Paul Konerko is not a Hall of Fame first baseman. Sixty-six homers shy of entrance in the five hundred home run club, zero MVP awards and unimpressive defense and base running make him a long shot, even with a strong 2014 season. He is, however, a six time All-Star and an all-time great Chicago sportsman that led the Sox to its first World Series title since 1917 and epitomizes the blue collar persona the south side team holds tightly. Undoubtedly, a bronze statue in Konerko’s image is sure to reside at U.S. Cellular Field in the near future. Paulie, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract this offseason, will almost certainly conclude his career in a manner rare to most premier Chicago athletes. Michael Jordan, Sammy Sosa, Frank Thomas, Scottie Pippen, Kerry Wood, Bobby Hull. Each of these Chicago greats, along with a host of others, found their way onto other teams before hanging up their gloves, jerseys and cleats. But Konerko has taken the road less traveled, subjugating his ego and paycheck to close his career in a city he has called home since 1999.
Brian Urlacher couldn’t swallow his pride and accept $2 million to stay in Chicago for one more season. Frank Thomas bitterly departed the south side when the White Sox declined to bring him back after he rode the bench during their 2005 World Series run. Scottie Pippen donned Rockets and Blazers jerseys before concluding his career with two final, unimpressive seasons back with the Bulls. And it’s impossible to wipe the image of MJ in his Wizard’s jersey from Bulls fans’ retinas. But Paul Konerko is willing to make less than Jeff Keppinger and accept a limited role to play the game he enjoys with the team he loves. When Konerko surprised Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf with the World Series winning baseball after the team’s championship parade, skeptics thought it was a ploy to help secure his next big contract. If it was then it worked as, before the ‘06 season, he signed a hefty five-year, $60 million deal followed up by a three-year, $37.5 million contract in ‘10. But, from his agreement to defer $7 million from that 2010 contract to his acceptance of this latest $2.5 million deal – $1 million of it deferred – Paul Konerko has proven to be the ultimate team player. The 2014 White Sox season will be about ace Chris Sale, newly signed Cuban slugger Jose Abreu and the moves Rick Hahn makes to future proof his middling team. But the 2013 offseason will be remembered for the sacrifices an aging star made to solidify his place in White Sox lore. Sacrifices that clearly diminish his role with the club while allowing GM Rick Hahn and senior VP of baseball operations Kenny Williams to make moves for future team improvement.
To leave millions of dollars on the table will be hard to swallow. To spend more time cheering on teammates than swinging a bat or snagging errant throws at first base will be tough. Paul Konerko gets that. “If I can get the Beckhams and the Viciedos, Abreu, Gillaspie, any of these guys. If I can help to get them going … that’s kind of where a lot of my energy will be spent. It’ll be a little bit different.” The man many refer to simply as The Captain will share time with Adam Dunn at DH while backing up Jose Abreu at first base. There is a chance his role will increase as the season progresses since the likelihood of either Dunn or Abreu struggling are significant. But whether his at-bats dip below four hundred for the first time in his White Sox career or he regularly finds a way into Robin Ventura’s starting lineup by midseason, Paul Konerko will handle it well. His pragmatic nature ensures that and his proven leadership qualities demand it. Despite the expected dip in on-field production, his presence will be felt as a leader and teacher in the locker room, in the dugout, on the team plane and wherever else he can lend a hand. The Chicago White Sox may be a disaster come March but knowing Paul Konerko will be a part of a challenging transition year makes it a mess worth watching.
Niral Patel ~ SecCitySportsReport@gmail.com