By Jack Etkin
The at-bat was anticlimactic, a pinch-hitting appearance in a blowout loss with the Chicago White Sox down to their final out. Colorado's six-run eighth inning had drained any drama from the game.
If Paul Konerko is fortunate in his final season, he will come off the White Sox bench at a crucial moment and come through. He will impact several games, maybe win some. With the Rockies leading 10-4, this wasn't one of those moments.
Reliever Boone Logan came on to make his Rockies debut. That's the same Boone Logan whom the White Sox drafted in 2003 and who was Konerko's teammate for three seasons from 2006-2008. Logan is a left-handed symbol of time passing for Konerko, not that he needed it.
Konerko waited near the White Sox dugout as Logan jogged to the mound and threw his allotted eight warm-up pitches. When Konerko was announced, some fans rose, and there was applause. Not full-throated, sustained cheering but more deferential recognition, polite adulation rather than anything rabid. And that's understandable, since the White Sox were making just their third interleague visit to Coors Field last week -- the others coming in 2011 and in 2005, a magical season when Konerko was named the Most Valuable Player in the American League Championship Series and the White Sox went on to sweep the World Series.
Louder ovations are bound to come later in the summer when Konerko pays his last visit to American League ballparks, particularly those in the AL Central. Maybe there will be some pre-game ceremony, even a parting gift. The second week of the season is not about goodbyes, really, particularly in pretty much unknown parts for the White Sox. But the applauding fans, especially those standing, wanted to acknowledge Konerko, 38, in his 16th season with the White Sox after playing briefly for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds, and say thank you and farewell.
His at-bat was perfunctory. Logan threw three fastballs. Ball. Called strike. Grounder to second base. Game over. There to take the throw at first base was Michael Cuddyer, mostly a right fielder. He had moved to first base in the ninth and was playing that position for the Minnesota Twins on Sept. 10, 2010, at U.S. Cellular Field when Konerko came up in the first inning.
"Carl Pavano drilled him in the face, I mean, right square in the mouth," Cuddyer said. "Never went down. He got on first base and had just a huge, huge lip. Bloodied, stayed in the game. Next at-bat, hit a bomb. Just the fact that he stayed in the game was one of the more impressive things I've ever seen, but then to be able to have your composure enough to hit a homer on your next at-bat, pretty impressive."
Konerko is adept at deflecting praise, and rather humble. He remembers the White Sox at the time were "kind of fighting." They trailed the Twins by five games in the division race, so hope, while dwindling, had not vanished.
"It wasn't a big deal," Konerko said. "It definitely didn't look good, and it hurt when you touched it. But it wasn't stopping me from doing anything baseball-wise. Sometime you can have a small thing wrong with your fingers, and you can't go. I've always been kind of programmed, if you can play, you play."
That reasoning helps explain why Konerko returned to the White Sox for a final season. In late October, they signed first baseman Jose Abreu, giving the Cuban defector a $68 million contract and Konerko's job. He could back up Abreu, be a right-handed hitting designated hitter -- with left-handed hitting Adam Dunn getting more DH duty -- and serve as a pinch-hitter.
The White Sox have a young team, so Konerko can spend more time mentoring and imparting advice, words from a franchise icon playing part time that will be heard. Still, spots on the 25-man roster are reserved for functional players.
"He's not here to be a cheerleader," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said.
The White Sox lost 99 games last year. Konerko dealt with back stiffness, and his production tailed off. After hitting .298 with 26 homers and 75 RBI in 2012, along with an .857 OPS, he dropped to .244 last year with a .669 OPS and 12 homers and 54 RBI in 126 games, the second-fewest of his White Sox career. That was hardly the ideal swan song, not that aging elite players can orchestrate their departures from the game.
The White Sox wanted him back. But Konerko had to decide whether he still wanted to go through another winter conditioning regimen to prepare to play. He did. He lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., not far from where the White Sox train, but Konerko had to decide whether he wanted to grind through the tedium of one more spring training. He did. And just as he was bent on staying in the game when Pavano bloodied his lip, Konerko chose not to leave.
"The pros outweighed the cons," Konerko said. "I didn't know if I'd have an opportunity to come back here or anywhere after the season. But given the opportunity, it was hard for me not to take it, because for me that would have been slightly like backing down from what happened.
"That's the way I viewed it. Plus you can't come back when you're 50. You just do this, and then you know that you'll be an ex-player longer than you're a player. And if you're given a shot to try to come back and try to do it, why not? Give it a run."
But that meant adapting to less playing time with Abreu aboard, fewer starts and more pinch hitting. Konerko spoke with, among others, good friend Jim Thome, who played with the White Sox from 2006-2009. Konerko wanted to know about pre-game preparation for a bench player, how to tailor your workload if you're not playing a few days in a row and the best way to get ready for the thankless task of pinch hitting.
"You try to pick people's brains," Konerko said. "But at the end of the day, no one can jump in your body. You have to kind of know what's best for you. It is baseball; I've been doing this a long time. Let's not try to make it so complicated. I think you just try and be as prepared as you can and then lay it out there when you get out there. If it doesn't go well, you did everything you could."
And Konerko sounded out Thome and other former elite players about making this passage into the twilight. Not just what it's like physically, but psychologically, as well.
"It all comes down to it's not about what you can't do with the bat," said Konerko, who signed a one-year $2.5 million contract with $1 million deferred. "It's about probably just the volume of work (you can handle) because of the body. I feel I can still hit and still drive balls and do a lot of the same things that I've always done. The volume of doing it every day for 150-something games -- probably not there. That's where it's at. It's not so much can you get to this fastball or can you not."
Konerko is a six-time All-Star. He has one fifth- and one sixth-place finish in Most Valuable Player voting. He has never led the league in any category, save for grounding into double plays (28) in 2003.
But Konerko has been remarkably consistent -- seven seasons with 30 or more home runs, including 41 in 2004 and 40 the following year, and 100 or more RBI six times. He also has a career OPS+ of 119, 38th among active players, and a 29.2 WAR (37th). In addition to a career slash line of .281/.356/.490, Konerko's output includes 434 home runs and 2,298 hits, all but 48 of which have come with the White Sox. He ranks second in franchise history in games played, home runs, RBI and total bases -- he's five away from passing franchise leader Frank Thomas -- and third in hits. Konerko's 13 seasons with 20 or more home runs are a White Sox record. This season, Konerko is 1 for 7 with one RBI in five games, one start.
"Looking at my career, there's a lot of things you wish you could have done differently," Konerko said. "I wish I'd played better and all that. But when it comes to getting out there every day for like a good 10-plus year stretch, I've always taken pride in the fact that I got out there."
On the field, certainly, it has been easy to appreciate Konerko's contributions. But they extend far beyond the diamond itself, as White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton learned on Dec. 10, when he was traded to Chicago by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
"The day I got traded he actually gave me a call," Eaton said. "And for a veteran of his stature and from his podium within baseball to call me, a guy that had a year and some change in the big leagues, kind of screams what type of person he is. For him to do that, it speaks volume for his character."
Indeed, Eaton assumed the caller on the end of the line had to be a friend having fun with Eaton.
"To be honest, I said that to him," Eaton said. "I said, 'No way this is Paul Konerko.' "
For a player with more than 15 years of service time in the big leagues to make a call like this to a new teammate in December is far from the norm. Konerko said the call wasn't made to talk with Eaton about anything having to do with baseball.
"It's more that Chicago can be a little overwhelming as far as where to live," Konerko said. "You have wives, and you have families. Just trying to lend a helping hand on the logistics of playing there.
"I've been traded. It's like going to a new school. Over the last handful of years, I've always tried to reach out to guys when we've gotten 'em. Sometimes you know a guy a little bit. Sometimes you don't know 'em at all. I didn't know Adam at all."
Eaton lives in the Phoenix area. And it wasn't long before Konerko invited Eaton to his home so they could hit in Konerko's batting cage. It was vintage Konerko. Diamondbacks closer Addison Reed came up in the White Sox organization and was Konerko's teammate the past two seasons. Reed's locker at U.S. Celluar Field was just across the clubhouse from Konerko's and Reed learned from Konerko, in large part simply by watching.
"Nothing with pitching but how to act and how to be a professional," Reed said. "If somebody asked me at the end of my career if there's one guy who I would like to be like during my career, it's definitely Paulie. It's unbelievable how he carries himself and how he handles everything that comes with the game of baseball and everything off the field. He's a true professional, and everything he does is the right way. If I could mimic one person, it would definitely be him."
Konerko began his career in the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization as a catcher after they drafted him in 1994 in the first round, 13th overall, from Chaparral High School in Scottsdale. In his third professional season, Konerko began playing third base, where his defense was a concern, and first base. On July 4, 1998, the Dodgers, in need of a closer, traded reliever Dennys Reyes and Konerko for Jeff Shaw. But the Reds already had first baseman Sean Casey, and after the season they flipped Konerko to Chicago for center fielder Mike Cameron.
"He's just a really special, genuine human being, an unbelievable teammate," said Toronto Blue Jays scout Dan Evans, who was the White Sox's assistant general manager when they acquired Konerko and worked for the organization for nearly 19 years. "He was a leader when he was a young kid in our clubhouse, which was astonishing to me because we had a club whose nucleus a year later (in 2000) was going to win a division title."
Konerko is still leading but doing more mentoring as a quasi-coach in his final season. Playing every day, Konerko said, "Sometimes you're more concerned with what you're doing, especially when you're older." Now he has more time and more energy to focus on something as small as telling a teammate coming off a rough game a day earlier, "Hey, man, swing's good right now. You're fine.' Two sentences could maybe help that guy have a good day."
It's not all about propping up a teammate. Konerko is looking for more good days at the plate before leaving the game, more moments to savor. Meanwhile, he is aware of seeing certain people and places as a player for the last time, although that sense of conclusion will be keener later in the summer.
Last week, Cuddyer most likely was on a field with Konerko for the final time. Too bad Konerko didn't get a hit or even a walk, so he could have reached first base. Cuddyer would have greeted him, maybe even mentioned that swollen, bloody lip courtesy of Pavano and Konerko's payback with one swing.
"He's a guy that I emulated," said Cuddyer, who is three years younger. "Never showed anybody up, never tried to. Extremely professional. I really appreciated the way he went about his business. He's a guy that it's good to look up to, because he does things the right way."
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Jack Etkin has covered professional baseball since 1981 for such outlets as the Kansas City Star, Rocky Mountain News, Baseball America, The Sports Xchange and MLB.com.