CHICAGO -- On a warm October morning in 2005, a couple walked up a Near North Side street to stake out a spot for the Chicago Marathon.
Going the opposite way, south, a familiar-looking man walked at a slightly brisk pace.
"Do you know who that was?" I asked my girlfriend (now wife), a big baseball fan, albeit for the Cubs.
"He looks familiar," she said. "I think I went to college with him."
"No, he didn't go to Indiana," I replied. "That was Paul Konerko."
As it turned out, he was heading to a workout at U.S. Cellular Field before the American League Championship Series. He would win the MVP award for that series.
Two weeks later, to the day, Konerko, the veritable man on the street, hit a go-ahead grand slam in the World Series. Konerko pumped his fist rounding first, holding it aloft as a stadium full of wet White Sox fans went berserk.
When that happened, I was sitting in a makeshift auxiliary press box down the left-field line as that ball screamed into the left-field bleachers. I'll forever remember the way the stadium shook.
As Konerko prepares to retire after 16 years in a White Sox uniform, I think about that moment on the street.
He had power, but it was never flashy, and he never had one particular season where he stood out as the best at anything. But that's the appeal of Konerko. He was an everyman who blended into the fabric of a city's sporting consciousness during a wildly productive career. He was the White Sox.
Konerko looks like a guy you know from college, and he hit 432 home runs in a White Sox uniform -- not counting that one in the World Series or the four other ones he hit in the Sox's magical 2005 playoff run. From 2004 through 2012, he hit 30 or more home runs six times. He was a six-time All-Star from 2002 through 2012.
From 2010 through 2012, ages 34 through 36, he hit .304 with 96 homers and 291 RBIs.
He represented the platonic ideal of a certain kind of baseball player. Not an athlete. Just a ballplayer.
Through his longevity and steady productivity, Konerko carved his name in the team's record books: first in total bases; second in homers, RBIs and extra-base hits; fourth in doubles and games played.
In short: He had a career, man.
While Konerko is now looked at as the one constant of this team, we thought he was gone twice, in 2005 and 2010, not to mention last year's decision to come back for one more go-round as Part-Time Paulie.
We joke that owner Jerry Reinsdorf shelled out big bucks to Konerko after the 2005 season only because he gave Reinsdorf the final-out baseball at the parade. A month later, Konerko, thought to be too expensive, signed a five-year, $60 million deal.
While the Sox have made the playoffs only once since 2005, it wasn't because Konerko didn't earn his checks.
At the end of the 2010 season, when no one was sure the Sox had the money to re-sign the 34-year-old Konerko again-- he had his highest finish (fifth) in MVP voting that season -- he seemed at peace with the uncertainty over his future.
"My goal as a player coming into the league, when I was in the minor leagues, was to play in one place for 10 years straight at one position," he said to a group of reporters. "That was the only goal I ever had, because I knew if I did that, all the other stuff would come along with it, whether it be the numbers or the money."
Konerko, who had already accomplished that goal, wound up signing a three-year, $37.5 million deal.
He was worth it.
To his teammates, he was PK or The King. They loved him and he loved being in the mix of the clubhouse, on the plane, in the dugout. He aged into being the veteran clubhouse sage, sitting in the corner, holding court with reporters as he gave winding, paragraph-size answers about the state of the team.
In that aforementioned 2010 interview, Konerko talked about maturing into an elder statesman role, and how people put him in that category before he truly had himself "in order." But at that point, he was comfortable in his own career and could dish out advice to younger players.
"I want to be one of the guys, just like everyone else in here," he said. "But I don't shy away from it."
Konerko is not a Hall of Famer, a boring argument that always comes along when a player of his ilk retires.
But he made about $130 million, has a World Series ring, a statue outside the Cell and, according to a famous Hawk Harrelson home run call, a 16,000-square foot house in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Does life have a Hall of Fame?
To the Sox fans, he was just "Paulie! Paulie! Paulie!" He was a guy they knew.
Because he played for the White Sox, and because the city has such bifurcated baseball allegiances, you could say he was never fully embraced by the city. He was a star, but he could walk down the street in peace. I'm sure he didn't mind.
This is a Cubs town. No matter what the Sox do, even win a World Series, they're the South Side team. That's fine too. He was their guy, even if fewer and fewer of them showed up to watch him play. It would be fitting if the crowd for his final game was 25,435, wouldn't it?
After so many years, part of me can't imagine him not playing on the South Side anymore.
But after his farewell season, which amounted to a six-month shiva on another bad Sox team, it was almost as if Konerko's biggest role was reminding fans that he would soon be gone. While everyone remembers Konerko's World Series heroics, one memory that has stayed with me came from a September game in 2010. In a bad loss to Minnesota, Konerko took a Carl Pavano fastball to the face.
As the fans chanted "Paulie," Konerko picked himself up, met with trainer Herm Schneider, and refused to leave the game. Later in the game, he hit his 37th home run. After the game, with swollen lips and a bloody nose, he told reporters through clenched teeth that he wished he could talk to us about it all, but he couldn't talk. Another time, we said in admiration.
Paul Konerko Day is Saturday at the Cell. Pay your respects to this man. A guy like Konerko doesn't come around too often.