Steady as Paulie goes
Konerko's even-keeled approach has helped White Sox turn season around
It was not a good image.
Not just because Konerko would look silly wearing a halo on his head, but because he came so close to doing just that five years ago, and it would have been an enormous loss for the White Sox.
It still would be.
Konerko signed a five-year, $60 million contract -- slightly lower than what was offered by the Angels and Baltimore Orioles -- not long after he handed Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf the ball from the final out of the 2005 World Series at their victory parade. Konerko was a hero that postseason, the MVP of the American League Championship Series. At the victory rally, he spoke of winning again with the Sox in '06.
On Monday night against the Angels, the home crowd chanted his name as they so often do. "Paulie, Paulie," they cried as Konerko laced a single down the left-field line, driving home Juan Pierre in the sixth inning to give the Sox a 3-1 lead.
Konerko, 34, hasn't always been showered with such love over the past five seasons. When he got off to a .262 pre-All Star Game start in '07, the murmurs began that he was getting old. When he hit .218 leading up to the break in '08, there were those fed up with his good half-bad half routine and wanted him gone.
Trade rumors have swirled around him, including the Angels off and on and, more recently, speculation that the Yankees were interested. A month ago, ESPN's Buster Olney reported that rival executives believed Konerko, who has a no-trade clause and is owed $12 million this season, to be available for trade as a Sox fire sale was anticipated.
Now, that's the furthest thing from general manager Kenny Williams' mind.
Konerko, hitting .299 with 20 home runs and 58 RBIs, was 2-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored in the White Sox's 9-2 victory over the Angels on Monday night. With the win, the Sox remained within a game of the Detroit Tigers.
Konerko is hitting .368 with six doubles, six homers and 26 RBIs in his past 31 games, and when Yankees manager Joe Girardi bypassed Konerko for what would have been his fourth career All-Star team in favor of, among others, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and Boston's David Ortiz, it appeared to be a snub.
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Konerko still has a chance to go after being named to the ballot of the All-Star Game Final Vote along with Boston's Kevin Youkilis, Minnesota's Delmon Young, Texas' Michael Young and New York's Nick Swisher. A.J. Pierzynski and former Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik, backed by enthusiastic hometown campaigns, became All-Stars that way and the team has planned Operation Pauliewood to get Konerko to Angel Stadium this year.
But Konerko, while respectful of the honor, was even lower key than usual when the subject came up.
"We have games to play this week, and if it happens, it happens," he said before Monday's game. "It's no different than when the original rosters come out for the team. If you're on it, you're on it and you make reservations and you have fun with it or not. And it's the same thing when this thing ends. Not much else to say. You do what you do on the field, and if that happens to put you in the position to go to the game, it does. I'm not going to get caught up in trying to be leading a campaign here to go to the game. It's either good enough to go to the game or it isn't."
He's good enough.
He's also the captain of a team he has led into the teeth of a division race with the same even-keeled response that he approaches each at-bat, and that leadership is evident in everything Konerko does.
"I really don't have much emotion. You just can't afford to," he said. "I've got to put all my energy into this team and winning here and doing well here. That's the most important thing."
Konerko's numbers mark the seventh time in his 12 years with the Sox that he has had 55 or more RBIs at the break, the sixth time he has hit .290 or better and fifth season he has had 20 or more homers. The last time he was playing on the final year of a deal, he hit 40 homers with 100 RBIs.
So does he think he's having an All-Star season?
"It's not for me to answer," Konerko said. "My job at the start of the season was to help this team win as best I could, catch the ball at first when they throw to me, try to drive guys in when I can and three months in, so far, so good.
"But there are four months to go, and that's where my thoughts are. Three months don't make a season. You have to grind your way all the way through it. That's my focus. It's not about comparing my numbers to somebody else's."
Meanwhile, he's a .278 career hitter with 346 home runs, and when he's healthy, he's still as good a run producer as they come. Last year, Konerko drove in 88 runs despite a recurring thumb injury on the 12th-place team in the AL in scoring.
"He's just consistent," Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle said. "He goes out there and puts up good numbers. He's not going to hit .400, but he's going to hit the ball and play good defense. All-around, he does everything good."
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Yeah, his range is limited at first. And yeah, he's not the fleetest of foot on the basepaths. But he scoops up every short-hopper bounced his way and treats each at-bat with the same focus, whether it's in the World Series or against the Cubs for the BP Cup.
"He sticks to his plan. He doesn't panic. He's the same person every day," Pierzynski said. "He believes in what he's doing is going to work out in the end, and he's talented too, so that never hurts."
Konerko could sign a one- or two-year deal at a somewhat reduced rate and move to a DH role if Dayan Viciedo is ready to play first base or if the Sox sign any of the number of free-agent first basemen that will be on the market.
After 14 years in the big leagues, Konerko does not require a pat on the back.
"I don't think it's a good trait for any human being to look around for praise," he said.
But he should certainly be appreciated by now.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.