Konerko better with age

CHICAGO -- At age 35, most baseball players’ careers are winding down, if they haven't already ended. Of course there are players who are productive into their mid-30s, but what White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko is doing quite rare.

Not only is Konerko still productive at 35, but last season he had arguably his best season, posting career highs in on-base percentage (.393) and slugging percentage (.584) by a wide margin. Most pundits wondered if Konerko could repeat his magical 2010 season. The three-year, $37.5 million contract he signed this past winter showed that the White Sox believed in him.

Two and a half months into the 2011 season, the White Sox are being rewarded for their faith in Konerko. He currently has an OPS of .953, the second highest of his career -- behind his monster 2010 numbers.

“As you get older, you gotta be more strategic on how you get through a season,” Konerko said. “Your body doesn’t always agree with you, you have to work harder but sometimes you have to back off too.”

What Konerko did last season isn’t unprecedented, he’s one of only 16 players to post an OBP greater than .390 and a slugging percentage above .580 in their age 34 season. Konerko’s name is on a list that includes the likes of Babe Ruth, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, and Willie Mays.

The difference between Konerko and those players is they had a long history of Hall of Fame-like seasons, while Konerko seemed to elevate his game at 34 and is pushing to do it again this season.

His career numbers may not be among those lofty names just yet, but manager Ozzie Guillen believes he deserves to be mentioned among the best.

“He will be in the Hall of Fame,” Guillen said. “And by the way, PK did it clean, there’s no doubt he did it the right way.”

Guillen was effusive in his praise of Konerko, saying that both Konerko and Carlos Quentin deserve to represent the White Sox at the All-Star Game this year. But it isn’t just Konerko’s production that has impressed Guillen throughout the years.

“This man represents the game in different ways, the right way,” Guillen said. “With the media, with his teammates, with the organization, on the field and with the community; that’s a lot.”

Early in his career Konerko had a difficult time putting together a full season, often having one great half and disappearing the next. Guillen said that it was Konerko’s experience that allowed him to finally deliver a great full season. Konerko is hesitant to discuss how he’s been able to suddenly put up six straight months of production because he’s not even three month into this season.

“You try to break everything down to not only each at-bat, but each pitch,” Konerko said. “It’s hard to do because you always try to get ahead of yourself, but to me the only thing that matters is the next pitch.”

Konerko said that being able to DH every once in a while helps keep him fresh and healthy through a long season, but also was adamant that he didn’t want to become a full-time DH any time soon. Konerko credited former White Sox slugger Jim Thome for setting a good example of how to still be productive as you get older. Thome posted an OPS of 1.014 at 35, his first season with the White Sox.

However, while Thome seemed to get national recognition for his production, Konerko rarely gets mentioned among the best first basemen in the American League. Maybe it’s because Konerko didn’t put up numbers comparable to Adrian Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera until last season, but either way, his status in the game isn’t of concern to Konerko.

“If it’s outside the lines, it’s meaningless to me,” Konerko said.

What isn’t meaningless is that Konerko did what very few have at the age of 34 and now at 35, he’s trying to do it again.