Paul Konerko, another icon leaving the game, reflects on his career
ST. PETERSBURG — It's all going to be over soon for Paul Konerko.
The longtime White Sox slugger is retiring at the end of this season, completing an 18-year major league career, 16 of those spent in Chicago. He has been a fixture on the South Side for so long that it’s hard to remember a time when he wasn’t wearing the black-and-white.
Yet Konerko enters the final few days of his impressive major league career as something of an afterthought to the also-retiring Derek Jeter. When Jeter played his last game in Tampa Bay earlier this month, the Rays — as every team hosting him for the last time has done this season — gave the Yankees' icon a parting gift, in this case a kayak. When Konerko played there for the last time on Sunday, he got a brief video tribute.
Konerko, though, has meant just as much to the White Sox fans as Jeter has to Yankees supporters. Those fans have seen Konerko hit 432 home runs, more than anyone in franchise history except for Hall of Famer Frank Thomas. They have seen him play 2,263 games, more than anyone in franchise history except for Hall of Famer Luke Appling. They saw him make six All-Star teams at first base and win the ALCS MVP award in 2005.
And, later that October, they saw him hit a grand slam in Game 2 of the World Series that helped the White Sox to their first championship in 88 years.
The 38-year-old Konerko knows it's time to walk away. He is a constant evaluator, on and off the field. He changes his approach at the plate not only game-to-game, but also between and even within at-bats. He decided last year that he would retire at the end of this season, so it shouldn't be any surprise that as his final few days in uniform are torn from the calendar, he is allowing himself time to reflect.
"Right or wrong, I always felt that success would [come] by focusing on what mattered. If something doesn't help me play well tonight, I don't have time for it," said Konerko, whose graying beard and mussed hair make him look like a professor of hitting.
"I'm sure that served me well. On the other hand, I probably could have lightened up a little," Konerko said, chuckling to himself. "But I always thought, why take a chance?"
Konerko has embraced the season-long effort by the White Sox to recognize his achievements, which include letting him meet fans who have named children after him. Those efforts will be capped with Paul Konerko Day this Saturday at U.S. Cellular Field.
"It's well beyond what I even thought, in terms of what they've done for me," he said. "They've set up an outlet for fans to connect. So now you get these situations where it's obvious you've affected this person. You don't even think about it, because you're just doing everything you've been doing since high school. So when you talk to these fans, at every stadium, even the other players ... I didn't realize. I just thought I was playing, trying to make my way through."
It's been a difficult final season for Konerko. He has played just 78 games, his fewest since 1998, the year before he came to Chicago. His five home runs, 22 RBI and .217/.266/.333 slash line are all lows for his time with the White Sox.
He has missed more than two weeks this month after breaking his hand in Sept. 2, but the fact that he returned at all is fitting. The very reason he came back this season, he said, was to finish his career on a better note than his uncharacteristic 2013, when he hit .244/.331/.355 with 12 home runs. The White Sox offered him $2.5 million and a chance to back up Jose Abreu, a rookie, and Adam Dunn at first base and designated hitter. It's the kind of minimal role and salary many stars wouldn't have considered. Konerko, who had just finished a three-year, $37.5 million contract, saw it as an opportunity.
"It would have been easy to retire," he said. "If I had, no one would have said a word. So to want to go through all the work of the offseason, all of the travel, to not play a whole bunch, and do all that, with a wife and three kids ... on paper it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But you want to do it. As soon as I accepted that challenge, I'd already kind of won that fight. Because it would have been easy to say I don't need this fight, I don't need this pain."
It's that recognition, too, that should make Konerko's transition into the next phase of his life easier than it is for many. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two sons, who are eight and five years old, respectively, and a three-year-old daughter, and he knows exactly what he’ll do on Monday when he’s back home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"The day after I get home, I'll be getting up and making breakfast, getting [them] ready for school," he said. "The thing I've noticed coming into the offseason — not the offseason, what used to be my offseason — we used to have all the trips planned, all the way into February, because you had to. You knew [what] was a good week to go to Mexico. This year, there's less urgency."
Konerko doesn't yet have a set post-baseball plan beyond expanding his charitable efforts. He is a co-founder of the Bring Me Home Campaign, which aims to help foster kids, and he was the White Sox's nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award, which honors players for their sportsmanship and community work. One thing he does know is that he won't have to prepare for another season. When asked how that would feel, Konerko had to think a moment.
"The answer is I don't know," he said. "This is all I've known since I was 18. I have way more friends out of the game than in the game. Over the last few years, for sure, you're making arrangements for it. You can only play so much golf."
Still, his manager believes the really difficult part won't come this weekend, but next February, when everybody else is ready to report for a new season.
"I don't think anything will really hit him until spring training," said Robin Ventura, who played 16 years in the major leagues. "There's just an innate feeling a player gets when you're supposed to go to spring training. And when you know you're not going, it's a weird feeling. Depending on how bad your body is, sometimes you're relieved that you're not going. But that'll be the point where it becomes very odd for him.
"So interview him then," he added with a smile.
It doesn't sound like Konerko will be doing many interviews by then. I asked him if he'd thought about what his baseball afterlife would be like, once the first breakfast after his playing career was eaten and the kids had been taken to school.
"Here, I'll show you," Konerko said, taking his iPhone out of his pocket and playing a video for me of his younger son at the plate. "It'll be not having to get a video of what happened this morning. Instead of being gone, you'll actually be there. Standing there.
"I've played long enough and done well enough to where I missed so much of that. There's no reason why I have to miss any of my kids' events at school anymore. That stuff, I've been missing for a long time. That's what's important. You have to make a living, but it all comes back to raising them the best you can, being there for that."
His sons, Konerko believes, are old enough at least to understand what he's done on the field, if not yet fully appreciate his role as one of the finest first basemen of his generation. Of his daughter, he says with a smile, "I don't know what a three-year-old remembers."
Konerko's family and many friends will get one final chance to see him in uniform at U.S. Cellular Field this weekend for his final games. They will be important ones too. The Royals will be in town, trying to clinch their first postseason berth in 29 years. Konerko will have a job to do, but he's also going to let himself really feel what he’s meant to the many White Sox fans who watched him through the years, even if he can't quite understand what all the fuss is about.
"I had people coming up to me, thanking me, when I'm thinking, 'I got to play a kids' game, a children's game, until I was 38 years old,'" Konerko said. "I've never had a real job. They're thanking me for that? I don't understand that. It seems like I'm the lucky one."