Back in early May, when the season was just getting ripe and the White Sox were in the early stages of finding their new selves, stories surfaced about whether Paul Konerko was in his decline.
They weren't overly critical, but at the same time, possibly premature. As a journalist, I'd seen this before. There was a similar piece on David Ortiz back in the beginning of the 2009 season. As appropriate as that was, it was a little too early for any of us to begin writing Big Papi off. He ended up going on a four-month season-finishing tear, leading the AL in HRs and RBIs, 28 and 99 respectively, and to this day, remains significant in the successes and failures of the Boston Red Sox organization.
But, with Konerko, when the season continues poorly (at the time of the article his BA was .214, OBP was .273 and SLG was .349) and he's not living up to the legend he's built here in Chicago, there's a tendency to get both protective and scared.
Protective, because as accurate as "decline" stories about Konerko might be, he has earned our patience. Scared, for two reasons: (1) He's the last man left standing from the 2005 World Series team, and once he's gone, there won't be a direct linkage left outside of ownership to the championship, and (2) It's too easy to think of what the Bears did to Brian Urlacher and realize how cold Chicago sports franchises can be.
You are the last remaining block of the 2005 championship team. Do you feel that on a day-to-day basis coming into the park? Do you look around and see all of the changes and at any time say, "I'm the last man standing"? Do you look at the trophy and say, "This probably means more to me than anyone else in this clubhouse because they weren't a part of it"?
Paul Konerko: I don't catch myself thinking about [that] too much during the season because we're always focused on what's going on here for that day. But yeah, you can't help but take notice that things change. Guys like [Mark] Buehrle leave and A.J. [Pierzynski] being the last one [before leaving for Texas]. But I'm pretty sure if you look at most championship teams five years after they win, the team does look a lot different. I mean, if they have some young guys or franchise guys, they'll probably still be there, but a lot of those teams do change. [Here] I don't think it was anything over-the-top quick; it wasn't like we won in '05 and by '07 everybody was gone. I think [the overhaul] was a pretty natural progression. But I do take notice of it a little bit.
With all of the talk of "Paulie may be gone" by the trading deadline, do you feel comfortable that you're still going to be here? Like David Ortiz in Boston and Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera in New York, is there a sense that you are supposed to be here as the last remaining connection, or do you look at it from the business perspective?
I'm not talking about age per se, but does the grind, the everyday grind of baseball, does it seem harder for you now?
PK: First of all, physically, the grind gets harder every year. I think every player will say that once you hit your 30s. If not, they're lucky. It just gets physically tougher every year. Then, as you get one child, then two, then three ... every time you are adding to your family and stuff outside of the game, it gets harder, and there's a lot more to deal with in that regard. You know, at the end of the day, you are just a human being, and you only have so much time during the day to take care of what you need to take care of. Stuff adds up. So there's no doubt it gets harder. But as far as the baseball part of it, one of the hurdles for me is figuring or trying to figure out how to get the same production and same results, knowing that as you get older you kinda have to redesign yourself on a daily basis. Simply because your body is not there as much. Any player that has played 10 years, 12 years will tell you that. They'll tell you there are certain years, especially with the age part, where you'll say, "I have to figure out some way to get this done, because the way I used to do it isn't going to hold up."
As a journalist, I often get upset with the media when we start writing players, especially legends, off too early...
PK: I think you know, part of this job, part of this life, part of the gig is when you are younger and you come up and you stink, people always chalk it up and say, "Well he's young, he'll learn," and [the player] is given kind of a free pass. I was given that as well. Part of that deal is that when you get older and you're not living up to certain expectations, people say what you are talking about. Me looking big picture, I understand that. When you are younger, you kind of get a couple of free passes, you are given more time. That's part of the youth thing. But the price for that is when you get older, when you have, say, the past couple of months that I've had that aren't great, I promise you, I'll bet my paycheck on it, I can go a couple of years where it was way worse, at the ages of say 27, 28, 29. So how do you rationalize that? My point is that it's [all] part of the deal. I'm cool with it, I understand it. I don't take offense to it at all. If you'd told me 10 years ago that I'd be sitting here at 37 and be giving someone a chance to [criticize] me, that I'd still be playing from 10 years ago, I'll take that. It's no big deal, like I said, it's all a part of the deal.
You said earlier that you sacrificed a little to stay here. Do you feel the same way now? Are you at the point where you would understand if they do trade you? And will you be open to going somewhere else if that happens?
PK: In my mind, the way it works is you think in terms of baseball time, not life, but in baseball time, there's a long time between now and when those decisions have to be made. The way I look at it is, this team in [this clubhouse], we're a heck of a lot better than we've shown. A heck of a lot better. I'd like to see what we can do over, like, the next 30-40 days. See how good we can get without making [a trade] an issue. I know from being here as long as I have, if we are in it -- and by "in it" I mean, we don't have to be in first place, but in striking distance -- not only will that [trade] not happen, but they'll probably go get people to make us better. So that's really the way I think. And what you are asking, in my mind, I don't even get there until, you know, when you start thinking about that stuff you'll push it down that path. Now if it happens to come up down the road, I'll deal with it then, but right now it's like, let's see how good we can get. I know Detroit is good. I know Cleveland is good. Kansas City too, but I'd like just to see how good we can get and see if we can not even make [me being traded] an issue.
PK: When people write or say good things about me, whether it be in the future or about anytime in the past, I don't hear that either. So if I don't hear that, then it's OK not to hear [the negatives] or I have the right not to hear any of it. I think, as a player, you kinda got to have that buffer. It's just not something I can factor into because (laughs), if you think about it, there's nothing in it for me. If someone said to me, "Hey, if you read this article or if you listen to this radio show, you are going to get two hits tonight," I'd listen! You know? (Laughs) But there's nothing in it for me. It can only go negative. And I think most players kind of feel the same way. If you could guarantee that if I read this or listen to this, that I'll go out there and have a good night, then I'll do it, but there is no guarantee. So you have to block it out. Truthfully, as you get older, look, I'm 37 years old, if things never changed and you never did anything different from who you were, then guys from the '60s would still be playing. Or guys from the '80s. At some point there's reason for equality. It has to all balance itself out. So I guess the question is: Can I still do enough to help this team or any other team win ballgames? I feel like the answer is yes. Now if someone is going to line up a million different statistics and have all of these formulas to figure out exactly what that contribution is, then maybe not. Who knows? But if you are asking me, can I still go out and help this team win ballgames, I think answer to that is yes.