Commentary

Captain rejoins a righted ship

Konerko back where he belongs, with White Sox, who have done everything right so far

Updated: December 8, 2010, 6:18 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Paul Konerko was getting some sun when he thought he saw the light at the end of the tunnel.

"Funny thing," he said on a conference call Wednesday. "I'm down in Mexico lying on a chair looking at the ocean, and I got a text saying they just signed Adam Dunn to a deal. My first thought was it's been a fun 12 years, like it's an either him or me situation. Which in a way, this wears on you day in and day out, I thought at least it's closure to the saga and then I can move on.

"Then I remembered Kenny telling me at the end of the season, 'I don't want you or Adam, I want both of you.'"

What Kenny Williams and Jerry Reinsdorf and Konerko all wanted was to re-up the team captain to lead a contender for the next couple of years.

[+] EnlargePaul Konerko
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastIf Paul Konerko plays out his new contract with the White Sox, he will have played 15 seasons on the South Side.

They achieved that wish Wednesday at the winter meetings, inking Konerko to a creative three-year, $37.5 million deal that will likely keep him on the South Side for 15 years.

"To sit there and say it's going to be 15 [years], that's a nice, round number," Konerko said.

Asking me if I'm surprised Konerko re-upped with the White Sox is like asking me if I'm surprised it's cold in Chicago today.

Yeah, there's a chance Konerko would have left for the Arizona Diamondbacks or the Texas Rangers, just like there's a chance it would be balmy in early December.

Hey, Ozzie Guillen said it himself last week: The White Sox are like the weather -- some days they're cold, some days they're hot.

Right now, the Sox are red-hot, having re-signed two pillars of the team for below market value and adding Dunn for a pretty friendly $56 million.

Not a bad Hanukkah for the Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and his baseball mishpacha (family).In less than eight days, he signed off on the Sox being contenders.

Reinsdorf loves Konerko and without his push, this deal might have fallen through. I guess Konerko's apple-polishing move presenting Reinsdorf with the final out at the 2005 World Series rally paid off. Twice, in fact.

In a franchise that seems to thrive on strong personalities clashing, Konerko is the bellwether, steady and reassuring, devoid of controversy.

That's why I never bought the vacillations Tuesday on Konerko's tenuous status with the team, and not just for sentimental reasons. There really were no legitimate alternatives for the slugger.

Konerko is a Phoenix-area native and resident in the offseason -- the winter, when it's nice to live in Arizona. Playing in front of tepid, half-full crowds in mid-July isn't exactly a dream homecoming.

"It was a possibility that definitely was intriguing to me," Konerko said. "It was a great option to have, but it didn't work out going that way. I was thrilled they were interested in me, let's put it that way."

He was thrilled mostly because the Diamondbacks gave him a Plan 1B that allowed his representation to actively negotiate with Williams and assistant general manager Rich Hahn.

Konerko added that other interest was a lot slower than the last time he was a free agent after the 2005 World Series. It built up just this week. There aren't a lot of teams that need a veteran first baseman at his price tag. He's not a one-year guy seeking "pillow contracts" like Carlos Pena. He said that he's not looking to retire after this three-year deal expires.

Konerko wanted to come back all along, negotiating aside. He's been with the White Sox for 12 years. He has the corner locker, and the respect of his teammates, his organization and even the media.

"I think definitely that to come back was always 1A as far as what I wanted to happen," he said.

Konerko[The Arizona Diamondbacks were] a possibility that definitely was intriguing to me. It was a great option to have, but it didn't work out going that way. I was thrilled they were interested in me, let's put it that way.

-- White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko

Where else would he have been appreciated, like he is on the South Side? The young players come to him for advice now, especially franchise second baseman Gordon Beckham, and the veterans lean on him to be the media spokesman. Most importantly, he can still rake and is coming off an MVP-caliber season.

A.J. Pierzynski and Dunn thought enough of him to backload their deals to give the Sox more flexibility this season to sign Konerko. Williams came out and told reporters about that at last week's news conference, which put the onus on Konerko, who wound up taking seven years of deferred money to make this work.

"It definitely says a lot about those two guys," Konerko said of Dunn and Pierzynski. "That's cool. I definitely appreciate it. Maybe it just added a little weight in my mind, some heat if I don't come back. At the same time, everyone involved on the player side, not only A.J., told me to do 'what's best for you and your family, don't worry about us.'"

As you can tell, I'm in favor of this move. Konerko, Alex Rios and Dunn give this team a fearsome middle of the order, a must for the American League. And this isn't a rebuttal of OzzieBall either. Guillen just wants a team that plays hard, not small.

Every year, like clockwork, we get the Chicken Littles telling us the sky is falling for the White Sox. I'm sure some of that fear comes from team sources intending to create suspense, and perhaps cover their behinds in case Reinsdorf ever does pull the plug on spending.

Williams is certainly guilty of that, with his penchant for casting doubt on his financial wherewithal.

But since the World Series, won on a bargain-basement payroll of $75 million and change, we've seen the additions of Jim Thome, Nick Swisher, Rios, Jake Peavy, Javier Vazquez, Edwin Jackson, Dunn and probably some more I'm forgetting.

We've seen the team re-sign Mark Buehrle, Pierzynski twice and Konerko twice.

Loyalty has been a watchword under this regime, which brings me to the next check the Sox need to write. The team needs to sign Guillen to a competitive, long-term deal soon, not to mention pitching coach Don Cooper.

If the Sox win another division, Guillen's asking price will only go up, and if anyone represents the franchise, it's this manager, who is easily the top personality in all of baseball. Not just Chicago. Baseball.

But it's not his style that makes him valuable. Guillen, who turns only 47 in January, probably did his best managing job this past year during a miserable season in which he feuded with Williams and fretted openly about his future. Guillen and Williams seem to be on their way to mending their relationship, and a perfect coda would be a new deal.

Think about this: Dusty Baker makes more than twice as much as Guillen, who earns $1.75 million a year. Guillen's worth that much as a spokesman, let alone a World Series manager.

But let's get back to the team Guillen is currently paid to manage.

The Sox's payroll is once again above $100 million, which is noteworthy considering the team regularly fails to average 30,000 fans and is, in a lot of ways, a regional team in its own city. The Sox brass hate to hear it, but it's true.

But the White Sox have fairly expensive tickets, on average, guaranteeing consistent revenue. They sign solid sponsors, and they've been proactive at pursuing other revenue streams, such as Brooks Boyer's Silver Chalice Ventures, which is akin to Boston's Fenway Sports Group consulting firm, and two expensive, mostly full club sections in the old press box and behind home plate.

Things aren't as bleak as you might believe, but a Sox executive told me the Dunn signing was approved on faith that fans will back a winner. Despite a good run last summer, the Sox were unimpressive and failed to stoke the fires of its fan base. This team needs to impress a fan base that is relatively small for a major market, and to be honest, kind of lazy.

Williams and Hahn are off to a good start moving money around. The Pierzynski deal (two years, $8 million) was made possible by Williams getting rid of half of Scott Linebrink's salary, when he traded the reliever to the Atlanta Braves.

I wouldn't be surprised to see the team add a restaurant like the Capt. Morgan's Club at Wrigley as early as this season. Creating a better atmosphere outside the park would certainly bring in more casual fans willing to spend money.

What's next for the White Sox? Well, pitching for one. The revenue the team pulls in is paying the bills and keeping the lights on. Williams said the team's checkbook is basically closed, so expect some trades.

"We have to go into a holding pattern right now, just for a minute, and try to be as creative as possible on the trade front," Williams told reporters at the winter meetings. "The free agent front is a little expensive for us right now in filling those needs, so we have to try another way. That's all right. We've done it before."

You have to figure the Sox are dangling Carlos Quentin out there. With the addition of Dunn, they can get rid of Quentin, a talented hitter who is high-strung. He stands to get a raise from $3.2 million, but not enough to scare anyone away. Crazy Q could bag a reliever or two.

Williams had a rough season in 2010, on and off the field, and Mark Teahen was one of his really bad signings last year. After trading for the infielder, Williams avoided arbitration by signing him to a three-year, $14 million deal. The Sox would be glad to deal him, as Brent Morel's rise at third has turned Teahen into a utility player, and he too can be turned into relief help.

The White Sox are not a finished product, but Konerko's signing is a step in the right direction.

After a tumultuous season, it's nice to see a sane ending to 2010.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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