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WSI News - Sox Interviews

Flashing Back...

...with Mark Gonzales.

another EXCLUSIVE from White Sox Interactive!   

By Mark Liptak 


 

He is a throw-back, something out of the 1950’s. A time when a member of the media’s only job was to report the news and let the readers make up their own minds. Back then the media was expected to report the story, not be the story, or overshadow the story. Call Mark Gonzales, White Sox beat writer for the Chicago Tribune, the Sgt. Joe Friday of Chicago. “Just the facts…” that’s all he wants.

You will rarely…very, very rarely read any of his personal opinions in the stories he writes on the White Sox. He’ll express his views when asked on shows like Chicago Tribune Live! or in his ‘mailbag’ for example, but when it comes down to his primary job, newspaper reporter, he takes the ‘old school’ philosophy very seriously.


The Tribune's Mark Gonzales speaks to WSI's totally biased Sox Fans!

Because he’s been around major league baseball for so many years, 18 to be exact and because he doesn’t offer his personal views that often, I wanted to see if he’d go on the record about the White Sox for White Sox Interactive. Mark was willing to do so and I spoke with him in early October as he was driving from Cleveland to Detroit for the final series of what had been a disappointing season. You might think a beat writer driving to a location is a bit strange but according to Mark, he likes to do something different from time to time. He took a train in August from Boston to New York…it gives him time to think or to get away from the game completely for a few hours. On this occasion he felt the timing was great because he was getting ready to wrap up the year and talking about different things would help put all that into perspective.

The subject matter covered a large amount of ground in the conversation…his background, the newspaper business, personalities like Kenny Williams, Ozzie Guillen, and Jerry Reinsdorf. He took me inside the White Sox clubhouse, offered views on areas like hitting coach Greg Walker, the leadership issue with the team, why the Sox have difficulty executing simple baseball fundamentals…in short all the hot button issues that have been discussed by many at White Sox Interactive. It was one of the more enjoyable interviews that I’ve ever done.

ML: Mark from what you’ve told me baseball has been a love of yours growing up in the Bay Area for a long time.

MG: “It has. I saw my first game in 1969, my first American League game in 1971. Ironically it was that opening day doubleheader when the White Sox came to Oakland. (Author’s Note: That was April 7, 1971 when the Sox beat the A’s twice 6-5 and 12-4. It was the first games Harry Caray broadcast for the team and yes it was a regularly scheduled twin bill, another idea from A’s owner Charlie Finley.) I remember the red spikes and I was fascinated by Sox shortstop Bee Bee Richard, how fast he was.”

“My family was all big baseball fans.”

ML: And how about getting into the newspaper business? 

MG: “I started when I was in college doing some part time work for the Palo Alto newspaper and I loved it. I had an editor who liked my work and encouraged me to pursue it. Sometimes in the summer when the regular reporters were on vacation, they’d let us part-timers fill in and cover a pro event. The first game I ever worked was a Boston – A’s game in 1982. I saw how things worked. The “awe” factor wore off pretty quickly, I grew up a fan of the Giants but I understood that I had a job to do. It was still an experience though.”

“I started working for the San Jose Mercury News in 1989 and when 1992 rolled around they asked if I wanted to cover the Giants as the beat writer and I immediately said yes, like I said they were my team growing up and it was a great opportunity.”

ML: And how did you get to the Chicago Tribune?

MG: “I worked covering the Giants through 1999 then went to the Arizona Republic where I covered the Diamondbacks and I liked it there too but we got a new sports editor before the 2004 season and he thought it would be best if I became the paper’s national baseball reporter instead. I didn’t enjoy that job as much and it was about that time the Chicago Tribune called and asked if I’d be interested in moving and doing the Sox. I’d just gotten married two days beforehand but I went to interview for the job and discussed the White Sox opening before deciding that it was simply too much too soon. I just couldn’t do it at that time.”

“Time passed and I still wasn’t enjoying the national baseball beat as much and kept an eye on the White Sox job. I let the Tribune know that if the situation was still open that I was seriously interested in it. I met Dan McGrath in November 2004 and we talked. I was offered the job in late January 2005 and decided to accept it. My wife is from the Highland Park area and that helped. Her family were all big baseball fans, some Sox, some Cubs and it was comfortable knowing that a support group was already in place in the area. I’ve been here ever since.”

ML: Tell me about being a beat writer? It’s not as easy as it looks, yet you’ve done it for 18 years.

MG: “I enjoy doing it. The requirements today are a lot more, Twitter, Facebook and so on but that’s my job, to give as much accurate information as I can. It’s a labor of love. I can still say that I look forward to spring training and the start of a new season. Spring training is a big part of getting ready for the year. There’s a lot to be learned about a team if you put the time in during those six weeks. I’m usually there early, I like to work out around 5:30 in the morning and get there just as everyone is coming in to get started.”

ML: How about the off season? I imagine the first thing you want to do with all that travel you go through is just find someplace and stay there!

MG: “Well Kenny’s an aggressive G.M. Even though the season’s over you still have to be ready because he can do anything at anytime. You still have to do research. I go to the G.M. meetings (Author’s Note: Which are in Chicago this year in November) and spend time reacquainting myself with different sources and contacts, people who know baseball.” 

ML: How does your job affect your family and family life?

MG: “I’m very fortunate because my wife is just super about it, I joke that basically she gets to raise me because I’m blessed to be doing a job that I love and can keep acting like a kid because of it. True story, when I get home after a road trip or at the end of the season our cats look at me like, ‘who are you?’ but after I’ve been home awhile, when it’s time to start packing for another road trip they’ll sit on top of the suitcases on our bed, like they don’t want me to leave.”

ML: How about the newspaper business today, the technology is great but that same technology may be killing it. What happens to newspapers in the future?

MG: “We have to adapt to the technology as a business. The goal is still to get readers the most accurate information we can in the quickest time period. It doesn’t matter if I’m on TV, writing a story, on the internet… I’m not there to mislead the public, I have to give them up to date good information. Here’s an example. I’m at spring training and it’s the last day of camp, the final roster is going to be set. I’m in the players’ parking lot, which I’m allowed to be in. The clubhouse was closed to the media. Jerry Owens comes out and heads to his car which is on the other side. I see him and start sprinting towards him to see if I can find out what happened. I asked about the roster and about what happened to him and to his credit he was very generous with his time and very professional telling me that he was let go. I have my ‘blackberry’ and I’m able to immediately post the news and quotes of his release. Some members of the Sox front office saw me and were laughing but I had no choice, I had an obligation to give his side of the story and what happened.” 

ML: How about your relationship with players and management? You have a job to do and sometimes that doesn’t paint individuals in the best light, which can cause some tense situations if not handled properly.

MG: “You have to be accountable. I’m always the first or one of the first guys in the clubhouse every day. That will never change. If someone has an issue with something I’ve done, I’m right there, we can talk about it. It’s interesting but the only player who ever complained about me being around a lot was Brian Anderson, you can make of that what you will. I respect their job and what they are trying to do and it’s a healthy situation.”

“As far as the front office, it’s been OK. I’ve had a run in or two with Kenny from time to time but we’ll always talk about it.”

ML: Let’s talks some baseball Mark. First off I guess is a topic that has gotten a lot of attention at White Sox Interactive…even some mainstream media members have chimed in on it and that’s Greg Walker, hitting coach. Kenny Williams has made it clear that he’ll be back but how much responsibility, if any; does he bear for the hitting issues that have been with this team since the second half of 2006?


Fringe benefit:  spring in Arizona!

MG: “I think he is being made a scapegoat in some respects. Certainly a hitting coach has some responsibility for what happens but I think more responsibility goes to the talent evaluators and issues in the organization than the actual hitting coach. Here’s what I mean. The Nick Swisher evaluation was blown. The Sox thought they were getting a certain type player and that wasn’t the case at all. That’s not Greg Walker’s fault. Brian Anderson never developed the way the Sox thought that he would. He had issues while at the University of Arizona and he had wrist injury issues but the Sox thought he’d develop a certain way anyway. He didn’t…that’s not all on Greg Walker.”

ML: For the past few years and you’ve reported this yourself Mark, Sox fans have heard Ozzie Guillen talk in the off season about things like speed, fewer strikeouts, fewer solo home runs, fundamentals. Yet every season for the past few years the Sox have simply done a poor job at this…are the players simply, and I want to be clear on this, ‘baseball stupid’ or are Ozzie and his coaches bad teachers because the Sox spend time on this every spring training and the players still don’t get it. I mean it has to be either the teachers or the students’ right?

MG: “I think Kenny Williams in his final regular season conversation with us addressed this. He said the Sox have got to lock down in certain situations. I don’t think it’s the way it’s being taught. One of the more frustrating things about this season was you’d see the Sox actually do it from time to time. Look at how well they reacted to the Royals Zach Grienke during the year…then you’d see games where they had no concentration against rookie pitchers. They wouldn’t work a count, nothing. I’ve been in the locker room before a game and saw guys studying, but then you wouldn’t see the effort on the field.” 

ML: Another area was the Sox performance against “no-name / rookie pitchers”. Some say this is a myth but all I know is that the Orioles radio people were talking about this issue before a game in April and the Sox faced a large number of guys they never faced before, this year. Coincidence? Even Ozzie Guillen talked about how embarrassing it was for the Sox to lose to some of the pitchers they lost to this season. Will you comment on that?

MG: “Every team has a weak area, their Kryptonite. With the Sox it’s changed at times, they’ve had issues with left handers; they’ve had issues with guys they’ve never seen before. I’m not trying to take anything away from the guys who’ve beat the Sox this year, some days you just can’t hit them, but I think the Sox have got to have a more extended focus on first time pitcher tendencies. I’ve seen guys looking at tape, I’ve seen Greg Walker talking to them about certain pitchers, I’ve seen the way they’ve focused on guys like Zach Grienke but they haven’t always done that every game.” 

ML: This past off season turned out to be a buyer’s market with a number of good players available at reasonable prices heading into February. Kenny unloaded a lot of players that I don’t think many Sox fans would argue needed to go, but the fact is he didn’t replace the players he lost with talent equal to or better than those who left, why?

MG: “Kenny had a very strong faith in some of the younger players that were going to be counted on to perform. I understand what he was trying to do, the worst thing you can have happen to a team is to hold on to veteran players too long. Kenny was trying to win the division now and get better for the future.”

 ML: There was a lot of speculation about why some players were unloaded. Can you clear those rumors up for us?

MG: “Nick Swisher had some issues coming to the Sox and like I said earlier the Sox thought they were getting the player they saw in Oakland. His stance caused some issues and people tried to get his attention to it. Ken Griffey when he came to the Sox, made a suggestion to him for example and he just disregarded it.”

“Kenny thought that the combination of Bartolo Colon, Jose Contreras and Clayton Richard would have made up for Javy Vazquez.”

Orlando Cabrera I was a little surprised about because he was one of the few guys on the team in 2008 who made the effort to hit to the opposite field and he positioned himself better at shortstop than Alexei Ramirez although Ramirez has more talent. Orlando though didn’t always get along the best with his teammates. He was a nice guy… but right after the game he felt that he didn’t need to stay and talk about the game for example, he put his time in and he’d leave, as he was entitled to do.”

“Whoever made the evaluation on Wilson Betemit should be held accountable for it. He was acquired expressly to back up Ramirez at short and it was clear from the first preseason game against the Dodgers he couldn’t do the job. That, I’m convinced, changed the complexion of the club, it forced Ozzie to make some personnel changes that he wasn’t expecting to have to do.”

ML: Earlier this season Jack McDowell in his blog talked about the Sox not having any vocal leaders. This is a hot button issue with me because I’m convinced you have got to have some guys with a chip on their shoulder, some guys who simply won’t take a half hearted effort like we saw to many times this year to really, really bad teams. Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, Mark Buehrle, the departed Jim Thome…all class guys, good players, quiet leaders but you’ve got to have some aggressive voices in that locker room in my opinion. What do you think on this?

MG: “You nailed it, that’s a very valid point with this team. When I was with Arizona for example, Todd Stottlemyre would absolutely get in a guys face if he was just going through the motions. Greg Colbrunn was another guy who’d speak up if the game wasn’t being played right. This team was missing that factor.”

ML: On that issue, I don’t know if this is by design or the way things turned out because of the makeup on the team, but it seems Ozzie is the only voice to speak up when things are going wrong and you’ve got to wonder if he’s lost the team, if the players are tuning him out.

MG: “Well the young guys better listen to him. At some point even the quiet leaders on this team aren’t going to be around. Somebody needs to show them the way over the next two years because the young guys are going to be the foundation of the club. Whatever happens, Ozzie can’t lose the young guys.” 

ML: Mark I’m hearing talk from some of my sources that the chemistry, the mix on the team this year never really clicked. I had one individual associated with the Sox tell me he saw the cliques personally when he stayed at the same road hotels as the Sox. You were in that locker room every day. What was going on with this club? And this also plays into my comment about real team leadership.

MG: “Team chemistry was an issue this year. The vets got all over Chris Getz early in the season when I quoted him as saying the young guys brought more energy to the club. Chris was only telling the truth.”

“The more I think about this 2009 team, the more I think the veterans should be ashamed of their performance - especially down the stretch. How many times do you see veterans - not kids - fold down the stretch. It's pretty revealing about their character (or lack of).”

ML: Over the years a lot of Sox fans have had a love/hate relationship with current ownership. They remember the threat to move the team, the labor issues in 1994, the White Flag Trade in 1997 and they are also grateful for the fact that the organization won a World Series in 2005. But how do you think the organization views the fans? Especially in the wake earlier this season of Kenny bringing up the ‘attendance’ word again.

MG: “That’s a great question. Let me think about that for a minute.”

“No way should the organization blame the fans for anything in these economic times. White Sox fans supported this team in record numbers after the World Series and that’s why the organization put 25 million more into the payroll…when I spoke with Jerry Reinsdorf this spring it was a refreshing interview with him. He was very cognizant of the potential for advertisers leaving, he wasn’t making that up and I understand how all teams in baseball have lost fans, but again this is not the time to blame fans for anything considering they have to make choice in what they can afford to do, what they have to pay for and so on.”

ML: Well considering the economic times a lot of Sox fans felt something was wrong when the organization had the 2nd largest payroll cut in all of major league baseball yet raised ticket prices. You’d think they would have lowered them like in Detroit and that apparently didn’t sit well with some fans.

MG: “I think that probably cost them some fans. I also think they realized that and tried to recover. The Mark Buehrle appreciation days, the fan give-a-ways, Scott Reifert sending out up to the minute information on Twitter, it was all playing catch-up. But as far as cutting the payroll, again it was to get younger, to give them some flexibility. This off season they have to deal with Carlos Quentin, John Danks, Bobby Jenks…some free agent issues. Don’t underestimate what guys like Quentin and Danks are going to be able to make in the future which is why it would be great for the Sox if they could lock them up to deals now.”

ML: What does Kenny look at when he figures out what to do this off season? 

MG: “As I figured it out the Sox have 10 players going to make 71.5 million next season and that includes Dayan Viciedo who I think will be with the team at some point next year. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this off season Kenny moved some guys to give him more dollars to work with.” 

“Kenny remember, and this is important, is a man of action, not reaction. It’ll be interesting to see how patient Kenny will be especially if the free agent market again tilts in favor of the buyer. I look for Kenny to aggressively improve the team through trades but he’ll also keep in mind some possible free agent bargains that could be out there.”

ML: Kenny can go down a number of different roads this off season at least according to the fans. Some say he needs middle of the order hitters, some say a leadoff guy, some say a 5th starter, some say his bullpen needs to be rebuilt. When all is said and done and Kenny looks at his list, what’s on the top line? What is “x”?

MG: “Wow…again that’s a great question. I think the Sox got very fortunate with Scott Podsednik. I think it’s interesting that the two best players for the Sox in the 2nd half were guys who were out of work, Podsednik and Mark Kotsey. Like you said Kenny can go a number of ways but I think he has to get a guy who helps with the young talent and can bring out the best in others. He needs a leader.”

ML: Buddy Bell has taken over the Sox minor league system which was in disarray for 15 years; I know you follow the minors closely, what’s your opinion of it now?

MG: “Buddy’s biggest emphasis has been on quality. He’s done a great job of identifying needs in the system and hiring the right guys for it. You don’t see managers getting fired anymore. The overall quality is getting better; nothing is falling through the cracks anymore. I look at what is going on in Birmingham at the double A level and I see what a guy like John Orton has done to teach a kid like Tyler Flowers defense as a catcher. Dan Hudson is going to be a very, very good pitcher”

“I don’t think all of the problems in the system were the fault of Duane Schafer. The Sox always had a poor draft position because they usually had a good record and the Sox refused to pay over slot for a kid, compare that to Detroit and what they’ve done to get a kid like Rick Porcello.”

ML: You’ve been around the Sox on a daily basis now for five years, what’s the first memory that comes into your mind about that period.

MG: “It was at Minute Maid Park waiting to get down on the field after the Sox won the World Series. I saw Jerry Reinsdorf surrounded by members of the Sox front office and his friends and the look on his face...it was like 50 years had been taken off it. Kenny on the other hand, I don’t think he enjoyed it or got into it until the World Series parade.”

ML: What’s your opinion of Jerry Reinsdorf?

MG: “I know that people in baseball just love the guy because of his loyalty to his people. I mean nobody leaves the organization. When I had the chance to spend time with him this spring I found him to be refreshing, candid, funny. I kept thinking about all the bad things people have said about him over the years and I understand that, you just wish that you could see more of the side he showed in the interview. There was plenty of substance in what he said; he was personable and just very refreshing.” 

“I think he really cares about people, his roots in baseball are strong growing up in Brooklyn and being a Dodgers fan. The only thing I’ve ever been disappointed with from him and the organization was when they moved the press box to its current location. I understand why they did it but it was just such a great place to be able to work in, that you miss that.” (Author’s Note: The press box used to be directly behind home plate about halfway up the stadium. Having been in there I can tell you it offered a fabulous view of the game. The Sox changed it into the ‘Jim Beam’ club box for additional revenue and moved the media down the line.)

ML: How about your opinion of Kenny and Ozzie?

MG: “Kenny is a fearless G.M. Ozzie is a former player, a fan favorite and a guy who manages to the situation. Both of these guys have kept the White Sox on the map, they make them relevant. I’m reminded about a comment I was told by a friend who works in San Francisco. Before the start of the 2005 season he picked the Sox to win the division and had the comment that Kenny and Ozzie make the Sox, ‘the wackiest ship in baseball.’ (laughing)

ML: Is Ozzie in any kind of trouble given that the Sox have had two losing years in the past three.

MG: “I don’t think so. I can’t see it, he’s got three years left on his deal and the organization has made it clear by what they’ve said, that they place the blame squarely on the players for this past season. It’s like Jerry Reinsdorf told them the last game they were at home, ‘work hard in the offseason and don’t lose site of the goal.’

ML: What’s your opinion of White Sox fans?

MG: “They have a high degree of intensity about the team, I can understand that.”

ML: Last question Mark and again thank you for the time, what’s the 2010 White Sox going to look like?

MG: “I don’t know, I’m being totally honest with you. Ozzie will see what he has and work from it. They are going to have a strong, stable starting rotation but this team just has to be better in situations… they have to have a better structure to accomplish those things and I’d like to see some real consequences if players can’t get it done. If you can’t get a bunt down, you don’t play. You’re going to pay the price. I’ll be curious to see what drills are being done and how Ozzie approaches this in the spring.”

 


Editor's Note:  Mark Liptak is an experienced sports journalist, holding several awards for both his electronic and print media work.  He has held numerous sports reporting positions for various TV and newspaper organizations, including Director of Sports for KNOE-TV (Monroe, Louisiana) and KPVI-TV (Pocatello, Idaho), and sports writer for the Idaho Falls Free Press, where his column "Lip Service" has appeared for for a number of years.  "Lip", his wife, and cats presently live in Chubbuck, Idaho, where they collectively comprise 100 percent of the Pocatello River Valley's long-time Sox Fan population.  

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