CLEVELAND — Ken Williams looked like he had swallowed a lemon.
Williams had just praised manager Robin Ventura and the White Sox players, despite a September swoon, for their consistent approach during a season that was better than many predicted and that ends mercifully Wednesday at Progressive Field.
So naturally I wondered if that meant the Sox general manager considered 2012 a success as some of his players have suggested publicly.
Screwing up his face, Williams said nothing for at least five seconds.
"I understand what you're saying, but it doesn't feel like it,'' Williams told me Tuesday night before the Sox played the Indians. "Right now, it's just (messed) up.''
Right now, Williams feels as sick as many South Side fans trying to figure how the Sox blew the three-game lead they enjoyed as late as Sept. 18. Right now, Williams can't get past what-if to consider what's next. He plans to deliver a positive message to the Sox before their final game, but he might struggle masking the pain in his voice.
"We had a shot,'' Williams said. "Had we gotten in, we would have matched up against every team better than we matched up against the teams of the last two weeks. If we could have just played .500 for the last two weeks. So when someone says it's been a successful year, I'm like, no, you just don't know. Shoot. It's not. The only thing I take away from this now is disappointment.''
Nothing disappoints Williams more than hearing people say the Sox choked. But after 12 seasons on the job, he knows better than to get caught up arguing they didn't.
"Sometimes things happen and you just have to wear it,'' Williams said. "We can't change the culture, whether it's the social media world or traditional media world or the fan blogger. Everyone has a voice. You can't react to it, but you can use it as motivation.
"We had it in the palm of our hands. Say what you want. Nothing anybody can write or say is going to make us feel worse. Every man in that clubhouse gave it everything they had.''
A relaxed atmosphere filled the Sox clubhouse Tuesday as players goofed around playing video games and watching TV. Ventura called stress release the day after the Tigers eliminated the Sox "natural.'' Williams always will wonder how things might have unfolded had the Sox stayed loose as the pressure mounted.
The Sox batted .217 in September with runners in scoring position. The closer the Tigers got, the worse the Sox hit.
"I just think they were trying to do too much in those situations,'' Williams said. "They wanted it too badly and couldn't relax.''
In an expansive hourlong conversation, a relaxed Williams addressed several issues left in the wake of the Sox's regrettable month.
•Did Ventura overmanage, especially wearing a path to the mound after rosters expanded Sept. 1?
"It's a fair question, but the answer is absolutely not,'' Williams said. "If we didn't use (September call-ups), this thing would have been over a long time ago. By the way, the guys he was using were pretty good.''
•Can Williams explain the Sox's annual problems in September? Since winning the World Series in 2005, the Sox are 88-104.
"What's different about this September from some of the past years, I think it's best I stay away from, but it doesn't have anything to do with the players' or coaching staff's efforts,'' Williams said. "We're going to study it.''
"We'd like to have them all,'' Williams said. "But we have to figure out our budget issues.''
Inevitably, those discussions will come back to the attendance issue that Williams acknowledged players approached him about this season. Ventura restored class and professionalism in the clubhouse. The Sox spent 118 days in first place. Yet the team failed to draw 2 million fans.
"Now the primary focus is on enhancing the fan experience and looking not at our fans as to why they didn't come out as we anticipated, but at ourselves first,'' Williams said. "It's a mistake to have great expectations of how people spend their discretionary income with all the economic uncertainties. What can we do creatively to enhance the experience, more than just the baseball team, so that once again we can be aggressive with our projections and, as a result, payroll?''
Williams talking about improving the fan experience made him sound like a team president more than a general manager — which he likely will be soon. Regarding reports of his promotion with Rick Hahn taking over as GM, Williams neither confirmed nor denied the moves but made clear nothing will happen until after he takes a week off to "clear my head.''
"Right now is the absolute worst time for me to talk about my future because I'm just spent,'' said Williams, who has been approached about jobs outside baseball. "Jerry (Reinsdorf) and I will discuss what's best. I'm going to hear him out. He's got to hear where I am, and we'll make a decision.
"I have no desire to leave the city of Chicago or the organization. When I sat down in this chair for the first time, I didn't talk about one championship — it was multiple championships.
"The job isn't done yet.''