Paul Sullivan: Firings. A shooting in the stands. And a GM search that wasn’t a search. 10 days that shook the Chicago White Sox

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — From the moment Chicago White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf fired longtime executives Ken Williams and Rick Hahn to fans unfurling a “Jerry Reinsdorf must go” banner in the ninth inning of Friday’s loss to the Detroit Tigers at Guaranteed Rate Field, a season already off the rails veered off a cliff.

The Sox already were in the midst of a stunning free-fall from a postseason team in 2021 to the fourth-worst record in baseball on Aug. 22. Traded reliever Keynan Middleton beca me an unlikely whistleblower, exposing a “no rules,” lackadaisical clubhouse culture exemplified by the pitcher’s allegation a Sox teammate slept in the bullpen during games without repercussions.

The fate of Hahn, the general manager in his 11th year, was a daily topic of conversation, fueled by Hahn’s admission he might not be back to try to fix the mess in 2024. Former Sox player and manager Ozzie Guillen harped almost nightly on the NBC Sports Chicago postgame show about the players’ inadequacies and the excessive sugarcoating after losses by manager Pedro Grifol.

It was, as Reinsdorf would say later, an ongoing “nightmare” that even he refused to watch, DVRing games and deleting the losses without viewing.

Reinsdorf, 87 and in relatively good health, finally came to the realization he had to fire his top two baseball executives, including Williams, whom he said was like a son to him. Reinsdorf said he spent a month “thinking about” the decision before making it happen. He spoke with people in the baseball operations department, including assistant vice president Chris Getz, his player development head. He spoke with associates throughout the game, including longtime friend and former manager Tony La Russa.

Even after all the recommendations to start over, solicited and otherwise, Reinsdorf said he thought Williams and Hahn still “had the capacity to rebuild the organization.” But in the end he bowed to consensus opinion.

“One of the things that a number of people told me was ‘You may believe that, but the record’s the record,’ ” Reinsdorf said. “And I was urged to make a decision by quite a number of people just based on the record.”

The Sox came home Aug. 21 from a trip to Colorado with a series against the Seattle Mariners on tap. Reinsdorf said he made his decision “a couple days” before finalizing the move, meaning the final game of the Williams-Hahn era would be that night. The Sox lost 14-2, leaving them at 49-76. Hahn would finish with two postseason appearances over his 11 seasons, with a 2-5 postseason record and a .456 career winning percentage over 1,642 games.

The announcement came via a news release at 5:45 p.m. Aug. 22, shortly before the Sox’s second game against the Mariners. The team was hosting an exclusive showing of a documentary on their baseball cap’s influence on hip-hop culture. Reporters at the viewing saw the release on their phones and raced upstairs to write their stories.

The final line of the release said the Sox would “begin a search for a single decision maker to lead the baseball operations department and anticipate having an individual in place by the end of the season.”

The search was on.

Would it be a rock-star hire such as former Cubs President Theo Epstein or perhaps one of Epstein’s young clones throughout the league? The only certainty seemed to be that a new vision was needed to fix the inadequacies and turn around the fortunes of a long-suffering franchise.

But the search would not happen. Reinsdorf already had decided on Getz, reasoning it would take a year for a new leader to learn the organization. He interviewed no one else.

Reinsdorf admitted to making the decision to fire Williams and Hahn when he did to “get Chris as much time (as I could) to get started” on the job with free agency and the winter meetings looming.

“The second reason was I wanted to give Rick Hahn as much time as possible to get on somebody else’s radar rather than wait till the end of the year,” he said. “But the No. 1 reason was: Why not give Chris as much time as possible?”

The search that was not really a search continued. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale reported on Aug. 23 that Getz was expected to be named the next White Sox GM, with the possibility of former Royals general manager Dayton Moore joining him in “a key front-office position.”

Nightengale is plugged into the Sox, so most fans assumed Getz was indeed the man. Nevertheless, the Sox continued the ruse of a search.

Then the moment the Sox season jumped the shark came in the fourth inning of a game on Aug. 25 against the Oakland A’s, when two women were shot in the left-field bleachers without anyone hearing gunshots. One woman was hospitalized after a bullet went through her right thigh and was lodged in her lower leg. The other woman suffered a graze wound but refused treatment.

The game went on. Sox security cleared the area in Section 161 without informing fans what had happened. Reinsdorf was quickly informed by his communications staff, but the fans, teams and media were not told anything about the shooting until after the game.

The next day, Sox vice president of communications Scott Reifert told reporters the game continued because no “active threat” was apparent.

The shooting incident included everything necessary for a great Chicago mystery: guns, baseball, police, the teacher’s union, Reinsdorf, Mayor Brandon Johnson and interim Superintendent Fred Waller. After Waller said at a Monday news conference the department had “almost completely dispelled” the possibility the shots came from outside the park, Johnson ushered him away from the media, stoking conspiracy theories.

The next day, WMVP-AM 1000 personality Peggy Kusinski wrote on social media and said on her show that one of the women suffered a wound on an “accidental discharge” after she “reportedly snuck the gun in past metal detectors hiding it in the folds of her belly fat.” Kusinski’s post went viral. Soon everyone had a theory on the Sox Park shooting.

The same afternoon, the attorney for one of the women said she “denies bringing a firearm into the stadium and further denies having anything to do with the discharge of a firearm at the stadium.”

On Thursday, the day the Getz announcement was made, the Sox hand-picked a small group of reporters to interview Reinsdorf in his Guaranteed Rate Field office, excluding prominent outlets such as ESPN and The Athletic and longtime regulars including WBEZ-FM reporter Cheryl Raye Stout. One Associated Press reporter was substituted for another who later said he was surprised to discover he was on the Sox’s pseudo blacklist.

Reinsdorf spoke for about 25 minutes, addressing his decisions on Williams, Hahn and Getz and other subjects, including La Russa’s tenure and rumors of selling the team and moving to Nashville, Tenn. Reinsdorf began the meeting by bringing up the shooting, dismissing the idea the shots came from inside the ballpark. He said Waller “authorized me to say regardless of what anybody has said up to now they have not ruled out that the shots came from outside the ballpark.”

“You can call him and contact, and he’ll verify that,” he told the group.

Later, at the Getz news conference, Reinsdorf doubled down on his theory, saying: “I don’t see any way in the world that the shots could have come from inside the ballpark.” He then declined to take questions from a much larger media contingent that included local TV and radio reporters.

A CPD statement issued Thursday evening said: “As Interim Superintendent Fred Waller said earlier this week, Chicago Police Department detectives are actively investigating every avenue surrounding the circumstances of how this shooting incident transpired.” No further updates had been provided as of Saturday.

At the news conference Thursday, Getz introduced himself as a “different man” than his predecessors, saying there were “no untouchables” on the team. He then revealed Grifol would return in 2024, surprising no one. Grifol said Friday that he had known all along he was safe.

The first game of the Getz era was played before a sparse crowd announced at 15,105 on a gorgeous Friday night that included a postgame fireworks show. Retiring Detroit Tigers star Miguel Cabrera received several ovations, and die-hards watched a tight game that ended in typical Sox fashion with a 4-2 loss. The game featured a botched throw-in from rookie second baseman Lenyn Sosa on a popup, allowing a Tigers runner to score.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, a group of fans behind the plate unfurled a banner that read: “42 YEARS OF OWNERSHIP. 7 PLAYOFF APPEARANCES. JERRY REINSDORF MUST GO.” They took the banner down for a moment when security approached, then raised it again for the final out before a guard confiscated it as the game ended and the crowd in the box seats and even some suites booed.

A few minutes later, the fireworks show began.

But for hard-bitten Sox fans, the fireworks never really end.