White Sox’ spring opens to darkness, gloom — and it has nothing to do with the weather

With pitcher Mike Clevinger in camp, general manager Rick Hahn faced many unpleasant questions.

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White Sox general manager Rick Hahn speaks to reporters at Camelback Ranch.

White Sox general manager Rick Hahn speaks to reporters at Camelback Ranch.

Matt York/AP

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The White Sox opened spring training Wednesday, and what a day it wasn’t.

Hope didn’t spring eternal. The anticipated feeling that a fresh start was all the Sox would need after a miserable 2022 was undetectable in the air. The sounds of baseballs popping against fresh leather failed to ring out like church music.

Instead, on the Sox’ side of Camelback Ranch, it was tense and gloomy, with a dark cloud already hanging over the 2023 team and season.

Have the Sox stepped in it again?

Can general manager Rick Hahn and the front office be trusted to ever get this right again?

Was signing pitcher Mike Clevinger, who’s being investigated by MLB after allegations of domestic violence brought by the mother of his 10-month-old daughter, a damning, defining mistake?

Happy spring training, Sox fans. The whole thing has gone negative already.

“I regret the fact that we’re sitting here today talking about this,” Hahn said. “I understand why we’re doing it. Obviously, we have to.

“But this is a year in which we have high expectations. We have a new staff that’s trying to hit the ground running to help us fulfill those expectations, and we’ve got a heck of a lot of players in that clubhouse right now who feel like they’ve got something to prove.”

There are all kinds of questions about these Sox, of course. How they’ll move on under a new manager, Pedro Grifol, after the Tony La Russa experiment — bewildering, to say the least — ran aground. How they’ll move on without Jose Abreu. Whether this roster, even as it has been tinkered with, is capable of adding up to the sum of its talented parts.

But it isn’t just the players who have something to prove. The front office — with long-timer Hahn in its forward-facing role — has failed to inspire confidence on an ongoing basis. No, the Sox still haven’t won a postseason series since 2005. No, they never should have hired chairman Jerry Reinsdorf’s old pal La Russa. No, they haven’t come close to taking full advantage of what they believed to their core was a championship window.

A few years ago, Hahn and the Sox were being lauded for the progress of their rebuild. Where did all that goodwill go? Why does it seem as though the Cubs have suddenly gone from sad sacks to the only Chicago baseball team anyone is excited about?

Hahn might be exactly right when he says “there was no way for [the Sox] to be aware” of the Clevinger investigation before they signed him to a one-year, $12 million contract in December. Confidentiality indeed is — for the benefits of both accused and accusers — a critical element in an open investigation according to the collectively bargained policy between MLB and the players association. Hahn, who has a Harvard law degree, emphasized that repeatedly during a Q&A with media on the back fields of the Sox complex in which he looked and sounded not only disappointed and frustrated but perhaps even wounded.

But Clevinger pitched for the Padres throughout the second half of last season and into the playoffs while reportedly being investigated. Could the Sox have dug deeper into the vetting process? Were they thorough enough in their background checks on a player who, in 2020, was kicked to the curb by the Guardians for violating COVID-19 safety protocols during a trip to Chicago and apparently was untruthful with his own teammates during that episode? In meetings with Clevinger and his agent before signing the pitcher, did the Sox ask all the necessary questions?

“It’s a very fair question, the question about the level of due diligence that we do,” Hahn said.

Hahn maintains there was “no indication of anything close” in Clevinger’s background to what has been alleged in this case. Clevinger met with reporters after Hahn and passionately denied having done anything wrong.

“If Rick Hahn’s reputation, if the confidence in me and the front office is adversely affected by this because there needs to be confidentiality in these investigations, that’s OK in the end, frankly,” Hahn said. “The overall good and need and effectiveness of the policy is more important than me necessarily making fully informed decisions. That’s reality.

“But I’m certainly going to take whatever slings and arrows come our way, understandably.”

Either way, there’s still that dark cloud, and it isn’t going anywhere for as long as the Sox wait for the investigation to play out. It’s going to be a tense spring.

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