Don't let the Captain go

CHICAGO -- The White Sox lost again to the Minnesota Twins on Thursday. In other breaking news, the sun set in the West, the Sox lost to an AL Central team and drew less than 30,000 fans to U.S. Cellular Field.

Welcome to Soxtember, when you'll catch a cold before the White Sox catch the Twins.

The Sox started the month in striking distance of Minnesota. Now, after a home sweep by the playoff-bound Twins, all that's left is a team blindfold and cigarette.

If you needed a clear snapshot of how the breaks have beaten the White Sox lately, consider the second inning of Thursday's series-sweeping loss to the Twins.

Mark Buehrle hit Michael Cuddyer to lead off the inning with a purpose pitch in the left shoulder.

It was instant revenge for Paul Konerko taking a fastball to the face from Carl Pavano in the bottom of the first. To chants of "Paulie!" from the die-hards in the crowd, Konerko picked himself off the ground, got a quick checkup from the trainer and demanded to stay in the game.

In a time when faith has run its course, it was an uplifting moment to see Konerko trot to first and then come out again onto the field for the top of the second. The veteran and dark horse MVP candidate had no reason to play. He's a free agent with nothing to prove.

"I hope our players, not just White Sox players, but players in general, see what this guy did," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "This guy have a chance to be MVP, great numbers, great career, step it up like a man and play the game."

But he came back out and Buehrle wasted no time in plunking Cuddyer for payback.

And if you've followed this team, you know that payback plunkings by the Sox have been few and far between.

All the good vibes and man points were lost when Cuddyer scored on a Jim Thome single and the Twins knocked Buehrle around for three runs in the inning.

That's how it goes in Soxtember, the dreariest month of the year.

The good news is that Konerko, swollen lip and all, stayed in the game and hit his 37th home run, continuing a monster contract year. His teammates mobbed him in the dugout and fans roared. Forget the erstwhile division race, for a second there, this game felt important.

I came Thursday to write an obituary on the season and do some street-corner pontificating. But early on, I became inspired by Konerko. By getting up and trotting to first, he didn't do anything heroic or revolutionary.

If Manny Ramirez gets fame by being an eccentric, why shouldn't Konerko get pub for being the pinnacle of productive professionalism?

While Thursday proved why the Twins are running away with the AL Central, it also showed why the Sox should open up the checkbook to pay Konerko to come back. Again.

While the status of Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams' relationship remains an offseason story to follow, I'm not convinced that either of them are going anywhere.

Konerko shouldn't be packing his bags either. The Sox have to make decisions on three of the remaining links to the 2005 World Series team: Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski are free agents, and Bobby Jenks is slated for his last year of arbitration.

Jenks is likely gone and Pierzynski could be, too. But after watching Konerko again Thursday, I'm more convinced than ever that he should be a White Sox for the rest of his career.

This isn't really an epiphany. I've been saying this for months: Konerko should retire as a White Sox. Heck, someone should be starting his statue now. He puts up numbers and represents the team well. And he cares about his role as captain.

Trust me, no one has given more State of the Sox speeches than Konerko. After the game, Konerko couldn't talk. His upper was swollen and his nose was bloody. "I wish I could," he lisped to reporters behind clenched teeth.

Before the game he was asked if 90 wins and no playoffs would be considered a success. He was typically honest.

"Not really," he said. "You can't run away from the goals set at the beginning of the year. The organization put a team together that they felt could compete and win a division. So I'm not a big believer in: 'I think you try to take positives out of every year for the next.' When the question needs to be answered, you have to go back to what you originally thought or said you were going to do and didn't do."

Five years ago, Konerko's status was up in the air, as the prevailing notion after the World Series was that he would make his big bucks somewhere else, perhaps Anaheim. But the team paid Konerko like the captain they expected him to be, and he's represented the organization with aplomb and class. And he's produced: 163 homers and 458 RBIs and counting in the past five seasons.

This season -- his contract year -- he's turned in a dark-horse MVP performance.

"He's a guy we need to have back, for sure," Gordon Beckham told the team's MLB.com beat writer this week. "This team, he is our leader, he's had a great year. He deserves to be back here and paid the right way."

For a team that trades for high-risk, high-reward, high-salary Jake Peavy, doles out cash to Alex Rios, gives Mark Teahen (!) an unwarranted contract extension and throws away nearly $4 million for a month of Manny hitting singles, how can you not tie up Konerko the first chance you get this offseason?

If he got five years and $60 million in his prime, what would it take to sign him now?

Fangraphs.com suggest his dollar value in free agency would be $18.4 million, a figure calculated by taking his WAR (wins above replacement) value and translating it into a dollar amount.

Konerko, at 34, isn't getting $18 million a year on the open market. Given that the market for an aging first baseman/designated hitter isn't as high as it once was, it's fair to say his value would still be around $10 million annually for three to four years.

There are few enticing alternative destinations for the slugger, and there's no question the Sox, with $75 million owed next year and John Danks and Carlos Quentin due raises, could still afford to give their captain $30-40 million over the next few years.

Acquiring Peavy and Rios during a down year, attendance- and sponsorship-wise, discredits any penny-pinching theories. And if the Sox want to start Dayan Viciedo at first, the deficit of production from the designated hitter spot
proves the Sox need help in that department.

Jerry Reinsdorf is loyal to a fault, and his newfound affection for hiring ex-stars as ambassadors is big-hearted, but if he really wanted to put his money where the heart of his team lies he would sign an ambassador who can still play.

Guillen said he's done with roster recommendations after taking heat for Jim Thome's departure.

"From now on, I'm the manager of the White Sox," he said. "Whoever they want to bring back, I'll write his name in the lineup. Whoever they want to bring back, that's not my decision."

But you know he wants Konerko back.

The players do, too. Konerko's legend as "The King" of the Sox grew larger Thursday.

"I think someone said on the bench when it happened, 'I knew he was a tough guy.' When that happened, he's even tougher than you originally think," Mark Buehrle said.

Forget the marketing, skip the annual "Sign a Royal" plan, Kenny.

Konerko dusting himself off and staying in Thursday's game was a clear sign that he's the kind of player that this organization, or any organization, should covet.

After a disappointing season full of missed chances, if the Sox want to send a message to their fans and their team this offseason, it should be this:

Sign Konerko.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.