Caught up with broadcaster Ken Harrelson recently as he was making his way to a first tee somewhere in sunny Florida. He warmed up for his round of golf by talking White Sox baseball. As you might expect, the Hawk is optimistic about the 2012 season.
S-T: Hawk, give Sox fans something to be optimistic about. This payroll-slashing, replenishing phase general manager Ken Williams is taking them through after last year's all-out "all in" bust is depressing them.
Hawk: First of all, [the roster is] not set yet. I'm very optimistic. We have some situations with a big upside -- Adam Dunn literally and figuratively. Hopefully [Alex] Rios, and hopefully [Jake] Peavy is healthy. [Gordon] Beckham I think is going to come back. One of the big things is going to be the attitude. [New manager] Robin [Ventura] is going to be fantastic, I really do think so.
S-T: More moves to be made in your view?
Hawk: Kenny is not done yet, I know that. Even if we trade one or two of our veteran players, I'm still optimistic because we have some good young talent out there. And let's face it, last year was probably the worst defensive outfield play I've seen in a major league outfield. It was horrendous. That's going to be turned around and we're going to have a good defensive outfield. [Dayan] Viciedo has a chance to be a monster. And Tyler Flowers, looks like he's going to be a good player. So there is a lot to be optimistic about.
S-T: Should De Aza play CF?
Hawk: That's going to be up to Robin. It will work itself out at spring training. I'd like to see De Aza. To me, he's made himself into a big league center fielder. Alex, I think he'll be more comfortable in left field.
S-T: Are the Sox still trimming payroll?
Hawk: I don't think Kenny is done yet. And I'm not talking about trimming, I'm talking about one way or the other. [But] I wouldn't expect them to go out and sign a huge free agent.
S-T: What do you like about this team?
Look at the September [Brent] Morel had last year. With Ramirez, Beckham and Konerko that's a pretty damn good infield. With improved outfield play, it's a different looking ballclub. The most important thing we have on our team is your pitching, and the way you protect your pitching is by catching the ball. You have to catch the ball. It's that simple. And we didn't catch the ball last year. That puts a lot of pressure on the pitching staff and that in turn puts a lot of pressure on the offense. Again, I'm ready to go. Ready to go right now.
S-T: With Santos shipped off to Toronto for pitching prospect Nestor Molina, who is going to close?
Hawk: Well, it would be unfair to say Addison Reed will be the closer. That will work itself out. We have a lot of games in spring training for Robin to make up his mind.
S-T: Was it time for a [managerial] change?
Hawk: I think so, yeah. And Ozzie felt the same way. Ozzie, the first five years he was here were terrific. People forget if we don't lose Maggs [Ordonez] and then [Framk] Thomas we probably would have won it that year. His second year we won the world championship. But the last three years have not been the same.
Any time you say something good toward the new manager it's something negative toward the old manager. Robin is a breath of fresh air.
S-T: You were a Comeback Player of the Year (1968). You have said you believe Dunn will be the Comeback Player of the Year. Did you see anything physically wrong or was it all mental?
Hawk: I said I hope he will and I think he can be Comeback Player of the Year. [His bad 2011] performance was self induced. He got into a position where it got worse, got deeper and deeper. He's going to really enjoy Robin Ventura. Robin his first year went 0-for-41 and he grew in stature in the eyes of his of teammates. And Adam, I told him that was the worst season I've seen anyone have. I said I had some bad ones but nothing like that ... he laughed, but he handled the adversity it well, like a real solid professional and teammate. If a guy like Albert Belle struggles like that, so what. But a guy like Adam, that's when it hurts more.
S-T: Will new hitting coach Jeff Manto make a difference?
Hawk: The toughest uniform job in baseball. Toughest job in baseball is the general manager. Second toughest is the hitting coach. Thirteen guys to take care of. You're not going to connect with all of them. Greg Walker is going to be happy [in Atlanta] and I think our hitters will. A lot of guys will miss Walk. I will because I love him like a second son. That's not the issue, though. The issue is was it time for a change and the answer probably is yes.
S-T: Does Robin know what he's in for? The next game he manages will be his first.
Hawk: Like Ozzie did as a player, every game he played in he managed. Look what they did in St. Louis [hiring Mike Matheny), a guy who never managed, either. That to me is not an issue. It's the individual and we know Robin very well. Kenny and I were talking in his office, I guess three or four weeks to go in the season. He told me who he was thinking about. He prefaced it by saying he never managed before. When he said "Robin Ventura" I said 'Kenny, you just made my winter.' I knew Ozzie was going and I thought it was going to be a critical decision who they brought in. With the exception of one (current) other guy, nobody would have been better.''
S-T: Nobody will pick the Sox to win the AL Central. Why do they have a chance?
Hawk: There are so many positive things that can happen. There's not too much more downside for some of those guys -- Adam, Alex, Beckham. This has a chance to be a helluva ballclub. The Tigers took a big hit (Victor Martinez injury). And Mr. Expectation is a horrible a guy. He will jerk you around and kill you if you allow him to. That's what happened to us a little bit last year.
S-T: When did the red flag go up for you last season?
Hawk: I took my wife to the airport with a week left in spring training. I said, 'I think we're in trouble.' She said, "why?" I said, 'the last two years we had flat spring trainings, we came out flat and it did not get any better. The thing is happening right now. We're flat and we're not playing well. Our outfield defense is going to be terrible. I don't think we're going to get it done even though our talent is as good a talent as anybody if not more. Sometimes talent is overrated and attitude is underrated. And the attitude the last three years has just not been there. There are reasons to be optimistic.
S-T: Robin has to get this team, with its many veterans, to buy into what he's doing.
Hawk: For Robin it will take time because he's not an in-your-face guy like Bobby Valentine.
S-T: You mentioned Tyler Flowers. Will we see less of A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate?
Hawk: I'd like to see A.J. rested a little more, yeah. A.J. still puts the best numbers down [calling pitches] in the American League. But Tyler is emerging. Is he ready, I don't know. As long as A.J. is around, he's your No. 1.