Paul Konerko has turned a selfless approach on the field into one of the more productive careers in Chicago White Sox history, yet a subset of the fan base isn’t on board with his decision to have one last hurrah in 2014.
One critique is that Konerko, 38, is past his prime and more of a liability than asset. Another refrain is that he is taking a roster spot from a younger player. The most pronounced denouncement is that his return has bogged down the roster with three plodding first base types in himself, Adam Dunn and newcomer Jose Abreu.
Konerko considered all of those issues for more than two months when he pondered his next move following the end of the 2013 season. On one hand was retirement and all the family rewards it would bring, and on the other was one last season to experience the sense of team and be wide-eyed at the idea that he could appreciate every trip to the plate, every trip to a visiting ballpark and every tour of a road city for the last time.
If coming back for one last season on a 400 percent pay cut while probably getting 300 fewer at-bats was going to be considered selfish by some, well, then he was fine with that, especially since he consulted teammates who would be affected by his return and the club opened the door to him putting on the uniform again.
Even when an act might look selfish at face value, Konerko still goes about it in the most selfless way possible.
“I’ve played a long time, but I’ve never gone through a season where you know, ‘OK, this is the end of it,’ so how that all unfolds and how you feel at different moments, you’ll just have to wait and see,” Konerko said at the start of spring training. “I’ll try to give as honest answers and be as up front with it as I can as we go. But I can’t possibly answer how I’m going to feel in June or August. It’s tough for me. I don’t know.
“It’s the first time I’m going through this, and the last time. But I definitely have some thoughts on things as far as stuff you want to take in along the way that’s alongside the baseball stuff, but just stuff you know, ‘OK, this is the last time I’m going to do this and I need to take advantage of it.’ I have some thoughts on that kind of stuff, but nothing that’s going to get in the way of doing the job.”
In the end, it’s about the job. Of course it is. This is Paul Konerko.
Yet some still aren’t on board with a conscientious hard worker who thrives on team more than self, who remained loyal despite offers of more money on two separate contract negotiation periods, won the MVP in the 2005 American League Championship Series and had the sense at the pinnacle of his career (the final out of the ’05 World Series) to hide the ball and present it to chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who cried at the thoughtfulness of the simple gift.
TEENAGE FAN CLUB
Most fans are appreciative that Konerko is returning, of course. At least that’s how it seems. Perhaps it’s simply the cheers for every Konerko at-bat at sparsely attended Cactus League games that overwhelm the groans of those who can’t see the point.
At least two major league managers are thrilled to see Konerko give it one last go-round. The Milwaukee Brewers' Ron Roenicke and the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Scioscia have probably known Konerko longer than anybody in the White Sox organization.
As a 19-year-old in 1995, Konerko played at Single-A San Bernardino of the California League a year after being drafted in the first round (13th overall) by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Roenicke was the San Bernardino manager that year and Scioscia was the club’s roving catching instructor. It was the final season Konerko would catch.
The stats from that season don’t exactly leap off the page. Konerko hit 19 home runs with 77 RBIs and had a .277 batting average with a .455 slugging percentage. But he showed he could put the ball in play, striking out 88 times in 519 plate appearances.
What has stuck with both current managers most was a single moment in that year’s California League championship series when Roenicke operated on a hunch and Konerko unflinchingly delivered.
“It was first and second and nobody out in the game they clinched (the title) and Ron just asked him, ‘Can you bunt?’” Scioscia said. “He said, ‘Sure,’ and he put down a perfect sacrifice bunt. I think that’s what Paul’s about. I think he’s always been a winner. He has a deep understanding of the game, a deep passion for the game.”
Konerko still has a vivid recollection of the moment too, although his isn’t as much about having that deep understanding as much as it was having a respect for authority.
“I was 19 years old,” he said. “At that point, I don’t even know how professional baseball works or anything about it. I’m just learning it. A coach asks you to bunt, a manager asks you to bunt, you bunt. I never thought anything about, ‘Oh geez, I hit some home runs this year, this isn’t right.’ I never thought along those lines.
“I’m not sure if I was even swinging the bat well at the time. That could have played into it. But I also know I never really bunted, either, so it was kind of a bold call. Luckily the guy threw a fastball right down the middle and it was about the easiest pitch you can bunt, and I got it down.”
Roenicke remembers Konerko’s approach well from that one season together, and the longevity of the White Sox’s captain doesn’t surprise him.
“He has a really good head,” Roenicke said. “He can help your younger players and how you should think and approach the things at the plate. And he gets how to hit. He can drive the ball out of any part of the ballpark, which helps, but he understands what a hitter needs to do to be successful at this level and how you make adjustments.”
Both men saw it firsthand in 2005 with Roenicke as the Angels’ bench coach sitting right next to Scioscia in the dugout. While the White Sox’s starting pitching got the most acclaim that series for delivering four consecutive complete games against the Angels, Konerko was the offensive star, delivering a home run in Games 3 and 4 and finishing the series with seven RBIs.
“It’s what guys do when the games are on the line,” Roenicke said. “I know at the end of the season you can look at the numbers and see a guy has 25 homers, 90 RBIs, but how much did they have an impact on your team? When you need him, what does he do? There are some guys that put up great numbers and they really don’t make a big difference on winning or losing. Konerko made a big difference. When the game was on the line and you needed a hit, he gave you a great at-bat. Those are the guys you want on your team.”
THE LITTLE THINGS
Despite some physical limitations, Konerko has delivered with the best of them. His slow foot speed is obvious and his range on defense isn’t exactly up there with the best first basemen in the game. His catching career actually ended before he turned 20 because he wasn’t flexible enough in his hips to get into a proper crouch.
Offensively, though, he hardly seemed limited. His 427 home runs are second in franchise history to Frank Thomas' 448. He is also second to Thomas in RBIs with 1,361, third in doubles with 398 and third in hits with 2,249, behind Nellie Fox (2,470) and Luke Appling (2,749).
Konerko insists that the success is in the details. That old adage of watching the pennies and letting the dollars fall into place was how Konerko approached his baseball career.
“There aren’t too many times during a season that lend itself to have a chance to show [selfless play],” Konerko said. “There are a lot of things I can’t do. When you’re a guy who can run or steal bases or play shortstop and do all those things, there are many moments throughout the season when you can do the little things more to help and be noticed with those things.
“For a guy like me it usually comes down to a guy on second, nobody out trying to get that guy over. If there is a guy on second and you’re on defense, you try to dive and stop a ball from going into the outfield. Everybody up here can play, everybody up here has talent, but unless you’re going to be some superstar and will hit 50 home runs and drive in 120 runs every year, it’s those little things that will build your value as a player and make teams want to keep you or make teams want you.”
A slow-footed player who got the most out of his ability also describes Scioscia. And the two could have been united in Southern California had Konerko accepted more money and moved to the Angels following the 2005 season.
“Naturally, we would have loved to have signed Paul, but in that process we even gained more respect for him because he made the decisions for the right reasons,” Scioscia said. “He wasn’t out chasing the most money. He wasn’t out looking for the most notoriety. In the end he stayed in Chicago because of loyalty, because of a comfort level and thinking that he had the opportunity to repeat and win a championship there. I think that’s what Paul is about.”
He’s back now and ready to wear the uniform one last time, at peace with that decision and not willing to apologize to those who think this is an improper fit. His conscientious approach to each at-bat and keen awareness of his limitations give him the ideal mindset for coming off the bench in the late innings or grabbing a start after a week of pinch-hitting duties.
As a compromise for delaying his family-man status or one final year, he will bring his wife and three kids on more road trips than ever before. And it typical Konerko fashion, he says those family trips will still take a backseat to his team requirements.
Konerko doesn’t want to sail away with the stench of the 99-loss 2013 season lingering in the air. So he’s doing this one last time, on his terms -- sort of. He’s doing it the best way his conscience will allow him to.
And please, no gifts.
“I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings; I don’t want to come off like I don’t care, but anybody that has been around me knows it’s just not something that’s really important to me as far as the moments of people recognizing you,” Konerko said. “Maybe I’ll take it in a little more than I normally would. Certainly off the field with the guys on the road and the traveling and family stuff, there’s going to be more stuff that goes on than in a normal year that I’ll do on my own.
“I’ll just have to wait and see how that all plays out. I’m definitely not asking for it. I appreciate it, but it’s certainly not necessary. There’s only a handful of guys every year that you know their situation, but I appreciate it. I’m pretty focused when I come into work every day. I always try to do things the same as it was 10 years ago.”