By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) By both personal nature and the demands of the job, general managers of pro sports teams can tend toward discomfort.
The role often draws that combination of warrior and worrier, ultimately responsible for either winning titles or not, despite having so little control of the action. The only outlet for competitive drive is the complicated construction of the team — the mountainous details and ranges of likelihoods and time horizons that promise nothing even if handled intelligently.
That’s one reason why Rick Hahn of the White Sox has been so interesting to watch and hear this weekend as his team enjoys its annual gathering with fans and media. Here’s a relatively young GM under new pressure to win from a notoriously fickle, cranky fanbase and the elderly owner, and yet he couldn’t seem more at ease.
Instead of doing as some of his counterparts and holding a lone public briefing in the form of a State of the Team address, he has been everywhere at once in the past few days, granting interviews to outlets large and small in between politician’s handshakes and photos. No specific question earns anything less than a specific answer, which adds up to genuine transparency. If it seems like he wants to talk about everything he’s doing, it very well could be because he does.
It’s understandable that life could be easier with nothing to hide, and no cover stories to have to remember. Helping things, too, is an offseason of unexpected aggressiveness that caused a commensurate surge in expectations.
No games have been played yet, so it’s only good that Hahn’s flurry of acquisitions added Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson and more to the roster. Not one can be a disappointment standing there in jeans in a hotel ballroom.
These are his moves — he owns them. Learning to accept the pressure that accompanies such decisions can be what defines a GM, or at least determines if he’s able to get a good night’s sleep more than a few nights per week. At this stage, that doesn’t seem like much of an issue for Hahn.
It was for his predecessor in the position, however. Ken Williams has since been elevated to fewer headaches in the emeritus spot of executive vice president, from which he can handle more generalized responsibility, but his tenure as GM reflected his type-A hard wiring.
Williams would flip over the postgame clubhouse spread in a fit of pique, had to watch games while running on a treadmill to vent stress and frustration and preferred a more adversarial stance with media after first vowing to do the opposite. A former player, Williams always seemed more the football guy he also was than a natural in an office environment. Adding Ozzie Guillen was a typically high-risk/high-reward move of his, characteristically in the gambling mode that endeared him to fans, and he got the ultimate reward and all that came with it – the World Series title 1- years ago as well as the contentious, messy endgame that so many predicted.
There’s less tension with Hahn in charge, despite the fact that the current reunion of the 2005 champions is serving as a reminder of the team’s stated goal. Robin Ventura’s anodyne managerial presence keeps the vibe easy despite the public proclamation from Hahn that “We view ourselves as a contender, absolutely.”
There’s no GM in sports more educated than Hahn, as he possesses not only a degree from the University of Michigan but a JD from Harvard Law and an MBA from Northwestern. One significant and often overlooked aspect of brainpower is compartmentalization – the trained ability to think about things only when needed, to arrange and prioritize ideas like files and keep the mental desktop clean.
It’s a real skill, and it might explain why the 43-year-old has so little gray in his hair.
But when his rapidly remodeled White Sox hit the field this spring looking to win, Hahn’s smarts will be put to the test in more ways than one.