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White Sox’ season a disaster well before Keynan Middleton spoke, but glare brightens on culture issues

Vinnie Duber Avatar
August 8, 2023

The White Sox didn’t need Monday to send their 2023 season into the realm of an unmitigated disaster. A record 22 games below .500 will take care of that all by itself.

But that the White Sox are that many games worse than the massively disappointing 81-81 finish of a year ago while simultaneously dealing with the fallout of an on-field boxing match and a recently traded pitcher airing the clubhouse’s dirty laundry in an ESPN interview added to just how outrageous it is that this team — with its preseason aspirations of winning a championship — is in the position it’s in.

Keynan Middleton didn’t need to say anything for folks to know the White Sox have experienced big-time issues with their clubhouse culture. Rick Hahn and Pedro Grifol have been talking about culture for weeks, months even, with each taking a turn at wearing the blame for a season gone oh so wrong.

But Middleton describing a no-rules environment in which players would miss practice without repercussions and even fall asleep on the job cast a new, glaring spotlight on what we already knew was there.

By the time everyone got to the ballpark Monday afternoon, Lance Lynn had piled on, the names of supposedly problem players were being listed on the radio, and one report even told of Yasmani Grandal supposedly slapping Tim Anderson, something that was denied by Grandal and Hahn later in the day.

Oh, and Anderson was hit with a six-game suspension for his role in Saturday night’s fistfight in Cleveland, the one that ended with him taking a José Ramírez punch to the face and going viral for it.

You thought this season couldn’t get any worse?

Hahn spent an awful lot of time Monday attempting to debunk Middleton’s various accusations, made in an interview with ESPN’s Jesse Rogers. According to Hahn, no one ever slept in the bullpen, rather a position player was allowed — actually encouraged — to sometimes sleep in the clubhouse to help treat sleep issues; a player that missed infield practice did face repercussions in the form of three straight days of extra work; and a team meeting in Toronto did feature words from at least one position player, specifically Andrew Benintendi.

Both Hahn and Grandal voiced their disappointment that Middleton would break the unwritten rule of “what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse.” Hahn even expressed his shock that such talk came from Middleton, who according to the GM spent some of his final moments in a White Sox uniform apologizing for unprofessional behavior that was called out by Grifol.

Middleton, who was dealt to the Yankees ahead of last week’s trade deadline — one of seven players shipped out by Hahn’s front office — was coincidentally in town with his new club Monday night, when the White Sox bested Gerrit Cole & Co. for a 5-1 win. Middleton did talk to Chicago media and stood by what he said to Rogers, even if he didn’t want to wade further into a war of words with the White Sox, who he said he’d be interested in returning to as a free agent — “if some things would change.”

Change, as you might expect from a team with such issues, whether they were the ones Middleton exactly outlined or not, was a buzzword of the day.

“Obviously things didn’t go this year the way we wanted them to,” Hahn said. “So there has to be changes.”

Yes, the White Sox know things haven’t gone well. And so do we. We’ve watched it.

A miserable April sunk them practically out of the gate, with the first-year manager Grifol already underwater as he was taking the time to feel out his new club. Hahn said he erred by assuming the roster he constructed was capable of bouncing back from such a hideous start. It obviously didn’t, and it was then that Hahn and Grifol both learned some important things about the guys in the clubhouse.

“My mistake, if you want to put one — or you can put many on me, if you’d like — is that I perhaps overestimated the strength in that room to deal with adversity,” Hahn said. “We got off to a wretched start, and things snowballed from there. I thought we had the strength and the presence to pull ourselves out from under it, instead of throwing stones, pull together and bond over the adversity — an ‘us against the world’ kind of thing — and it didn’t happen.”

“Over time I realized that the leaders I thought we had in there weren’t leaders,” Grifol said. “So we took a step back, we regrouped and here we are.”

Hahn said that the team has made moves to address the cultural issues that have plagued it this season, including the front office’s work at the deadline and an apparently positive team meeting that recently occurred in Cleveland. With veteran players like Lynn, Kendall Graveman, Joe Kelly and others traded away, there are opportunities for new leaders to emerge.

The White Sox, according to Hahn, will continue to place an emphasis on bringing in the types of players who best fit the culture they want to build.

“The kind of culture we want to create is one that not only has accountability but has people all pulling the same direction, people that are willing to understand we have players from different backgrounds, we have players with different needs, we have players with different strengths and some weaknesses and that we’re all trying to pull the same direction to get the best out of them all, in terms of winning ballgames,” he said. “Anyone who tries to thwart that effort, or makes it more about ‘me’ than the team — meaning the individual, as opposed to the team — doesn’t fit what we’re trying to do.

“Those are the types of players we prioritize in the draft, that’s what we preach during player development, and that will continue to be a focus in player acquisition going forward.”

Of course, getting to this point involved Hahn bringing in some of the wrong kind of players to begin with. He’s the one, obviously, who built this roster, who carefully rebuilt the whole organization starting in late 2016. If there was someone in the clubhouse who wasn’t fitting the description of the kind of guy the White Sox look for, he didn’t wander in off the street; Hahn signed him to a contract or traded for him or brought him up through the minor league system.

So it was reasonable, then, for Hahn to say that he “absolutely” understands why fans would question why he’s getting a chance to be the one to fix this mess.

“I absolutely get that. That’s the nature of pro sports,” he said. “The fact of the matter is I probably wasn’t as smart as everyone thought I was when I was winning Executive of the Year a couple years ago, … and the odds are I’m probably not as stupid as people think I am now. But this is the nature of the beast and the nature of pro sports.

“At the end of the day, whether I’m here or not is going to come down any of Jerry Reinsdorf or Kenny WIlliams or myself feeling I’m not the right guy going forward. … Let’s see what happens over the next few weeks.”

Frustrated fans who have been calling for Hahn’s ouster for months might perk up at that last bit. Then again, regime change is rare at 35th and Shields.

But for a second consecutive offseason, regardless of who’s in charge, it seems there will be a massive effort to look into what went so wrong for the White Sox. That effort, per team brass, is already well underway.

The transformation that Grifol wanted to see when he sat in his introductory press conference and promised a team that would play hard and be well prepared and fundamentally sound has yet to happen, and perhaps that, too, is the nature of the beast. Change can take time to implement. And not that Grifol has to undo what his predecessors did before him, but as this team’s third full-time manager in four years (fourth, if you count Miguel Cairo’s brief stint as the interim skipper), he is offering up the latest voice and the latest set of principles and the latest version of “how we want to do things.”

These players have heard this before. Too many times, perhaps, for it to take root quickly.

But that’s no excuse for a team that was built to win and win now doing anything but.

The trades Hahn made at the deadline signaled that the White Sox intend to compete, at least for a playoff spot and perhaps for a division title, in 2024. Hahn himself said that contention next season is “viable” for this team. It will take a lot of work on the roster-building front to make that possible, with much of the pitching staff out the door within the last week and a half; the bad-news rundown above didn’t even mention the Tommy John surgery for Liam Hendriks, which occurred a mere five days ago.

“Losing Liam for us was huge,” Grandal said. “I think it kind of shows. It shows what he meant to this team, especially at the end of a game.”

Whether Hendriks will ever pitch for the White Sox again remains unknown.

But the roster-construction front is hardly the only one on which the White Sox are fighting a war for improvement, as we already knew but that Middleton illuminated. The work is far from done when it comes to culture-building, with Hahn calling the White Sox “a work in progress” — true, but far from what should be expected after years of rebuilding.

Will a new-look, post-deadline clubhouse be able to make the necessary strides? Or is there even more to this free fall?

“I think finally we’ve got a good group, a group of guys to come together,” Andrew Vaughn said after homering and making a game-saving defensive play in Monday’s win. “We’re all learning this, too. We’re younger guys. Try to right the ship.”

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