GLENDALE, Ariz. -- At the dawn of a new season, Paul Konerko once again Sunday addressed the real possibility that he'll end the year by riding off into the sunset.
And so a delicate balancing act has begun, where Konerko is committed to leading the Chicago White Sox to a winning season while dealing with the reality that he might never return to the team he has contributed to for 14 seasons already.
It could be that he retires, or it could happen that he moves on to a new team. There is even a chance he fits into the budget and comes back for more. But once again, in the final year of his contract, he is facing potential changes.
If anybody can handle the situation it’s Konerko, whose approach is as professional as they come. Konerko has experience in this department as well, playing the 2005 and 2010 seasons under the same circumstances.
“Like I said in the past, setting a finish line I’m not a big believer in because you always have a tendency to let up,” Konerko said Sunday. “But I’m aware of everything as well. When you get to be in your 30s in the major leagues, let alone mid-30s or late-30s, it’s always on the table that your last year could be coming because everybody is younger and the roster shows that. I’m aware of that. But it’s something that will be talked about after the season, regardless of how the season goes. It’s something I’ll address when the time comes.”
Konerko has delivered at a high level for so long and has yet to show signs of tailing off. But he’s about to turn 37 in a few weeks and any dip in production will naturally be tied to his advanced age.
Not being able to produce like he expects would be one reason Konerko might pull the plug on his career.
“Probably, yeah, that’s part of it,” he said. “There are so many moving parts to it. It’s not just about performance at one level or another. I can tell you poor performance is one way, for sure, to get yourself out of the game because someone might not invite you back.
“You’re dealing with families, you’re dealing with just your own mind and what you want to do. There are different things, different variables, and trying to predict where those variables will be 10 months, nine months from now, whatever it is, it’s impossible to do.”
Injuries can also be a factor as to what Konerko does next. Last season alone he took a pitch off his face, took an elbow to the head that gave him a concussion and struggled with a bone chip in his wrist that was removed in a surgical procedure after the season.
His 26 home runs and 75 RBIs last season were his lowest totals in each category since 2008, when he missed time with an oblique strain. He also had lower numbers in 2003 when a slow start cost him some playing time.
With the wrist now back to normal and a plan in place to get a few more days as the designated hitter in order to keep him energized late into the season, the stage is set for another productive season. He will give it his full focus, but he does admit to looking beyond the horizon.
Konerko was asked if he could see himself not playing the game one day.
“You have to. What’s the other option? Because it’s going to happen,” Konerko said. “I think as you get older, I come in contact with more people now that played or are out of the game, than the other way around, with the exception of when I’m here.
“I see what the other side is, and there are pluses and minuses to that. I pick their brains on it. But you got to prepare. It’s going to happen at some point as it does to every player. I’m not afraid of that. I’m not scared of it. I just want to go as hard as I can until it happens.”
His biggest incentive to staying focused on the job at hand is the prospect for a winning season. The Detroit Tigers might be favored to win the American League Central, and the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians might be much improved, but Konerko sees the potential for success.
“I think we will be pretty good,” Konerko said. “The one thing about our team is that you feel good about that intangible, the way we’re doing things here and the way things were done last year that you can try to figure it out on paper and say we have this or don’t have that or we’re lacking that here.
“We have something collectively that amounts to something that you can’t put down on paper. A lot of that comes from (manager) Robin (Ventura) and the staff. The culture has been changed and is changing as we go here, but from where we were a year ago through the season, I look for us to keep that ball rolling down the hill.”
Konerko believes there is some finished business to take care of.
“It didn’t end up how we wanted it to end up at the end of the year last year, but there’s that sense that this is just one long progression into this year,” he said. “It’s not like it ended, it’s like we’re moving forward and building off what we did and I think that’s what the good organizations do.”
Spoken like a true captain and leader. Konerko doesn’t dwell on it, but he accepts his role as the team’s elder statesman. As others have put it, he’s the old man of the clubhouse.
“I mean, I don’t feel like it but I’m told I’m that,” Konerko said. “It’s cool. It’s funny, I remember when I was coming up at 21 or 22, there were guys I played with that when I was 12, I remember seeing them on TV. Now, some of those guys come up to me and say when I was in junior high school, we went to one of your games and now they are on your team.
“It’s kind of the circle of the life of the big leaguer. As you get older you get down about some things every now and then. But I try to spin it and say to have that situation exist it means I had to have gotten here through all the years. That’s a cool thing. As a player or anything, you want to experience as much as you can in one area. Part of the experience of being a baseball player is to be in a clubhouse and be called old.
“You have to find some weird way to enjoy that. When you are young and first coming up, there are a lot of things that aren’t fun about that either. You try to enjoy what you can about each moment. The guys in there, they are not afraid to let me know.”