Reinsdorf shares memories, special gift with Konerko
CHICAGO -- Jerry Reinsdorf was a fan first, then a husband and a father. He's brought seven championships to Chicago, including six for the Bulls in the Michael Jordan era. He lived the fullest of lives in love and in business.
He was never as emotional, by his own account at the time, as the moment in 2005 when Paul Konerko reached into his pocket and handed him the ball that was used to record the last out in the White Sox's World Series sweep of the Astros.
"He earned it," Konerko said at the rally that followed the victory parade.
During Saturday's 40-minute ceremony to honor the retiring White Sox icon, after a video clip from the World Series celebration, Reinsdorf recounted those feelings. Konerko had already been given a series of gifts from the organization and for a minute you wondered if Reinsdorf was about to reach into his jacket pocket for the ball, so he could return it to Konerko.
Reinsdorf even hesitated a moment as he looked at the crowd that had packed U.S. Cellular Field on a gorgeous early autumn night. Then he smiled.
"Paulie, you really shouldn't have given me that ball," Reinsdorf said. "You deserve it a whole lot more than I do. You were the guy who powered us to that World Series championship. Having said that, though, I'm not going to give it back."
The crowd laughed, and so did Reinsdorf.
Then Reinsdorf did something nobody could have seen coming. He explained how the White Sox had tracked down the holder of the ball Konerko had hit for his Game 2 grand slam in the Series, a Chicagoan named Chris Claeys, and brought him to the podium.
Claeys quietly handed the ball to Konerko, to ringing applause from 38,160 Konerko fans. He said a few words in private to Konerko, grabbed a quick hug -- during which Konerko whispered that they might be the two most nervous people in the stadium -- and then waved sheepishly while exiting stage right.
It was the sweetest moment in a ceremony that was so sweet it should have come with a warning from the surgeon general.
Claeys, a film editor who supports the White Sox while living in Cub territory on the North Side, never hesitated to turn the ball over to Konerko when White Sox Senior Vice President/Marketing Brooks Boyer called to ask if he'd consider doing so.
"I feel really good about it," Claeys said. "It's really been a prized possession. But Paul Konerko is such a cool guy, and he's so respectable. He's played here 16 years. When they brought the idea to me, I thought, 'This is a great idea.' "
Ditto the entire Paul Konerko Night celebration. The White Sox gave the 38-year-old first baseman a sendoff worthy of a Hall of Famer, even if he poses a tough decision for voters.
His career home run (439) and RBI (1,412) totals might not be quite high enough to keep him out of the Cooperstown waiting room, where other White Sox greats like Minnie Minoso, Billy Pierce and Harold Baines have been assigned. But that's a debate for other nights; on this one, there was no questioning his standing in Chicago.
Reinsdorf revealed that Konerko's No. 14 will be retired in another ceremony in 2015 but there will be no waiting for a statue, like ones of other iconic players at U.S. Cellular. A Konerko statue was unveiled on the left-field concourse Saturday night, and Reinsdorf pointed to a seat in section 159 that had been painted blue, to commemorate where Konerko's World Series grand slam had landed.
Konerko was showered with gifts -- artwork, guitars (including a 1963 Fender Stratocaster), a love seat made from baseball bats and balls manufactured by former Sox outfielder Ron Kittle, and more. The seat was delivered to him by his some of his current teammates, and inscribed: "Our teammate … our captain."
A group of former Konerko teammates attended, with Jim Thome sitting in the middle of the row and drawing the most applause when he was introduced, and the White Sox played a series of recorded tributes on the center-field scoreboard, including one from Derek Jeter.
Hawk Harrelson had begun the ceremony by describing Konerko as "one of the most productive players to ever put on a White Sox uniform, and one of the most popular guys to ever put on a White Sox uniform."
Reinsdorf grew up a Brooklyn Dodger fan. He says that Konerko reminds him of one of his favorite Dodger players, shortstop Pee Wee Reese.
Reese was a standout player -- he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting eight times despite hitting only .269 -- but was respected for his integrity and his leadership. He famously used his stature and his kindness to make life easier for Jackie Robinson in 1947. Konerko, likewise, has always taken the high road. And like Reese, he leaves behind a legacy bigger than his statistics.
"He always had that leader quality in him," said Greg Norton, who was the White Sox's regular third baseman in 1999. "He was driven to be the best. At the end of the day, you knew he'd become the captain. He wanted it. He was willing to [work]. I think a lot of people would love to have those qualities. Whether he was born with it or [it was] something he acquired along the way, it was endearing to his teammates and the fans of Chicago."
Konerko was poised and casual when it was his turn behind the podium, which suddenly seemed small. He joked that he might be too exhausted to play the night's game but his voice was clear and steady. It did not crack. But there was no doubting that he spoke from the heart and, of course, he touched every base.
Konerko looked into the Kansas City dugout, where most of their 36 players were standing on the top step watching the ceremony, and thanked the Royals for their indulgence. He congratulated them for capturing a playoff spot and wished them success in October.
He saved his thank you to the fans for last.
"I wanted to say thank you mostly to you guys," Konerko said. "I'm not going to say fans, I'm going to say all my friends. For some reason, early in my career, I don't know what it was because I really hadn't done anything, [but] you guys treated me like I had been here. There was just some sort of connection early on."
Consider this a job well done -- by Konerko, but also the team and fans who never took him for granted.