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Looking at White Sox’ clubhouse culture as disappointing first half goes under microscope

Vinnie Duber Avatar
July 12, 2022

You want to know what’s going on inside the White Sox’ clubhouse?

Ask them. They’ll tell you.

This is a team that’s long boasted a strong clubhouse culture. In recent seasons, they’ve been a model of fun and embracing their players’ personalities.

But this season has been an undoubted disappointment.

Though there’s consistent belief that nothing is over until they decide it is, all the losing – which has produced a sub-.500 record and a third-place standing on the other side of the campaign’s halfway mark – has had an effect.

“It’s a struggle,” Liam Hendriks told CHGO on Saturday, talking about the team’s mood throughout a disappointing and frustrating three-plus months. “There are some days when it’s good, there are some days where it’s tough. Maybe it’s a day game after a night game, you just don’t have that energy level. That’s something that some people are good at producing themselves, some people are good at feeding off others. The people that produce it themselves need to make sure they can do it so others can feed off them.

“Sometimes we’ve been lacking in that department a little bit, but that’s generally how it goes when you’re not having the results that you expected or wanted. Nothing’s ever as easy as just showing up to the field and playing and doing it that way.

“The culture in here is good.”

Though plenty of fans have been focused on the team’s intangibles while searching for an explanation during a hair-pulling first half, there was new and intense focus Monday, with USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reporting on supposed friction plaguing the White Sox’ clubhouse.

First came a note from Nightengale, that there are apparently “whispers of unrest” and a “lack of player leadership,” particularly riling folks up by mentioning an alleged existence of “cliques” in the clubhouse. Then a tweet, sent right around the start of the White Sox’ Monday night game in Cleveland, describing a meeting led by Kenny Williams, who reportedly told staff and players about their “underachieving performance.”

The notes fueled many fans’ existing narrative, that the White Sox must be crippled by something serious, the only way to explain how things have gone so unexpectedly wrong on the South Side this season. That Lance Lynn got tagged for eight runs in an 8-4 loss to the Guardians – a momentum-halting defeat as the White Sox opened a stretch of eight games in seven days against the two teams ahead of them in the division standings – did not help quiet that narrative.

What the White Sox insist is that the narrative is not true.

White Sox players have long rattled off a list of leaders in the clubhouse, none mentioned more than José Abreu and Tim Anderson, but Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn and Hendriks have been talked up, as well.

Abreu has served as a leader by example and a mentor to younger players, specifically Cuban countrymen Yoán Moncada and Luis Robert and Dominican-born Eloy Jiménez. By taking those guys under his wing – frequently referring to Robert and Jiménez as his children – he’s produced a small army of budding stars who are intensely focused on their work. But Abreu’s influence has touched other corners of the roster, as well, and the story of Abreu asking Anderson if he could organize the Latino players to join and support the Black American shortstop in taking a knee during the national anthem in the wake of George Floyd’s killing speaks to his ability to cross a powerful language and cultural barrier that exists inside all baseball clubhouses.

We’ve seen and heard of Lynn, Giolito and Hendriks similarly talking to fellow pitchers before, during and after games. If baseball’s clubhouses are figuratively divided by language and cultural barriers, they are also separated by position, with pitchers and hitters typically hanging with one another as they discuss their respective crafts.

The existence of “cliques,” as Nightengale described them, is nothing new in this sport.

Whether the longstanding leadership styles of Abreu, Lynn, Giolito and Hendriks – and certainly those veterans are not the lone White Sox players allowed to lead in the South Side clubhouse – have proven effective in this disappointing season as they have in years past has not been greatly expounded upon.

But Anderson’s role as a leader has been a recent talking point as he was elected to represent the team as the AL’s starting shortstop in the All-Star Game. And that leadership has earned nothing but praise.

“He’s the catalyst of this team,” Hendriks told me. “You see what he’s able to do in the leadoff spot. You see what he’s able to do on the field. But he’s that guy who’s running around the clubhouse making sure people are still taking care of their responsibilities, making sure they’re doing this (and that). He’s the guy who’s keeping everybody honest. He’s the guy who’s going around and making sure everybody’s doing what they need to be doing. That’s something, when you talk about leadership qualities, he’s up there as one of the better ones I’ve ever played with.”

“He just doesn’t carry himself like he’s a privileged superstar,” Tony La Russa said. “He’s very down to Earth with everybody, in the middle of all of it, (having) conversations and kidding around and very accessible to all the guys: young, veterans, pitchers. He’s really a very special person. … (Some players) get depressed when they’re on the IL. And he keeps his energy up and (is) encouraging guys. It’s not easy to do. (There are) guys that are team leaders when they’re going well. But when they struggle, they just withdraw. If they get an ouchie, they withdraw. Not Tim. He’s the same.”

Certainly not everything should fall on Anderson’s shoulders when it comes to the White Sox’ player leadership and their disappointing results this season. Anderson has managed to be the same guy every day, and his individual results have looked much like the ones he’s posted in recent seasons, when he’s ascended to the realm of baseball’s best hitters. The same goes for Abreu, who has remained the uber consistent force he’s always been and has surged to his typical levels of production after a slow start.

Williams’ reported message strikes as reasonable. Certainly the results to this point have been downright shocking, in a bad way, and there is plenty of blame to go around. The buck stops at the manager’s desk, and La Russa has professed his accountability when things go wrong on any level, whether it’s his fault or not. Meanwhile, the White Sox’ woes can be largely placed on an offense that slumped through the season’s first two months and has remained inconsistent since. The bats have not been alone, though, and there have been moments of faltering pitching, too.

All that disappointment will obviously have its effects, and players who made brands out of having fun on the baseball field have spoken about a desire to have some more, more of the kind of fun that comes from winning games.

“We’d like more wins with more fun,” Anderson said when the fun-loving Jiménez returned to the team last week, boosting the mood in the clubhouse. “But we understand the process and understand the grind. We’ve just got to stay the course and keep working and try to get better.”

That type of “everything will click one day” talk has frustrated fans over the course of three months of waiting for things to turn around. But never during this frustrating stretch have the “vibes” in the clubhouse been described as anything but good.

And so it’s no surprise that Nightengale’s reporting garnered such a fierce response from the White Sox. Indeed it struck this observer as curious, to say the least, just because what’s actually been observed and what’s actually been said doesn’t match.

The clubhouse culture has long been a strength for this rebuilt roster, with La Russa’s presence – the focal point of so much fan frustration – allowing that culture to continue flourishing, rather than altering it in a negative manner. That culture has seemed to remain mostly intact amid the team losing more often than not in 2022, with guys showing up smiling, laughing and joking each new day.

Certainly it hasn’t been as sunny as it has in seasons where wins have been more plentiful, such as 2020 and 2021. But winning cures all ills, right? And that’s what the White Sox need to fix right now. They need to play better baseball. They need to play like a team that boasted preseason World Series expectations. They haven’t yet, and it makes sense that folks would be looking everywhere for a reason why.

Who knows what goes on behind closed doors. But when those doors are open, the scene has looked like it did during brighter days. Take that for what it’s worth.

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