GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Paul Konerko arrived at spring training Thursday for the last time as a player, saying he will continue to put in the same amount of work while reminding teammates to relish every minute of their playing days.
In some sense, Konerko feels like his 21-year professional career and 16-year career with the Chicago White Sox has gone by in flash as he can still remember at-bats from the minor leagues in complete detail. Then again, the list of former teammates is now so long that he has started to confuse the years when he thinks about the guys he used to play with.
Konerko has the rare opportunity, in what he already has called his final season, to actually pass the torch along to the next generation of White Sox players. While playing time hasn’t been decided for a roster with three first basemen, he expects newcomer Jose Abreu to play full time.
“(Abreu) is going to probably start off playing every game and then probably work back from there, which is good,” Konerko said. “There’s certainly no ego there. We want to do what’s best for the team on that day. I wouldn’t have been back here standing here if there’s going to be a moment this year where (Sox manager) Robin (Ventura) asked me to do something on the field or to not do something where I’m going to be miffed by it.”
A lack of an ego has been Konerko’s forte his entire career so nobody really thought he was going to develop one now. Even as he prepares for his final season, he has reached out to his new teammates to welcome them aboard.
Konerko was all smiles during his first day of camp, obviously at ease with his decision to not only return, but to ride off into the sunset when the 2014 season comes to an end. Right from the beginning of his 20-minute press conference he was telling it like it is.
“There will probably be some moments where you’re a little bit sad about something you’re not going to get to do again, but spring training is not going to be one of them,” Konerko said. “I think most guys feel the same way. I’ve never done one I actually like more than probably the next guy. The whole spring, everything that goes on, there are some fun parts, but I think most guys would rather just snap their fingers and be ready without having to do it all. You wouldn’t get any complaints, so this one is not a bad one to check off.”
He knows, though, that it will get harder as it goes along.
“I’ve played a long time, but I’ve never gone through a season where you know, ‘OK this is the end of it,’ so how that all unfolds and how you feel at different moments, you’ll just have to wait and see,” he said. “I’ll try to give as honest answers and be as upfront with it as I can as we go. But I can’t possibly answer how I’m going to feel in June or August. It’s tough for me. I don’t know. It’s the first time I’m going through this and the last time.
“But I definitely have some thoughts on things as far as stuff you want to take in along the way that’s alongside the baseball stuff, but just stuff you know, ‘OK, this is the last time I’m going to do this and I need to take advantage of it.’ I have some thoughts on that kind of stuff, but nothing that’s going to get in the way of doing the job.”
The job continues to be Konerko’s priority so much so that even at the age of 38 when the season begins, he will employ the same work routine he has always used.
“My first thoughts are I’ll just do it the same, unless they back me off something and say, ‘Hey, you don’t need to do that,’” he said. “I know how to get ready. This is my 20th spring. I know what it takes to get ready for Opening Day. I’ll just plan on doing that. If that’s overshooting it a little bit and we back off of it, that’s fine.
“I’d rather take that approach than to come in and get into bad habits of not working or knowing I’m going to play the field a lot less. I want to be ready when the time comes if I do have to play the field, and whatever it might be. In a lot of ways I might work harder this spring to make sure I’m ready to do the things that are going to be asked of me when the season starts.”
If adjusting to reduced playing time is his biggest challenge, then second on that list could be the mentoring side. Konerko realizes that more bench time means less chances to contribute, unless he can take advantage of those off days by helping a teammate toward success.
“That can be just as important,” Konerko said. “There was a guy on the team five years ago that did that. That will be what I do. But I’ll also play. When I play, I want to do well. There’s no substitute for production when you’re out there, to do things that actually help guys that are bench players or whatever the situation is.”
As for his last visits to American League ballparks, Konerko doesn’t expect any fanfare nor does he want it. He knows that recognition will come automatically for the Yankees’ Derek Jeter, just as it did for Mariano Rivera last year. Konerko doesn’t put himself in that class, but he has made an impact on the game nonetheless.
“When I was making the decision to come back this year, that was in the con pile,” Konerko said about a farewell tour. “It’s tough because it’s that balance between you have a lot of people come up and want to say something and I have to not disregard it. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I don’t want to come off like I don’t care but anybody that has been around me knows it’s just not something that’s really important to me as far as the moments of people recognizing you.
“Maybe I’ll take it in a little more than I normally would. Certainly off the field with the guys on the road and the traveling and family stuff, there’s going to be more stuff that goes on than in a normal year that I’ll do on my own. I’ll just have to wait and see how that all plays out. I’m definitely not asking for it. I appreciate it but it’s certainly not necessary. There’s only a handful of guys every year that you know their situation, but I appreciate it. I’m pretty focused when I come into work every day. I always try to do things the same as it was 10 years ago.”
Considering every detail is a Konerko trait that has served him well. He even gets teased by teammates when he returns to the dugout breaking down each at-bat, pitch by pitch.
He doesn’t seem the type to bring is work home with him, but perhaps he can break down at-bats with his two young sons. Konerko plans on having his wife and three kids on hand as much as possible, even having them come to road series.
While he has already spent some time thinking about the logistics of it all, Konerko was still self-conscious enough to say that more family time does not mean less team commitment.
“Yeah, we’re trying to look at the schedule and pick out some days, pick out some series,” he said about family trips. “I can tell you my kids are already asking because they know it gets them out of school if they go places. They are already angling and plotting for places to go. My older boy is old enough now to look at the schedule and know if he gets to go to a certain city it’s during school. They’re smart.
“But I want to do it within reason because to me, here I am after 19 years of professional baseball, including minor leagues, the work and all that is the most important thing. So I want to go out that way. I don’t want to make this into a circus.”
As far as what kind of team the White Sox can be, Konerko knows that nobody will pick the White Sox as favorites, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of talent in the locker room.
“It’s going to come back to how hungry we want to be to play the game the right way and staying healthy. That’s always a big thing. No one is going to pick us, no one is going to be on our bandwagon to win the division or anything like that and rightfully so. What happened last year, we deserve that, but even if we would have had a mediocre year last year, what Detroit is, where Kansas City is going, Cleveland, they have earned that. They’re good teams doing great things.
“I’m not going to draw a straight line like everybody is doing to the Red Sox, but you see a lot of turnarounds every year and I hope when this one happens, they run it out for a while. That will make me happy. Four years from now, if this team is a good team year in and year out, to know I had a hand in that to help some of these guys along, that will make me feel good when I’m playing golf somewhere.”