Chicago's Most Valuable Paulie
Konerko is aging gracefully, and potently, as one of baseball's top sluggers
CHICAGO -- Change is in the air on both sides of town.
We've got empty seats at Wrigley Field, no idea if Ozzie Guillen and Jim Hendry will be here next season, no faith in Carlos Zambrano, no clue when Adam Dunn is going to out-homer Brent Lillibridge, and no guess when either team will be truly competitive, in a larger sense, again.
Call me crazy, I'm not buying the Sox competing in the American League until they get over .500. The only sure bets are that Tom Ricketts' hair will be neatly parted and he'll be paying Alfonso Soriano until his contract runs out in 2035, that Jake Peavy will pitch again in Charlotte and Guillen will apologize again to someone.
And oh yeah, that Paul Konerko will continue aging better than Diane Lane.
Konerko is the calm constant on Team Turmoil. Those who know him see few changes from year to year, other than a few more white whiskers on his goatee.
"The only difference is that I see a lot of smiles," Guillen said. "There is a lot of smiling on his face."
Konerko has good reason to be happy now. He re-upped with the Sox in the offseason to the tune of $37.5 million over three years (with some deferred money in the third year), and he's off to an MVP-like start with a .327 average, 21 homers and 59 RBIs, with a 1.001 OPS and a five-game homer streak that ended Wednesday night in the Sox's 4-3 win over the Cubs.
Those are Triple Crown numbers. Just don't talk to the self-effacing Konerko about being an MVP candidate.
"I'm not even answering questions about that stuff," Konerko said to one reporter who broached the early MVP race. "That's ridiculous, sorry."
He later relented, promising to talk MVP on Sept. 1, if his numbers stay constant. But let's be frank, he's already MVP -- Most Valuable Paulie.
The White Sox organization deserves credit for consistently finding and "fixing" broken players, such as Phil Humber, and fading prospects, such as Gavin Floyd and Carlos Quentin, but Williams has whiffed repeatedly in his attempts to add high-priced, veteran talent in recent years.
But it's comforting to know every home game you can still find Konerko at his locker, drinking his tea, doing his crossword puzzle and answering questions with lumbering monologues about life and baseball.
Continuity -- the 35-year-old Konerko joined the White Sox in 1998 -- is surely one reason he's hitting better than ever at an age when he should be slowing down. In his contract year, he nearly matched career highs in average (.312), home runs (39) and RBIs (111). He started this season just as potent.
"As a player, you play best when you're comfortable," he said. "You hit best when you're comfortable. So the more things are the same that you're comfortable with, I got to believe that plays into your hands. From a hitting standpoint, I mean, Greg Walker and Mike Gellinger, the two hitting guys I work with here, they know me better than I know myself."
Still, Konerko was ready to leave after last season. He was a free agent after the World Series, but pulled the apple-polishing move of all time by presenting owner Jerry Reinsdorf with the final out ball at the team's parade. He played it cooler this time. The Sox surprised a lot of people by finding the money again.
"I mean, truthfully I was ready for everything," he said of this past offseason. "I really was. I kind of programmed myself and conditioned myself at the end of last year that I didn't want anything, because you could be let down somehow or trying to angle to go somewhere. I was like whatever happens, happens. I just want the best deal for my family. It happened that I was back here. & I didn't want to come back here and the only reason to come back was because I've been here. That would've been a stupid reason. I tried to make sure that wasn't my reason."
The era of the aging slugger setting career highs is supposed to be over, but let's face it, Konerko's body wouldn't espouse much suspicion anyway.
"PK is very strong but you can see his body," Guillen said. "He's not a guy with muscles all over the place. But his swing is unbelievably fast and when he makes contact that ball carries."
Konerko is sanguine about aging. He has moved his locker to the corner space that previously belonged to Frank Thomas and Jim Thome. He said he learned a lot about playing through the vagaries of "old age" from Thome, who had to work out like Jack LaLanne just to DH and never, ever complained.
"I think the hard part, and you've got to learn as you get older, and I learned this from Jim when he was here, is that when you get older it's going to get tougher to play and get out there every day, because you have to do more and it's more of a sacrifice," Konerko said. "If you resent that, that's when it can really go sideways on you because you show up resenting you have to do it. You have to appreciate it and know it's going to be a bitch, basically. But if you appreciate that, it's going to make all the difference in the way your mind works."
After struggling for years with bouts of inconsistency, Konerko seems at peace with himself. But it's still a battle.
"It's really never-ending," he said. "It ends at the end of the season, but it really never ends until you are done playing. You try to fight the fight the right way. I feel like I've been doing that not just last year, but maybe since halfway or so through the '08 season. I feel like the results weren't always there but I was going about it right.
"That doesn't always mean you get the results. It's nice when the results come with it. But I think how you show up to play that day is important. That should be the reward, not the results of hitting a home run or driving in a run. It's nice when that happens. But you know if you weigh the whole day on that, this game will get on you quick."
The work continues for Konerko. He can wait for the rewards.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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