Sox enjoying calm, cool and collected atmosphere

Williams and Ventura nurture quiet confidence below the surface

Before his final year as a player with the Blue Jays in 1991, Ken Williams received advice from his manager that the career .218 hitter wishes somebody had imparted when he was closer to being a hot prospect than future executive.

"I learned the valuable asset of controlled aggression,'' the White Sox general manager said Friday. "As a football-mentality type guy I didn't know how to translate my aggressiveness into a sport where you have to back off and have kind of a controlled aggression. It wasn't until Cito Gaston pointed something out that it clicked.''

Controlled aggression. Williams stood up in the Sox dugout to demonstrate, swinging an imaginary bat as he reminded himself out loud to contain his emotions until unleashing them at the right time to maximize impact.

"It worked,'' Williams said, smiling. "But by the time I got it, it was too late. I was relegated to the bench.''

Entering his 12th season as GM, Williams still follows that philosophy at work — which might explain why I have detected so much controlled aggression as the Sox describe what makes 2012 most different. It now comes in the form of restrained enthusiasm.

Listen closely and you will hear everyone from Williams to Paul Konerko eagerly compliment what manager Robin Ventura is but carefully avoid adding the unspoken reality that he represents everything predecessor Ozzie Guillen isn't. Specific praise for Ventura's consistent personality veils indirect criticism of Guillen, but it's there, under the surface, whether the Sox realize it or not.

"It's a humble environment, a positive environment but one of confidence,'' Williams said. "A good atmosphere.''

It has been awhile since anybody associated those adjectives with the Sox dugout.

Konerko unwittingly struck a similar contrast when asked the most noticeable thing about Ventura the manager.

"It's all baseball,'' Konerko said.

An undeniably pleasant vibe during a surprisingly solid first week reflects that emphasis. Any explanation why the Sox haven't looked like the 95-loss team many expected starts from the shoulders up. Baseball is too much a thinking man's game for players to waste time worrying what their manager will do or say next. Anxiety accumulates.

An inactive offseason Williams called "boring'' because of payroll restrictions returned basically the same players who lost 83 games but so far carry themselves differently. When Williams predicted bounce-back seasons from Adam Dunn and Alex Rios, for example, he based it on mental more than physical reasons. Why?

"They will benefit No. 1 from their own minds,'' Williams said. "Sometimes a different voice helps trigger something different in a guy.''

Interpretation: A freer Dunn no longer has to wonder how much a manager who took pride in calling out players publicly will support him. Neither does Rios or Jake Peavy or Dayan Viciedo or the young power pitchers in the bullpen whose confidence could have become casualties of Guillen's mouth. Negative rants are out; positive reinforcement is in. Fresh air revived the Sox from Ozzie fatigue.

Not a soul at The Cell dares to hint at the notion of addition by subtraction. But you would have to be tone-deaf not to hear the Sox sounding like a team that believes improved harmony will lead to more victories. In the role of maestro is Ventura.

"He has such a humbleness blended with a confidence you don't find very often that people gravitate toward,'' Williams said of Ventura. "When you are like that and not pushing people away with their opinions, you're going to get the breadth of their knowledge.''

When you are like that and not pushing people away with their opinions. Sound like anybody Williams knows?

Yet, to his credit, the only time Williams has mentioned Guillen by name recently came expressing compassion for what the Marlins manager has endured after drawing a five-game suspension. Even more than Sox players, Williams dutifully resists revisiting the past and welcomes the focus shifting back to baseball after two years of overblown drama.

Mentally, Williams has moved on from the Guillen experience so much that he has explored giving Twitter another try to promote the Sox's community efforts. Physically, he plans to spend Ventura's first season being more visible scouting minor leaguers than talking about his major league team. Participating in a splashy shoe commercial seems an odd thing to do for a guy hoping to lower his profile but Williams committed himself to staying out of Ventura's way.

"It's important to understand I'm not a person to stand over somebody's shoulder and dictate how they do their job,'' Williams said. "When you're managing personnel you hire them for a job and let them do that job.''

Theoretically, changing managers didn't make Williams' job any easier. But most days I bet it feels that way.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
 

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