Greenberg: Jerry Reinsdorf shocks the world by firing Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn


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Years ago, Rick Hahn had a rhetorical tic he’d use whenever he felt someone was doubting his plans for a rebuild.

He’d point out the White Sox were now consistently defying conventional wisdom. They started a rebuild, which no one thought they would do. They signed Luis Robert, an international free agent, to a massive deal. This wasn’t the old White Sox, it was the new White Sox (run by the same people, but still.)

It was his way of reminding us not to count him out just because the Sox had been so predictable, and so mediocre, for so many years. The past might be prologue, but the Sox’s story wasn’t yet written.

In the end, I wish I had listened to Hahn.

Because earlier on Tuesday, there I was at Halas Hall telling a fellow reporter there’s no way Jerry Reinsdorf, an 87-year-old who doesn’t like to make new friends, would fire his guys Hahn or Kenny Williams. I had been writing the same thing for the past two seasons as the once-glorious rebuild turned into a disaster, even by Sox standards.

Well, I sure was wrong, though I bet Hahn wishes he wasn’t so right.

The White Sox can change. I’m still in shock.

When the news broke that Hahn and Williams had been fired, I was on the phone with an ex-Cubs pitcher who last pitched in Chicago in the early 2000s.

He was shocked.

“Kenny Williams is still there?” he said.

Otherwise, the pitcher wasn’t surprised the White Sox were firing their top baseball people, because, I mean, look at what’s happened this season. The Sox were 49-76 when it went down, fresh off a 14-2 loss to Seattle. They are one of the four worst teams in baseball, with a legitimate chance to lose 100 games, in the middle of what was supposed to be a so-called competitive window with a massive (for the Sox) payroll.

The dysfunctional culture of the clubhouse has been a national story. Everyone has been miserable watching this club, especially Reinsdorf.

So let’s put it this way: If a dumpster is on fire, you fire the guys responsible for watching it.

Of course in that scenario, Hahn’s public reaction would’ve been, “We already told you there was a lot of flammable garbage in there.”

Williams would’ve blamed the dumpster.

They’re not bad guys, but it was time for a change.

The surprise here is that their “loyal” boss, Reinsdorf, fired them at all. Reinsdorf doesn’t fire people. Williams, the team’s executive vice president, has been his top baseball guy since 2001. Hahn started with the organization a year later and was promoted to GM before the 2013 season.

No one expected this to happen. Before the game, the team still held a viewing party for a forthcoming documentary about the cultural impact of the famous Sox hat. What timing.

“This is an incredibly difficult decision for me to make because they are both talented individuals with long-term relationships at the White Sox,” Reinsdorf said in a statement. “Ken is like a son to me, and I will always consider him a member of my family. I want to personally thank Ken and Rick for all they have done for the Chicago White Sox, winning the 2005 World Series and reaching the postseason multiple times during their tenures. I have nothing but the greatest respect for them as people and appreciate the commitment and passion for the White Sox they exhibited over the years.

“Ultimately, the well-worn cliche that professional sports is results-oriented is correct,” Reinsdorf said. “While we have enjoyed successes as an organization and were optimistic heading into the competitive window of this rebuild, this year has proven to be very disappointing for us all on many levels. This has led me to the conclusion that the best decision for the organization moving forward is to make a change in our baseball department leadership.”

Since that glorious season in 2005, the White Sox have made the playoffs three times. And one of those was the pandemic-shortened season in 2020. They won a total of three playoff games in those three seasons. Since 2006, they’ve had just five winning seasons. And it took this long for Reinsdorf to make a change. That should tell you why this is so surprising.

Williams did a once-in-a-lifetime undertaking to concoct that 2005 team, topped off by hiring Ozzie Guillen as manager. But Williams’ expiration date had long passed. He should’ve been fired years ago, maybe when his fractured relationship with Guillen turned into a national embarrassment. A normal owner would’ve moved on from both of them.

Instead, after the 2012 season, Reinsdorf promoted Williams and Hahn. From 2013 through 2016, the Sox went 290-358, finishing in fourth or fifth in the AL Central every year. That’s when the rebuild started and, in the wake of the Cubs showing how efficiently this strategy could work, there was fresh hope on the South Side, even though in normal organizations, the players who got you to the point where you need to rebuild don’t get to stick around. No one minded the losing from 2017-19 because it was a sign they were going about things the right way.

In that time, Hahn (and Williams) acquired prospects and created a buzz. The Sox even made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history. But then Hahn completely botched the landing. He overpaid ill-fitting veterans and failed at the most important part of the plan: building a winning team. Getting talent is one thing. Building a real, cohesive team is a much more difficult bit of alchemy.

We saw the cracks in the Sox’s foundation in 2022. This season, the house fell down around them.

The 2023 White Sox might be the most unwatchable club in recent memory and that’s including the years when the team was losing on purpose. No wonder Reinsdorf finally had enough.

But, of course, the chairman had something to do with the failure as well, starting by going over his baseball executives to hire his friend Tony La Russa out of retirement to manage. La Russa took them to the playoffs in 2021, but it was clear he had lost his fastball. He missed part of 2022 with an illness that had limited him that season, but it didn’t matter. We could all see the rebuild was going to fail. I’m not sure anyone thought it would be this dramatic, but again, never count out the White Sox.

While firing Hahn and Williams makes sense, it doesn’t solve the team’s existing issue and that’s Reinsdorf himself. I’ve always said that while working for Reinsdorf gives you unparalleled security in a win-now world, it’s not easy. I see how stressed his executives can get in both baseball and basketball.

Reinsdorf didn’t talk Tuesday and I have little faith he’ll speak to reporters Wednesday, which seems crazy given the circumstances. We have a lot of questions and I’m curious about his answers on why he made the move and what he sees happening next.

At the end of the team’s press release, we got a clue on the latter question: “The White Sox will begin a search for a single decision maker to lead the baseball operations department and anticipate having an individual in place by the end of the season.”

But who in their right mind trusts Reinsdorf to make the right call here? And who is he going to lean on for help? La Russa?

What Reinsdorf really should do next is simple: put the team up for sale. Enough is enough.

On Monday, a Crain’s Chicago Business story caused a stir by floating the idea that, with six years left on the lease at Guaranteed Rate Field, Reinsdorf is thinking about moving the team, be it in the city, to the suburbs or even outside of the market. For years, we’ve known that his advice was the team be sold upon his death. But the Crain’s story made it sound like he’d be willing to at least think about doing it while he was still alive.

Reinsdorf bought the Sox with a group of investors for $19 million in 1981. The team would sell for around $2 billion today. That’s a financial win that Jerry can appreciate. The remaining investors (and their families) would surely welcome a sale. So would the fans.

The rebuild failed without a fresh vision from new leadership. True change at 35th and Shields just can’t end with the firings of Williams and Hahn. It’s not enough. Reinsdorf needs to fire himself.

(Photo of White Sox executives Ken Williams (left) and Rick Hahn in 2012. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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