Good move by White Sox to let Konerko end career in Chicago
BY RICK MORRISSEY email@example.com | @MorrisseyCST December 4, 2013 9:29PM
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Updated: December 4, 2013 10:19PM
Professional sports franchises are supposed to remove feeling from the equation when making personnel decisions. That could be why pro athletes are constantly reminding us that it’s a business.
Well, forget all that for a moment. Feeling won Wednesday, as did the business of handing down wisdom.
Paul Konerko is coming back to the White Sox for one more season, a 16th, this time as a role player and a mentor/teacher/sage. And it’s good. Good decision by him. Good move by the Sox to let him end his career where it should, on the South Side of Chicago.
This will not be a farewell tour filled with lovely parting gifts. Konerko will be squeezing his bat as hard as ever and working on his craft with a surgeon’s concentration level. He’ll be trying to win. He’ll be a part-time designated hitter, and he’ll fill in at first base when newcomer Jose Abreu needs a rest.
But his role as a dispenser of enlightenment to younger teammates is the most intriguing one. I hope Abreu is wise enough to follow around Konerko like a puppy, starting in spring training and lasting until the last game of the 2014 season. There’s so much he can learn just by watching Konerko’s game-day preparation, his attention to detail and his bearing on and off the field.
I need to stop before Konerko hits me over the head with a bat for making him seem like either a professor emeritus or Yoda. He’s still a ballplayer, and his role will include at-bats against lefties.
But he’s going to be more valuable to the Sox in terms of the knowledge he can pass on to Abreu and others. He’ll teach by words and example and quite possibly ancient herbal remedies.
He had hoped to be more of a mentor last season, when the Sox lost 99 games, but he said he was in a pitched battle with himself as he fought injuries and ineffectiveness.
“I dropped the ball on some of that stuff because I was worried about getting out [on the field],’’ he said Wednesday. “You have priorities. Now that frees me up to do those things. . . . That’s very much needed.’’
This is not costing the Sox an arm, a leg or the 2014 season. His contract calls for him to be paid $1.5 million next season, with another $1 million deferred until 2021. That should calm down the Sox fans who were worried the team would overpay Konerko out of sentimentality.
A reduced role might be difficult for some 37-year-old veterans to swallow, but Konerko has always been a realist. Someone else might have left in a huff to another team, perhaps for more money and a lot of emptiness. Not Konerko, who, being an analytical sort, studied the situation from about 100 different angles.
He knew his body couldn’t take the rigors of another full major-league season.
“I’m excited about it because, truthfully, I wouldn’t be coming back to any situation if I knew I was slated to play a lot,’’ he said.
The challenge could prove difficult for Konerko. His happiness has always been tied to his success at the plate. I thought he was done after last season, when he hit .244 with 12 home runs and 54 RBI. He looked tired and beaten up. How will a guy who has always had four or five at-bats a game find his rhythm at the plate in a lesser role?
He can’t know the answer to that. But he does know that when he was given games off last season, his body felt better the next day.
“It is a challenge for a guy of his stature that has played every day . . . to transition into that,’’ manager Robin Ventura said.
Now general manager Rick Hahn needs to get busy. Or busier. He can’t sit on the laurels of nabbing Abreu, the Cuban star. Hahn set off all sorts of alarms among fans Monday when he re-signed catcher Tyler Flowers to a one-year, $950,000 contract. The ringing in their ears came from the fact that Flowers hit .195 last season. Hahn knows he still has a lot of work to do.
“We’re not closing off any options toward getting better,’’ he said.
He’s stuck with Adam Dunn, which means Ventura will have to find at-bats for three guys who can play first base.
But all that’s for later. Konerko is now.
Once more, with feeling.