Konerko's return to South Side shows character
White Sox leader takes $11 million pay cut to finish career in part-time role
CHICAGO -- Paul Konerko is returning to the White Sox for a final season. He is decidedly not embarking on a farewell tour, at least not the kind that comes with pregame ceremonies and gifts.
"I sure hope not," Konerko said. "Anybody that would think that about me doesn't know me. I certainly don't want that."
No, what Konerko wants to do is help his young teammates like Gordon Beckham, Dayan Viciedo, Conor Gillaspie and Tyler Flowers, and in the process help restore a sense of well-being to the organization he has played for since 1999. That's why he is taking an $11 million pay cut to serve as a bench player -- a platoon DH, at best -- on a team that lost 99 games a year ago.
If you fail to see the logic in Konerko accepting a limited role on a roster that already has the recently signed Cuban import Jose Abreu and Adam Dunn as first basemen/DHs, compare it to Tony Perez returning to Cincinnati to finish his Hall of Fame career.
Perez returned to the Reds as a part-time player in 1984, the year after Johnny Bench retired. His old organization wanted him around as a role model and a part-time threat, and he spent the last three seasons in his 23-year career, averaging 173 at-bats.
After going 61-101 in 1982, the Reds improved to 89-72 in '85 behind player-manager Pete Rose, with Perez riding shotgun. That's the kind of role that Konerko envisions himself playing for Robin Ventura in 2014, which will be his final season.
"I'm a good employee to have," said Konerko, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal, with $1 million deferred. "I have no future, no agenda."
This is an unselfish guy doing a very unselfish thing, for all the right reasons. It's not surprising that he's doing it after a season in which he batted .244 with only 12 home runs and 54 RBIs. He had hinted that he wasn't quite ready to retire in '13 and talked almost wistfully about the possibility of returning as a part-time player, the way his friends Mark Kotsay and Jim Thome had ended their careers.
"I'm not the guy anymore," said Konerko, 37. "I've had my time in the sun. It kills me to see some of the guys we have not having their time in the sun as well as they should. We should have guys making All-Star Games, getting monster contracts, doing all these things. That's what I'm hoping.
"At this point in my career, I can look back and say I've done all that. It's in the book. I'm hoping some of these guys can realize their potential, the return on that would be that the team gets going good and everybody's happy, White Sox fans are happy."
It's going to take more than having No 14 back for a 16th season to change the storyline for a franchise that painted itself in a corner with a series of unproductive deals involving Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, John Danks and Dunn. There are lots of holes and areas to improve, but general manager Rick Hahn has done some good work in acquiring right fielder Avisail Garcia from the Tigers in the three-team Peavy trade and winning heavily contested bidding for Abreu, who agreed to a six-year, $68 million deal in October.
The hope is that those two can become Konerko-like cornerstones, who might one day look back on Konerko's influence in 2014 as playing a role in their success. That would make Konerko very happy.
Hahn continues looking for ways to add a catcher and a left-handed hitter with power. He admits that it has been tough to sit on the sideline during the flurry of trades and free-agent signings this week but believes it will pay off to be disciplined.
"Yesterday was extremely busy, probably as busy as any individual day at the Winter Meetings or maybe entire Winter Meetings the past few years, and we obviously haven't even gotten down to Orlando yet," Hahn said. "There's no one with possible exception of Jerry [Reinsdorf, owner] and Kenny [Williams, executive vice president] who is as eager or potentially impatient to try to add to what we've done to retool this roster and get things back to where we think things need to be, where we think will be sustainable for the long term. ... We're all sitting here eager to continue that process.
"Frankly it is a bit of a challenge to not do something just from the sake that it's been a little while and we're eager to start doing something, to continue that process. But we can't force moves. We don't get any extra points or extra wins or runs for getting something done in December rather than January."
Konerko said he hasn't met Abreu or seen his swing on tape. "If he walked in a room now, I wouldn't know who he was," he said.
But that's going to change in February and March. The best hope for the White Sox to turn things around quickly is for Abreu to outhit recent Cuban imports Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, which his crazy numbers from the Seri Nacional suggest he can do. And those chances are better with Konerko being among those to show him the ropes.
Sure, it's hard to think of a big-time run-producer turning into part of the supporting cast. But where was the upside in Konerko retiring? He couldn't be part of the solution if he called it a career.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.