CHICAGO -- Paul Konerko has played in six All-Star Games and a World Series and was an MVP of an American League Championship Series. Yet the three games he played this weekend against the Kansas City Royals may have been the toughest of his career.
The longtime team captain went 0-for-10 in his farewell weekend, grounding out to third base in the fifth inning on Sunday in his final major league at-bat.
With a sore hand after breaking a bone earlier this month and a tight back that stiffened up on him over the weekend, Konerko also had to deal with the emotions of his final start that included a statue presentation and other gifts, an on-field speech in front of a sold-out stadium and one standing ovation after another.
“Everything I did this weekend was something I really hadn’t done the whole year as far as back-to-back games, [hitting against] righties, the whole nine yards,” Konerko said. “It was kind of, I was beat mentally and physically. But I knew it and I tried to get ready as best I could, absorb all of it. I hung in there on Friday night, took a couple good swings, didn’t get [a hit] and then the last two days it was just kind of, I was there but I wasn’t kind of thing.”
This weekend was never about what kind of production Konerko could give. It was a celebration of all the things he had done in the past. He leaves the game with the Chicago White Sox record for total bases (4,010) and is second in franchise history with 432 home runs and 1,383 RBIs.
That he was humble and so self-aware while doing it, all while being a determined leader in the clubhouse, only heightened his appeal with White Sox fans and baseball fans, in general. Konerko did it the right way all the way to the end and only in the final weekend of his career did he let outside factors get the best of him.
“That’s such the beauty of this game, there is no switch,” Konerko said. “You gotta be good. You gotta have your act together. And it’s almost in a way for me, just a nice, gentle reminder on the way out you don’t get what you want all the time when it comes to on the field stuff. But everything else couldn’t have been [better]. This whole thing blew me away.
“I know I’ve been here awhile, and I knew there’d be something at the end that would be commemorating me being here for a while. But this whole thing, the fans and all that [celebrating Paul Konerko Day on Saturday] night, I never thought that I was one of those guys that gets that. I just didn’t think I was, but I guess I was.”
Konerko walked off the field the last time before the start of the sixth inning when he was replaced at first base by Andy Wilkins. He had one last curtain call before the sixth inning started, then watched his final game unfold from the bench. The White Sox fell 6-4 to the Royals.
“The thing is, I didn’t feel it was such a dramatic thing to stop playing baseball,” Konerko said. “And maybe it hasn’t hit me yet; maybe it won’t hit me until spring training rolls around and I’m not getting ready again, I’m not going with the team and all that. Maybe I’ll find out then.”
To show his appreciation, Konerko finished a postgame television interview and ran around the field to thank the fans, shaking hands for at least 20 minutes after the last out was made.
“You have the support as you’re going through, you know the fans are there, you know it but you don’t,” Konerko said. “What just happened out there on the field like at the end there going around, you see other people doing that. You don’t ever think that’s you. I don’t know. It’s going to take me a while to digest all of this stuff. It’s pretty crazy to me.”
Perhaps Konerko’s biggest show of thanks came early in the game, when he scratched the names of his family members in the infield dirt near first base. There was Nick and Owen for his two sons, J for his wife Jen and A for his daughter Amelia. Then he finished it off by drawing a heart.
“I thought about it probably 20 minutes before the game,” Konerko said. “I don’t know why, I just did. It was as a thank you, because your family is always in the back seat. Your mom, your dad, your wife, your kids. You do the best you can, but if you’re a big league baseball player you have to be selfish. You have to leave the house early. You’re traveling. You come home late. You just miss a lot.
“It’s not a normal thing, so it was kind of a) a thank you and b) to remind me that when this all ends today, that’s what really matters. That’s what’s waiting for me all the time on the other side, and that’s pretty good.”