he had no doubt Dunn would get back to being the player he had been the previous seven years, the monster at the plate who had averaged 40 home runs and 101 runs batted in. Of this one thing, Guillen was absolutely certain. That sort of productivity doesn’t just disappear forever.
“Don’t try to be our savior,” he told Dunn. “You’re not our savior. You’re our helper. You came here to help us, not save us. You’re good. Don’t second-guess your abilities. I’m behind you. We’re all behind you. If they say something about you, it’s my fault. I’m the one who put you out there.”
Had this been a player without Dunn’s standing and accomplishments, Guillen might not have been so patient. He had taken a similar tack with leadoff hitter Juan Pierre, another veteran who was struggling at the plate and in the field, and it drove White Sox fans insane.
But Guillen believed there was a chance he’d lose his team if he treated Dunn or Pierre the same way he treated someone like Brent Lillibridge, a twenty-seven-year-old Sox outfielder who had spent the previous three seasons bouncing back and forth between the majors and Triple-A. If he gave up on a veteran, it would look like panic.
“I treat people equally with respect,” Guillen said. “But equally? No. That’s not true. That’s a bunch of shit. Every manager has got his favorite players. Every manager gets along with somebody better than others. Like I talk to Mark Buehrle more than I talk to Gavin Floyd. I talk to Alexei Ramirez more than I talk to Paul Konerko.
“Equally with respect? Yes. I don’t give a shit if you’re making $30 million or you’re fucking Lillibridge. I will respect you. But you can’t treat people equally. You can’t. That’s a lie. You’re lying.”
He’s not always so understanding with other players as he was with Dunn. When the reliever Will Ohman had two bad appearances to start the 2011 season, Guillen told reporters the pitcher “needs to get his head out of his ass.” It’s the kind of statement that, in the past, had left players shaking their heads over Guillen. When he publicly calls out a player, he breaks an unwritten baseball rule: you can rip a player in private all you want, but when you get in front of the media you support him.
Guillen saw this situation as a matter of effort and focus. Dunn and Pierre were trying their hardest. A journeyman reliever like Ohman shouldn’t look so lost.
Guillen’s lack of a filter is why observers in Miami are braced for possible fireworks between the new manager and the outfielder Logan Morrison. Morrison is a talented player with opinions and a Twitter account that got him into trouble in 2011. In August, the team demoted him to Triple-A because of what it considered distasteful tweets. The tipping point? It could have been the tweet in which he called one of his Twitter followers an “underrated slut.” Or it could have been the photo he posted of himself wearing a “Sharktits” T-shirt.
Most likely, it was the tweet with the photo of a hopelessly nerdy man and the accompanying poll, “Is this David Samson? Yes or no? Vote now.” Samson happens to be the Marlins’ president.
So an inevitable clash looms between Guillen and Morrison, right? Not necessarily. Think of the loud Morrison as a prophet, in a Sharktits T-shirt instead of camel hair clothes, preparing the way for the louder Guillen. Morrison can be as outspoken as he wants to be as long as he can play. That’s all Guillen cares about. There’s room for everyone’s quirkiness in Ozzie’s world.
He had very little use for the outfielder Nick Swisher in 2008, not because Swisher seemed almost genetically in need of media attention, but because he hit .219 and moped when he was benched.
If a player mopes or doesn’t try hard, he is a dead man to Ozzie. It doesn’t matter if he’s a star or a rookie. In this sense, Guillen is democratic.
On the same June night that Sox fans were giving Dunn a standing ovation for getting hit by a pitch and Guillen felt like crying for his much-maligned designated hitter, the manager confronted shortstop Alexei Ramirez for jogging, rather than sprinting, to first base after hitting a fly ball to right field. Guillen met him at the dugout steps.
“The next time you do that, you’ll be running to Guatemala,” he fumed.
Later, in a more reflective mood, he talked about all the meanings that Ramirez’s lackadaisical effort had carried with it, even if the Missile, as Guillen referred to the Cuban, didn’t intend it that way.
“When you don’t run the bases, you don’t respect me, you don’t respect your teammates, you don’t respect the people paying to watch you play,” he said.
A few days later, Ozzie the Good Cop was back. The Sox were playing Oakland again, and Guillen had brought in Sergio Santos to pitch the ninth inning with Chicago leading 5–3. Santos had been struggling, having picked up the loss in the previous two games in which he had pitched. Here was a chance to build the reliever’s confidence.
Santos started off poorly, giving up a single, striking out a batter, and walking another. Guillen went to the mound to calm him. Santos induced a fly out, then proceeded to give up another hit and a run, cutting the Sox’ lead to 5–4. So much for Ozzie’s soothing words. Now the Athletics had Coco Crisp coming to the plate with men on first and second and two outs.
Baseball people talk about “the book.” There is no such official tome. The book is conventional wisdom. It’s tradition, passed down from manager to manager, dealing in best-sense approaches to various situations. It’s also statistical probabilities. If you go by the book, you’re taking the route that carries with it the most recommendations and, presumably, the least risk.
In this case, the book said to bring in a left-handed pitcher to face the switch-hitting Crisp, who was batting .203 versus lefties and .280 against righties. The book said to hurry up already because it looked as if Santos, a right-hander, was choking.
But Santos needed emotional support, not more bludgeons to his ego. Two years before, after seven years as an infielder with three other organizations, he had joined the Sox’ minor-league system and become a pitcher.
A year later, armed with a 95-mph fastball and a hard slider, he was on the Sox’ big-league roster as a reliever. Now, with two men on and two out in the ninth inning, he was at something of a crossroads. Guillen loved Santos’s attitude, but could he trust him with the closer’s role?
Ozzie had a decision to make. His team had clawed back into the division race after a terrible start to the 2011 season. He could take the preferred route and bring in a lefty or he could build some equity in his shaky right-hander.
Guillen decided on a book burning. He wanted Santos to believe that the manager believed. If he brought someone else in from the bullpen, he risked losing Santos forever.
“Then all of a sudden I’m showing him I don’t have confidence in him,” Guillen said of the move he chose not to make. “Managing and coaching is making sure you give the guys opportunities, put them in the best spot, and believe in them when they’re down. It’s easy to manage when everybody’s good.”
Santos induced Crisp to ground out to third. He immediately sought out Guillen to thank him for his faith.
“That did wonders for my confidence,” Santos said.
Other managers might have looked at Guillen’s decision, shaken their heads, and walked away mumbling to themselves, much as the old man who had suggested Dunn needed an eye exam had done.
But they’re not Ozzie, for better or worse.
*   *   *
When he’s deciding how to approach certain situations, Guillen riffles through his memories. One of those situations came up in the first game of the 2011 season. Despite the forty-three-degree chill, the Sox were pounding the Indians in Cleveland. Not just beating them, but making their pitchers look like Little Leaguers with self-esteem issues.
In blowouts, managers often pull some of their starters from the game. It’s a chance to get some playing time for their bench players. One of those bench players was Omar Vizquel, who would turn forty-four three weeks later. Vizquel is five foot nine and 180 pounds of constant motion who had willed himself into an eleven-time Gold Glove shortstop. He had gotten kicked out of grade school three times in Venezuela for “throwing things at people” and “hitting people with sticks.” What says “future Hall of Fame baseball player” more than that?
And now here was Vizquel sitting on the bench as the Sox piled up runs against the Indians. Guillen thought about the sad sight of a former star trudging on to the field to give a younger player a rest in the late innings of a romp. It would have been an insult, the manager thought. Someone of Vizquel’s stature needs to be celebrated, not dragged down to human level.
“I don’t think any manager should slap a Hall of Fame player doing that,” Guillen said. “You’re going to lose respect from your team. His teammates are going to say, ‘Look at Ozzie playing Omar.’ That’s why we have other players. I’d never do it to a player.”
That decision had wiggled its way up from Guillen’s past. In 2000, he was in his last year in the big leagues, a thirty-six-year-old shortstop on his last baseball legs in Tampa Bay. Manager Larry Rothschild inserted him in the eighth inning of a game the Devil Rays trailed, 17–1.
“I was kind of upset,” Guillen said. “I knew it was my job, but in the meanwhile, it’s 17–1, goddamn, I paid my dues already. I knew it was my job, and I’ve got to go play. But goddamn, you think I’m going to be happy with one at-bat? I already have ten thousand at-bats. I don’t need one at-bat. They did it to me, and I wasn’t as great a player as Omar was.”
Guillen never said anything to Rothschild. Took the slight, swallowed it, digested it. And never forgot it.
“What was Larry Rothschild going to say?” Guillen said. “He would have said, ‘That’s your job. You don’t want it? Get the fuck out of here.’ But the players were talking about it. Like, ‘Why is this guy playing you when we’re down seventeen runs?’ I never go to the manager asking anything because that’s the job I picked. But because I didn’t like it, I’m not going to do it to somebody else.”
The lesson Guillen took away, aside from the one about not insulting veteran players, was how fragile respect is—how hard it is to get and how easy it is to lose.
It’s the manager’s job to keep twenty-five plates spinning, which is to say that the manager’s job is impossible. There are twenty-five players on each major-league roster, and there are always some who are struggling, no matter how good the player is or how good the team is. At some point in the season, each ballplayer will be on intimate terms with failure. No one is good for 162 games.
For Guillen, that ensures six months of varying degrees of misery. The leadoff hitter might be knocking the yarn out of the baseball, but the guy batting cleanup can’t get a hit. Or a pitcher suddenly can’t locate the strike zone with GPS.
“Coaches and managers, they don’t have a life,” Guillen said. “They’re lonely because they have to worry about the guy who failed. You got three hits, everybody’s happy. This guy wins the game, everybody’s happy. It’s easy to manage the guys having success. Fuck, anybody can do that. But being next to the guy who failed, being next to the people who need to be helped, that’s the hard part.
“We win games and I’m in the back of the plane talking with Carlos Quentin or whoever had a bad game. I know they’re down. I sit with them and talk to them. Why? Because I played. Why? Because I went through it. Why? Because I had people around me when I played to teach me that. Whatever you learned, you provide that to other people.”
Carlos Quentin. So talented yet so tightly wound that he sometimes looks like he dresses in copper coil rather than cotton clothing. A smile looks as foreign on his face as a doorknob would. Guillen tried to loosen him up. It didn’t work.
In the end, he decided to leave the outfielder alone. Everybody’s different.
“He can’t help it,” Guillen said. “We tried it for the last three years, and that’s the way he is. I think people have to respect that. People have to understand his point. This is a guy who takes this game very seriously. Sometimes, when you don’t take the game too serious, people don’t think you care. When you are serious, people think you’re too serious. You can’t make people happy either way.
“That’s the way he grew up. That’s the way he’s been his whole life. We’ve talked to him. You cannot change that. We tried a lot. We have fun with him. We try everything, and so far, nothing worked. I told the coaches, let him be himself.
“He’s having more fun now than he was the last couple years. I told him, ‘Listen, bro, just make sure you enjoy the game because sooner or later, you’re not going to play anymore, and you’re going to regret it.’”
When intense players are in a slump, Guillen’s first impulse is to reach out to help, but he has learned to see their point. Like Quentin, White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko is more serious than relaxed about his craft. He has gone through several severe hitting slumps in which he was his own worst enemy. The more he struggled, the tighter he became, to the point where it was a wonder he could walk to the batter’s box.
Guillen once brought him into his office and told him not to take the game so seriously. And then he received an education from Konerko.
“He said, ‘Hitting is the only way I can contribute to this ball club. I can’t run, I can’t throw, and I’m a pretty average fielder. I’ve got to hit to make my money and to help you,’” Guillen recalled.
Konerko’s self-scouting report was fairly accurate. He’s a much better first baseman than he was giving himself credit for, but he couldn’t outrun a two-toed sloth just off the disabled list. He takes every at-bat as seriously as last rites.
When Konerko laid out what was at stake, when he mentioned how it feels knowing your career is based on one skill, Guillen suddenly understood the pressure his player put on himself. It’s the pressure a good hitter with holes in his game feels. It can be suffocating to wonder if the one gift you’ve been given has left for good.
The opposite had been true of Guillen as a player. He had been a very good shortstop but a .264 lifetime hitter over sixteen seasons, the first thirteen with the White Sox, the last three with the Baltimore Orioles, the Atlanta Braves, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He hadn’t felt the pressure to hit that Quentin or Konerko sometimes felt. He was an average hitter, and everyone knew it. There weren’t high expectations waiting for him when he arrived at the plate. Fielding was what Guillen did well, and that skill wasn’t going to desert him. Hitting slumps arrive for no particular reason, loiter, resist remedies, and often leave as suddenly as they come. There’s more control when it comes to fielding.
“When you’re in a mental funk, I’m sure he can’t understand that,” Konerko said. “He just looks at it like, ‘I don’t get it. I never worried about hitting.’ He says, ‘I went 0-for-4 my whole career.’ I’ve heard him say that a million times. If I did that, it’d be a very short career.”
But when Konerko unburdened himself, it was indeed a lesson for Guillen, who realized he shouldn’t presume to know everything that goes through a player’s head. And it further reinforced in him the idea that he couldn’t treat players the same. The in-your-face speech he had given a slumping Beckham probably wouldn’t work with a Quentin or a Konerko.
But he would talk with them. Yes, he would most definitely talk.
If you’re a player, escape from Guillen is futile. He chats with players every day about anything, everything, and nothing. About their families. About the economy. About crazy drivers. About reality shows.
Some major-league managers steer clear of their players. They don’t want to have anything more than a professional relationship. The players have their clubhouse, a manager has his office, and everyone meets in the dugout.
In Casa Guillen, there are no walls. He played for veteran manager Bobby Cox in Atlanta and coached under another veteran, Jack McKeon, in Florida. When he was named the Sox manager in November 2003, he didn’t know what his clubhouse would look like, but he knew how it would sound: loud, like the team’s new leader. The same will be true with the Marlins.
“Bobby Cox is an old-school manager,” he said. “He doesn’t hang around the clubhouse. I’m different. I’m old school the way I treat my players. I’m not going to put up with any shit. I’m going to tell them what they should do. But I’m a new generation because I talk with my players. I’ll have a drink with them. I’m motherfucking them to their face when they’re not doing things right.”
Guillen walks through the clubhouse often, and very little gets by him. The distraught rookie. The resentful veteran who believes the manager is unfairly depriving him of at-bats. The pitcher who believes the manager shouldn’t have pulled him in the fifth inning.
All different. All in need of talking to.
“Managing is like fishing,” he said. “You put a hook on your line, you catch the fish, you let him go. You do it again. Back and forth, back and forth. That’s what it is. You let the players play. When they don’t do the things they should be doing, you call them back and tell them. Then you let them go to play again. That’s the way you deal with the players.”
Vizquel wants to be a manager some day. He spent the 2010 and 2011 seasons, his twenty-second and twenty-third in the big leagues, with the White Sox, and he spent a lot of time watching how Guillen does his job. If he’s lucky enough or cursed enough to become a manager, he’ll take from Guillen something besides hit-and-run strategies and small-ball philosophy.
“I’ll take his attitude,” Vizquel said. “His attitude is great. Approach the game with the same happiness that he approaches it with every day. You can see a smile on his face. He’s the guy who guides this team, and if you can see the manager like that, it brings you a good vibe. And I think it’s contagious.”
That energy and that vibe can be tiring for the people around Ozzie. White Sox players will get a nice change of pace with his replacement, Robin Ventura, a mellower fellow. The Marlins will embrace Guillen, who is livelier than the man he replaced, the eighty-year-old McKeon. That’s how it works in sports. The new guy is always a breath of fresh air. For a while.
Guillen takes a scattershot approach to life. Keep talking, keep reaching out to your players, and at least you’ll have their attention. And getting attention is the whole idea, right?
Not everyone listens.
It was no secret that Guillen didn’t get along with former Sox reliever Damaso Marte, a pitcher from the Dominican Republic who never seemed to be able to reach the heights his talent suggested he should. In 2005, the year the White Sox won the World Series, Marte showed up late before a game with the Angels. Earlier in the season, Guillen had been upset that Marte had hidden an arm injury, revealing it only after he had pitched poorly.
And now late for a game? It was clear to Guillen that the left-hander didn’t deserve to be treated like a veteran. He deserved to be treated like a defiant child. Guillen told him to go home. The two men got into a shouting match.
“You don’t like me!” Marte screamed. Guillen didn’t disagree.
The situation festered. Guillen let Marte sit at home while the team played in Kansas City.
He set aside his distaste for Marte when he put the reliever’s return in the hands of the players. They would have the final vote on whether he stayed or went. But Guillen did have an opinion.
“We need this guy to win,” he told them.
The players voted to allow Marte back on the team. Though he was still deep in Guillen’s doghouse, he emerged long enough to win Game 3 of the World Series, a fourteen-inning marathon against the Houston Astros.
The Sox traded him to Pittsburgh after the season.
Lesson?
“You’re not going to be loved by everyone, but you’re going to be loved by a lot of people,” Guillen said. “I tell my players, ‘I don’t care if you love me or you fucking hate me because at one point in the season I’m going to hate you, too. Just respect me because I will respect you back.’”
It’s simplistic to say that, in terms of management style, Ozzie Guillen is leading a discussion group while Tony La Russa was engaged in a chess match. Obviously, over a thirty-three-year career, La Russa got his players to play for him. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have won more than 2,700 games and three World Series in the big leagues before retiring after winning it all with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. And if Guillen were all thumbs as a strategist, he wouldn’t have more victories than losses, nor would he have a World Series title and a Manager of the Year award on his résumé. The Marlins wouldn’t have chased him so hard.
But the images the two managers project couldn’t be more different.
The dugout is where Guillen holds court with the media before most games. He is not in the least like La Russa, who took himself Very Seriously. When media members gathered around La Russa, it was clear they felt a duty to ask the perfect question so as not to offend his baseball sensibilities. With Guillen, reporters can ask anything, and he will say anything.
You can ask Guillen about the flashy way Vizquel dresses.
“He’s the worst dresser in baseball,” he said. “Very expensive but very bad.”
And Vizquel takes it. Gladly.
“He talks to everybody just like he’s another player,” Vizquel said. “I think that’s the way that you have to communicate with your players and push the right buttons for everybody. Not everybody’s the same way.”
The reality in pro sports is that the athletes, not the coaches or managers, run the show. This is based on the relative size of contracts and on star power. A standout baseball player typically makes millions of dollars a year more than his manager. Fans fill the seats hoping to see the power hitter slug home runs. They don’t come to see the manager inform the umpire of a lineup change.
This is where it gets tricky with Guillen. He loves the spotlight, and the spotlight loves him back. So how to balance that neediness with the responsibility of seeing to the needs of twenty-five different personalities? Guillen’s definition of a good manager has nothing to do with in-game decisions. In his mind, a good manager should think of himself as a servant. If he’s right, it would make him the most quoted servant in history.
“The most important thing is that players believe you and trust you,” he said. “They know that when you say something, you mean it, good or bad. They know you are here for them. They’re not here for you. That’s important. A lot of managers and coaches think the players are there for them. No, we’re here for them. We are the players’ employees. We work for them.
“You have to be honest. You have to tell the truth to them. Be open. They have to know that they don’t have a manager or a coach next to you—they have a friend. Even if you don’t like me, you have a friend. We all have problems, and I can try to resolve your problem the best I can.
“Through the years, sometimes I’ve gotten my heart broken because stuff happens. But in the meanwhile, I don’t regret it because I know what I did was best for the players. I think about them.”
Bobby Jenks is one of the players who has taken a mallet to Guillen’s heart. He had been an unlikely contributor to the Sox’ 2005 World Series championship, a hard-throwing rookie whose off-field issues had chased him out of the Anaheim Angels’ minor-league system. When he arrived at the Angels’ spring-training facility in 2001, he had burns on his hands and arms. According to a 2003 story in ESPN The Magazine, he had scorched himself “in a drunken stupor,” using a lighter to open a wound the size of a silver dollar on his right hand—his pitching hand. He burned his left hand, too, then both forearms. And then he passed out. Jenks told the Angels he burned himself lifting the engine out of his car. He hadn’t realized it was hot, he said.
In 2002, the Angels suspended him for sneaking beer onto the team bus, then demoted him from Double-A to Single-A. Arm troubles dogged him, and the Angels finally waived him in December 2004. When the White Sox claimed him for $20,000, his career was on life support. He was twenty-three.
It was this fragile ballplayer who came to Chicago in the summer of 2005 after thirty-five games with the Birmingham Barons, the Sox’ Double-A affiliate. There was no denying his talent. His fastball had been known to hit 100 mph, with movement on it, making him unhittable at times. There was still a lot of doubt about his personal life, however.
Guillen already had talked with him during spring training—like a friend, like a father, he said.
“You continue to do this, you’re going to ruin your life,” he told Jenks. “Whatever happened in the past is over. If you are not strong enough to turn this page in the past, you are not going to be strong enough to be a closer in the major leagues.”
It finally clicked for Jenks. He was the closer by the time the playoffs arrived in 2005, and he saved five games in the postseason. He was an All-Star the next two seasons, racking up a combined eighty-one saves. But he struggled toward the end of his stay in Chicago, and his conditioning seemed to be a never-ending issue with Guillen. The White Sox decided not to re-sign him after the 2010 season, and he signed as a free agent with the Boston Red Sox.
Guillen believed he had treated Jenks well, had sat the kid down and shown him that he cared about him as a human being. Then again, it’s a lot easier to show concern about someone who throws 100 mph than it is to show concern about a junk-ball pitcher. But the fact is that the White Sox had taken a chance on Jenks when other teams refused to touch him with a ten-foot fungo bat.
And they had helped him grow from a troubled, immature twenty-three-year-old into a major-league closer. Guillen knew he couldn’t treat Jenks like anybody else. The kid had arrived in Chicago with unique issues. There had to be firmness to go with the pats on the back.
Just as Guillen has learned it’s impossible to treat every player the same, he has learned every player won’t treat him the same. This is what Jenks told MLB.com in December 2010, after signing with the Red Sox: “I want to play for a manager who trusts his relievers, regardless of what’s going on. With the way Ozzie was talking this winter and the way he treated me, I don’t want to fight with the guy. How many times did he question my ability and then say how he would love to have me back, but I would have to come to spring training and fight for the closer’s role like anyone else?
“Why would I come back to that negativity? I’m looking forward to playing for a manager [Terry Francona] who knows how to run a bullpen.”
Long after Oney Guillen’s return fire about Jenks had joined the space debris of the social-media universe, Ozzie still felt betrayed.
Most people, in or out of baseball, don’t operate the way Guillen does. Most people don’t want confrontation. If they have an issue, they’re more likely to complain to someone else than take it up with the guilty party.
Guillen believes the rest of the world should be like him. If he’s upset with a player, he tells him to his face. Then he’ll oftentimes tell the media what he told the player. Jenks skipped a step and went right to the media. It stung Guillen. That’s one of the contradictions about him: his tongue is sharp, but he bleeds easily.
“I give a lot of myself to the players and they turn around to say stuff about me: ‘I didn’t like this. I didn’t like that,’” he said. “You know what? You had your opportunity to tell me about it when you were here with me. Why didn’t you say it? If I have something to say to you, I will call you to my office and say, ‘Hey, I don’t like this.’ Or ask how we can work to make this thing better. But sometimes it’s like, wow, did we really treat these guys bad? They don’t know what they have here until they leave. When they leave, they say, ‘Shoot, it was pretty good there.’”
Every player is different. But every perceived betrayal cuts the same.
“Players know I love them,” Guillen said. “They know. They know I care about them. Players know I’m going to be mad at them. Why? Because I’m a human being. Because I should be mad. I should be happy. One thing about it, I never get mad about a bad pitch. I’m never mad at an error. I get mad at bad execution. I get mad if I see something I don’t like. I tell them, ‘If you have any feeling about me, something in the back of your mind, you want me to know about it, I’m here. Whatever you see, whatever you hear, this is what I am.’ It’s easier for them to know who I am than for me to know everyone. I have to know twenty, thirty people. They know one guy.”
The one guy likes to sit in his clubhouse office, the incense wafting out his open door. People walk in and out. When traffic slows to a halt, he gets up and goes looking for conversation. Sometimes the conversation comes looking for him. Sometimes it’s a conversation he’d prefer not having.
At the end of July 2011, the Sox were part of a three-team trade that sent the utility infielder Mark Teahen to Toronto and the starting pitcher Edwin Jackson to the St. Louis Cardinals, via the Blue Jays. After the trade, Guillen looked as if he had lost a brother or two. He woke up that morning with a sick feeling in his stomach, knowing he was going to have to say good-bye. He’s not good at good-byes.
“My job is not hard when I talk to the media, when fans talk, when I lose a game,” he said. “The hardest part of my job is when we trade players, when we release players. That’s the hardest thing for me to handle. Everything else to me comes with the game. When you’re in love with the players, when you get along with the players very well, to tell them bye and good luck, that’s one thing I hate about this job. Sometimes you think twice about being close to the players, but I can’t change.”
*   *   *
Baseball fans give managers too much of the credit and too much of the blame. In most games, managers have the least amount of control of anyone in uniform. They can’t hit. They can’t pitch. They can’t run or field. Even when they make a decision, the success of that decision depends on the pitchers who pitch, the hitters who hit, or the base runners who run.
You can see how a manager might fall into utter hopelessness. He wants to grab a game by its pinstripes and shake it. But it’s up to the players to do that. The only real control he has is in the pencil he holds when he fills out the lineup card. He decides who plays and who doesn’t.
And that doesn’t always carry negative connotations. That pencil can be a friend to a struggling player like Adam Dunn. Throughout the 2011 season, as Dunn’s problems at the plate continued, Guillen looked to give him shelter from the storm.
“You can protect him from pitchers with a couple days off, let him clear his mind,” he said. “Besides that, let them play. Make sure those guys know you’re behind them for real. Make sure they know that no matter what happens, you’re going to be there for them. Because at the end of the day, the players are going to be here. I’m the one that’s going to get fired. Well, I want to get fired my way. My way is, let those guys play and resolve their own problems.”
Fired? Who said anything about getting fired? Ozzie did, over and over again.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Rick Morrissey