White Sox

What’s come of Ken Williams speaking out at GM meetings

White Sox

The week after Ken Williams raised concerns about front offices’ largely monochromatic makeup, MLB’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee convened at the owners meetings in Chicago to discuss his frustrations.

“After all this time (in baseball), I’ve got an understanding that what moves people really boils down to incentive or penalty,” Williams said in a phone interview last month. “And what that means, what that is, I’m not exactly sure yet. But if there's a commitment and a spirit behind something that everyone agrees should be done, then action should take place. You should see results.”

Williams, the White Sox’ executive vice president, hadn’t minced words when addressing his colleagues last month. As The Athletic reported, Williams expressed frustration at the enduring lack of diversity in MLB teams’ baseball operations leadership. He reignited a conversation that was already publicly waning in baseball after MLB teams sent a unified message during the 2020 amateur draft and Opening Day that they stood with the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“What he said really echoed what the committee is all about,” said Rangers COO Neil Leibman, who chairs the committee. “And what it prompted us to do is rather than do a standard agenda (at the owners meetings), we sat down and we talked about what Kenny said, and how can we implement that?”

MLB had already taken a step, according to The Athletic, sending a memo to teams in October about updating the Selig Rule, and addressing that memo at the GM meetings. The original rule, introduced by then-commissioner Bud Selig in 1999, requires clubs to consider female or minority candidates when filling all general manager, assistant GM, field manager, director of player development, and director of scouting openings.

The way Leibman sees it, the Selig Rule had “the right sentiment,” but “we need to put a little bit more teeth into” it.

The update to the rule focused on internal promotions, a loophole in the original. The changes, The Athletic reported, required clubs to give the commissioner’s office a succession plan for senior baseball operations positions, including an expectation that when a club promotes a white man it will promote or hire a woman or person of color to fill a vacancy created by the promotion.

Said Williams: “Even I have mixed emotions about it – and I've expressed those to the commissioner and to our diversity committee – because even though you're planning on bringing in quality people, sometimes those people that come in under those edicts, it's held against them.

“I think we have to work hard to understand that no one here is talking about bringing in people that aren't qualified for the job. Just the opposite. Just giving people an opportunity who are qualified.”

With an understanding of the Selig rule’s limitations, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee tackled the question of what other rules, best practices or programs MLB needs to establish to address its slow progress.

“The part of it that was so encouraging for me,” said MLB senior vice president of on-field operations Michael Hill, who is involved with the committee, “is that this is a conversation that's widespread.

“I think the awareness is a huge part of making improvements. I think you have to first come to grips with what your challenges are before you can truly attack them. And when you've got an entire ownership committee talking about ways to make things better, I think that's a tremendous thing.”

When Williams talked during the GM meetings about being one of the few minorities in the room year after year, only three other people of color led MLB baseball operations departments, out of 30 teams: the Marlins’ Kim Ng, Giant’s Farhan Zaidi and Tigers’ Al Avila. Ng also made history last November, becoming the first woman to hold a general manager position in MLB.

Hill, who said he was sitting next to Williams when the White Sox executive VP aired his concerns, was in the same boat for years. When the Marlins promoted him to general manager in 2007, Hill was the fifth African American man to hold such a position. He served as the Marlins’ GM and then president of baseball operations from through the 2020 season.

“I think that was the overriding theme from Kenny, that we just need to continue to push to make things the best they possibly can be,” Hill said in a phone interview. “I think it resonated throughout that room. I think it rang to the owners meetings.”

As MLB grapples with its legacy of gatekeeping and charts a path forward, it can learn from its mistakes. But it can also build upon incremental victories. Hill points to several league-wide programs that he sees as “steps in the right direction.”

To name a few: MLB launched its Diversity Pipeline Program to identify and develop racial minority and female candidates for on-field and baseball ops positions. The Diversity Fellowship Program places its fellows in baseball operations roles in MLB’s clubs and central office. “Take the Field” provides programming for women interested in coaching, scouting and player development careers.

“It's just building a better game that I can leave for my kids and my kids can leave for theirs,” Hill said.

There are also club-run initiatives, like the Rangers’ Charley Pride Fellowship Program. The team launched the 10-week paid program this year for college students with diverse backgrounds, offering front office experience in a variety of departments. 

“We've got to change culture, cultural thinking within organizations and people, and that takes time,” Leibman said. “For instance, the Texas Rangers, we know what we want to accomplish. And how do we accomplish it? One of the ways we feel we can accomplish it from a baseball perspective, is to have the Charley Pride Fellowship Program. But that's going to take years to implement and grow people and train them.”

The same goes for Major League Baseball’s newer programs. The league and its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee have to address both sides of the equation: Building for the future is vital, but baseball also can’t afford to wait for the next generation to change the makeup of MLB’s front offices.

By speaking out, Williams gave the plodding process a push. Leibman described the committee’s meeting last month as its “most robust discussion” in his tenure. Its takeaways will carry over into coming meetings, as the committee considers next steps.  

“I'm cautiously hopeful,” Williams said. “I choose that.”

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