Friday brought the White Sox bizarre clubhouse scandal its first shift away from a weird debate over Adam LaRoche‘s child-rearing. Unfortunately, it’s because it became a more direct story of organizational discord, with franchise player Chris Sale, and LaRoche — who might have an even bigger national profile these days — calling team president Kenny Williams a liar.
Sale, in a truly incendiary media session that was surreally framed by the dual altar of Adam and Drake LaRoche jerseys that Sale hung up by his locker, claimed Williams gave three different versions of the story — assigning responsibility for complaining about LaRoche’s son to a different group every time — for why he requested for Drake’s clubhouse presence to be reduced. LaRoche, considering that his shocking move kickstarted this affair, released a surprisingly measured and eloquent statement that still said in no uncertain terms that he retired due to “a fundamental disagreement with Kenny Williams,” and claimed Williams initially asked him to bring his son less, then later said he couldn’t bring him at all.
Not only did that claim run counter to Williams’ initial depiction of how he handled the issue with LaRoche, but USA Today’s Bob Nightengale — typically well-sourced on Williams matters — corroborated it, reporting that Williams “lost it” and tried to pull all clubhouse privileges for Drake when he didn’t see early returns on his request to dial back his presence.
Nightengale added even more meat to the logical conclusion that Williams made himself a human shield on behalf of unidentified members of the organization who complained about Drake’s constant presence (which is now being estimated at him being on hand for closer to 120 games out of the season, for the record). But even if we accept Williams’ dubious premise that it was better for him to pose as unilaterally deciding to yank a handshake agreement rather than trust his manager to handle a clubhouse issue, the early reviews for his performance are dreadful.
LaRoche retired after Williams reportedly took a hardline stance with him spurred by anger, and the team meeting he held with Sale has him fairly clearly calling him to leave the organization entirely.
“Somebody walked out those doors the other day and it was the wrong guy, plain and simple.”
This is not the aftermath that comes with good conflict management.
And to be clear, the strategy was dubious. What good is Robin Ventura’s respect and admiration in the clubhouse if Williams feels it can’t be utilized to prevent player disputes from becoming national spectacles? What outcome of dealing with the disagreement with everyone directly could be worse than the Sox organization being accused of breaking contractual agreements to players by their franchise cornerstone, while he himself admits free agents will be less inclined to trust them now?
The White Sox actually spun into damage control mode after LaRoche’s statement. Jerry Reinsdorf came on scene, told everyone to stop talking to the press, and started meeting with players and staff to work out a resolution of how to move forward. By Reinsdorf’s reputation and Sale’s indication, it’s the type of executive response that will make the players feel listened to again, and associate White Sox upper management with something other than breaking promises.
But it likely comes too late to repair Williams’ relationship with Sale or the clubhouse. It’s still unthinkable — if anything is anymore — that Williams would be forced out of this organization as a result of all this, but his being allowed to interview for one of the job opportunities that comes up for him in the offseason (if teams still want him) is a lot easier to see these days, and may even be merciful. Sale came off as nearly unhinged lambasting Williams so openly, but he’s the one who needs to be assuaged at the end of the day. His lack of discretion and composure is unfortunate, but its more of a side effect than a cause.
Williams’ fate is a fallout we actually know how to look for, but it doesn’t even grip the larger feelings this story generates for fans, observers and media: embarrassment and disgust.
A big part of that is the players, who had their backstage behaviors exposed, and were displayed to the public as clinging ferociously to bizarre privileges and customs that no one appreciates. The White Sox players really don’t function in the same world as the Missouri University football team, but their threat to boycott a Spring game so a 14 year old could hang out with them and college students trying to protest racism on campus have the same newscycle footprint, and the Sox civil war would look absurd compared to pretty much anything else going on.
And part of it could just be the unknown. What is the impact of being the league’s sideshow for a solid week? What do the Sox lose by looking like quarreling fools? Did they damage their reputation for years to come or is it a small price to pay for purging an expensive DH who probably was too achy to produce anymore? Sale and others said the right things about wanting to focus on the season, but did they alienate their core roster in the long-term?
The Sox will move from on this, but into uncharted territory that even the most tumultuous days of the Ozzie Guillen regime can’t compare to in terms of unrest of actual players. That this will either be the team’s turning point or their undoing is an oversimplification, but that the team will be asked about this for the rest of the year is unquestionable. That specter is real, even if the impact is unknown.
Photo credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea // USA Today Sports Images