Konerko embraces leadership role in final year
White Sox captain's greatest contribution won't be measured with stats
CHICAGO -- Paul Konerko was introduced one last time as an active player at SoxFest during Friday evening's opening ceremonies at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago.
As the White Sox captain walked to the stage in the Red Lacquer Room, with familiar chants of "Paul-ie" ringing out, he had his son, Owen, walking right there alongside. Konerko brought all three of his children, wife Jennifer and his parents in what probably shapes up as a common theme for his 16th and final season on the South Side.
Konerko plans to appreciate everything this last run has to offer, while doing whatever is asked of him to help the White Sox. Having that retirement decision firmly in mind brings this appreciation level to greater and more relaxed heights for Konerko.
"It feels good to know, for me, to be clear that this is it," said Konerko, who signed a one-year deal in December to play one more season in the big leagues. "This is it, my wife's laid down the law. But I'm clear on it.
"I've been getting asked about this since 2012, so that's a long time -- talking about two years of that nonsense. Every conversation it seems like, 'Are you going to stay/are you going to go?' It just gets old. So if something comes up you can just be genuine with them and say, 'Come out and see me. I won't be back next year.'"
Not surprisingly, the infinitely prepared and cerebral Konerko has gone over all the possible scenarios as to the manner in which he can be used in 2014. At the core stands playing Konerko against left-handed pitchers and Adam Dunn against right-handers at designated hitter. Konerko also could spell rookie Jose Abreu at first base or serve as a pinch-hitter.
Konerko could play three or four days in a row if a struggling teammate needs a respite. He also understands that four- or five-day stretches without an at-bat could occur.
For the man who ranks second in White Sox history at 427 home runs, trailing only Hall of Famer Frank Thomas' 448, statistics certainly won't be the primary way to judge the success of his final season. Then again, personal statistics never were a favorite topic for Konerko.
"There's going to be a lot of days this year where I don't play, or I play and don't do good that day, and the end results of the numbers might not be anything even close to what I've done since the playing time will be less," Konerko said. "But I know a lot of those days where I don't even play I can go home saying, 'That's a great day,' because of what I know I did.
"That's totally different than in years past, where when you're that four-hole hitter you have to carry the team at times, you have to drive in runs, you have to be the guy. If you do the other things, great, but you know everything is hinging on you producing and putting up numbers. It's different now. I still want to do well, don't get me wrong. I want to help the team win."
Mentoring is a role Konerko has filled for the past decade or so, with many young players going to him for advice or information. That status takes on extra meaning in '14 with Konerko in a part-time role, and it already began in earnest last week when Konerko attended a hitters' mini-camp at the White Sox Spring Training facility in Glendale, Ariz., Camelback Ranch.
Adam Eaton, Matt Davidson and Abreu were in attendance, with these three figuring to play some sort of immediate role for the White Sox. Prospects such as Micah Johnson and Courtney Hawkins also were among the attendees, and Konerko had time for all of them.
"He's so hands on. He was around talking to everybody," said Johnson. "Hawkins would talk to him and stuff and he would help him. It was good to have him around. He was in team meetings with us and everything. It was good to see that. He didn't have to come out, but he was there every day."
"Being more of a mentor than he's been able to do in the past, I think he's going to have that ability," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura of Konerko, whom he called an organization staple, both in and outside the clubhouse. "Sometimes it's harder to have the energy to be able to do that when you're an everyday player. He will be playing, but he'll have probably more energy to spend toward other guys. He commands respect, and I think everybody looks up to him and he deserves that."
Chances existed for Konerko to do what he's doing with the White Sox somewhere else and have a better opportunity to reach the playoffs or win another title. That's not what he was after.
Oh, Konerko wants to win. But after staying with the White Sox through two potential free-agent departures after 2005 and '10, he wanted to go out as part of the White Sox.
"If I come here, finish it out correctly, help guys get going in the right direction," Konerko said. "A year from now, 10 months from now, this organization is already starting to move in the right direction from last year, kind of takes a step forward and does well and I know I was a part of that, I'll feel better than if I would have joined another team and rode along with them to the playoffs or something.
"What I'm doing here is something that tons of players have done at the end of their career over the last year or two. The difference is I'm staying here to do it."