After the glory: Paulie relishes second act
Something was noticeably missing from White Sox Spring Training this year when the full squad reported to Camelback Ranch on Feb. 24. Make that someone, an important piece of the White Sox organization for close to the past two decades.
Paul Konerko was nowhere to be found at the complex for the first time in memory with his 16-year run on the South Side coming to an end last Sept. 28 via his retirement following the 2014 season's final game. The captain's familiar clubhouse spot was occupied by Adam LaRoche, a free-agent signee, as part of general manager Rick Hahn's offseason push to regain the sort of playoff contention present for so many years during Konerko's career.
Konerko never again has to worry about preparing for Spring Training or setting up his offseason vacation schedule to maximize down time prior to the White Sox February report date. One of the most accomplished players in franchise history now totally belongs to the Konerko family of Arizona.
In fact, Konerko was on vacation with his family when Spring Training officially began.
"I had lunch with him a month or so ago and he's like a different guy. He's just so relaxed," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf of Konerko in February. "It was great that he got to go out on his own terms."
His last at-bat came via a groundout to third leading off the fifth inning against Kansas City reliever Casey Coleman in a game at U.S. Cellular Field on Sept. 28. Andy Wilkins replaced Konerko at first base after the veteran took his position in the bottom half of the inning. Then, Konerko stopped to acknowledge the thunderous standing ovation as he departed. He soon returned to the field for a curtain call, with the 32,266 in attendance finishing off a wonderful weekend celebration honoring the 18-year veteran.
One final on-field postgame television interview followed. Then Konerko circled the field, talking to fans who had basically followed his every move since he arrived from the Reds before the 1999 season in a trade for Mike Cameron.
"That kind of stuff never gets old. But over the last couple days it just gets more...not awkward, but you wonder, 'Am I wearing out my welcome with all this stuff?' And I know [the fans] are calling for it, so I'm trying to soak it all in," said Konerko of the standing ovations and curtain calls. "Even the last thing here, I went around the field and all that, it wasn't planned.
"I went out there to wave to some people down the left-field line and then once you start going, you realize, 'OK, I gotta go all the way around.'
"It's not in my nature to try to drag things out. I feel like my whole career was based on coming in and playing the game and just trying to blend in with everybody else and get the job done. So when these times come and you have to [do things] like that, I'm just not comfortable.
"I do the best I can, and I always have, but it feels bizarre to me. I understand it's the end. And I now understand -- I don't think I would've understood this a year ago -- there's a lot of people out there I've impacted over the years here. I see people crying out there. That's crazy. Just because I played a game. I never thought about that. Sometimes it's not always about what's comfortable to me," Konerko said. "I have to make that happen and get closure for them as well. It's something they don't teach you in the Minor Leagues."
Unlike the Saturday night before the finale, when he took the field by himself at the start of the game following a poignant farewell tribute, Konerko made sure he ran out with his teammates on that final Sunday. He wanted to keep the game as normal as possible, in true Konerko form, because he knew it could mean something to the eventual American League champion Royals as well as to White Sox starter Chris Bassitt, who was pitching for a spot on the team in '15. (Bassitt ended up pursuing that roster spot with Oakland after he was included as part of the Jeff Samardzija trade).
"This whole weekend with Paul Konerko Day and obviously [the final game], was really cool," said Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. "A lot of fans came to show their appreciation. It's well deserved."
There were handshakes for first-base umpire Chris Conroy and Royals first-base coach Rusty Kuntz as Konerko took his familiar post. He then wrote Nick, Owen, A (Amelia) and J in the dirt behind first base in honor of his three children and wife Jennifer.
He topped off that on-field artwork with a heart at the bottom, something he said he thought about 20 minutes before first pitch.
"It was a thank you because your family is always in the back seat. Your mom, your dad, your wife, your kids," Konerko said. "You do the best you can, but if you're a big league baseball player, you have to be selfish. You have to leave the house early. You're traveling. You come home late. You just miss a lot. It's not a normal thing.
"So it was kind of A) a thank you, and B) to remind me that when this all ends, [family] is what really matters. That's what's always been waiting for me on the other side, and that's pretty good," Konerko said. "I came here as a 22-year-old, 23-year-old kid with nothing; a single guy and all that. I'm leaving with a wife and three kids. You're leaving here with everything you worked for in life. It reminded me that that's what's on the other side, and it will be good."
What wasn't on the other side was Konerko making countless appearances, or any appearance for that matter, at Camelback Ranch following his retirement, despite the Konerko family living in Arizona. That sort of attention is not even close to his style, with Konerko stating at the end of the '14 season that he would be fine never offering up his expert analysis again in another media interview when his time was done. Family, golf, following hockey or one of his many other endeavors would occupy Konerko's time, not batting practice.
It wasn't going to be that easy, though, for Konerko to escape the White Sox spotlight. He was a very deserving co-winner of the Roberto Clemente Award with Jimmy Rollins in 2014, with that honor leading to a press conference. And on May 23, before a late afternoon home game against the Twins, the White Sox retired his No. 14 jersey. There's also a 10-year-reunion weekend for the 2005 World Series champions on July 17-19, so Konerko could make an appearance once again during that stretch.
"I don't think, until I see it up there, that you'll actually deserving of it," Konerko said before his number was retired. "There's plenty of guys that I looked up to when I was a kid or while I was playing that don't have their numbers retired that, no matter what happens, they'll always be better than me in my eyes because I'm looking at it from the inside out. But I think, more than anything, it's just a really nice gesture by the team. A lot of teams make players wait [for the honor], but for whatever reason, it's happening just months after I retire which says a lot about the White Sox and about [Reinsdorf]."
A perfect ending would have been career home run No. 440, or even some sort of hit during that last game. But Konerko, playing with a fractured sesamoid bone in his left hand, finished 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. His career numbers show a .279 average, 439 homers and 1,412 RBIs, not to mention 2,340 hits, of which 410 were doubles.
But by Konerko's own admission, he hasn't been the same hitter since 2011. There's a natural drop for a player coming to the end of his career.
"Hit-wise that wasn't necessarily the way he wanted to go out, but the crowd reaction and having the people he cared most about here was very important to him," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "He went out in a classy way."
For Konerko, baseball has moved to the backburner, although when the White Sox remodeled the home clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field, Konerko's locker was shipped to Arizona along with the necessities for Spring Training. Call it another parting gift for a player who gave so much.