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Guillen molded champs in his image

Guillen molded champs in his image

ANAHEIM -- For someone who suddenly found himself four wins away from forced retirement, Ozzie Guillen certainly was upbeat.

The First Man of the Second City had the last word -- something no one figures to ever actually hear.

"I think it's great because we proved a lot of people wrong," said the manager of the American League champions. "And I think I like that."

Guillen may not like to be reminded of his September vow to retire from managing the Chicago White Sox. Then again, he may not like anything more, because he had promised to do so if they won the World Series.

Maybe that was a limb that extended all the way from Chicago to Caracas. But now that Guillen has qualified as the first Latino manager to lead a team into the Fall Classic, it might be time to ask whether he had anything crossed while uttering his exit line.

Because following their 6-3 victory over the Angels in Sunday night's AL Championship Series clincher, the White Sox are four victories shy of putting their manager on the spot.

Only fair, because Oswaldo Jose Guillen Barrios put them in this spot. His fingerprints coat Chicago's first World Series team in 46 years the way paint coats a wall.

Guillen pictured this team a year ago. He may not have expected his vision to be so brilliantly flawless, but the White Sox triumph vindicates his ideas and his critics.

"We took a lot of beatings this year about my team," Guillen said, "and we just kept playing.

"Good thing my players don't listen to what I was saying to the media. We stick together, and I think they deserve it, they earned it."

This is Guillen's team, through and through. Not just the team he manages, but the team he molded. With the trust and assistance of general manager Ken Williams, the first to buy into his vision, Guillen overhauled the White Sox in his own reflection.

He wanted 25 guys on the same page, who went into today's game with amnesia about yesterday's and played it the way he had across a 16-year career that didn't end until 2000: with speed and bat control and defense and, foremost, attitude.

He wanted a team of Ozzie Guillens. Which would be enough to drive any manager nuts, except this manager happened to be the original.

"Championship Makeover," the reality show starring the other Ozzie.

The 2004 White Sox with whom he made his managerial debut weren't bad, nor were they in the midst of a terrible cycle. In fact, that was the fifth consecutive winning season on the South Side.

They were, however, vanilla. Aimless, pointless, guileless. A typically plodding American League team which could slug out a hot week, or disappear when the bats turned to sawdust.

Guillen overhauled the physical makeup of the team. Carlos Lee, who could trot, went to Milwaukee in return for Scott Podsednik, who could burn. Magglio Ordonez was allowed to walk as a free agent. A.J. Pierzynski, smart enough to handle a high-maintenance pitching staff and annoying enough to irritate opponents, went behind the plate. Tadahito Iguchi went from Japan to second base.

Simultaneously, he aimed to overhaul the team's mental makeup.

Veterans on the team applauded the direction, and approached Spring Training with anticipation they hadn't felt for a long time.

"We needed to change the formula because it wasn't working," Paul Konerko said. "We needed to break the mold.

"Ozzie wanted to try to put his stamp on the team with some speed and more defense, and the overall attitude. There were no guarantees it would work. I didn't know if we were going to win, but I knew we weren't going to lose the same way."

There is a selfish reason Guillen habitually referred to Iguchi as his team's MVP. Iguchi could hit behind the runner, lay down sacrifices in his sleep, turn a nifty double play. He was Guillen.

But heaven help Guillen had the White Sox stumbled out of the gate. His makeover would have been panned, his credibility would've been shot, his resolve might have been shaken.

Instead, his vindication was immediate. The White Sox sped out to their best start ever, with a 24-7 record on May 8. They led in each of their first 37 games, a Major League record.

Yet, the wolves wouldn't leave his door. Questioned the caliber of competition he was getting from the rest of the AL Central. Wondered whether the Sox could finesse their way through an entire season. Nodded knowingly when a 15-game lead shrank to next to nothing, and foresaw doom.

The Sox stayed the course Guillen's way, which wasn't always a great show but almost always brought great results.

"It sounds like little girls' baseball, but it's the way we have to play," Guillen said.

Politically incorrect? Sure. Guillen speaks from the hip, an endearing quality.

Former teammate, Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk, appraised, "One of the best things about him is also maybe one of the worst things about him. He's not afraid to say anything to anybody if it's on his mind."

He fires off one-liners without forethought, not bleaching his observations with tact. Like Henny Youngman. Or ...

"Ozzie is the Hispanic Jackie Mason," said Jerry Reinsdorf, the team's beloved owner. "If you look at him in that light, you don't worry about anything he says."

Unless you are one of his players, in which case you take everything he says to heart. Guillen pumped up his guys, always encouraging them to play with clear minds. He didn't coddle or shelter players, who appreciated his honesty.

Guillen used the Indians' furious late-season charge to dare his own club. Cleveland wasn't going to go away, he kept saying, so it will be up to you to do something about it.

Which the White Sox did, in such a forceful manner, they regained all of their swagger at the best possible time, at the doorsill of the postseason.

By virtue of ending the regular season with five straight wins -- including a last weekend sweep in Cleveland -- Chicago is on one of the best year-end streaks of all time. Overall, the Sox have won 12 of their last 13.

The fact the last month wasn't easy made them hard.

"There's no question about that," Konerko said. "We felt that it was going to end up as one of two stories. Either it would be the worst thing ever, or give us a second boost of energy."

Guillen himself says, "We had a wakeup call."

And they wake up Monday as AL champs.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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