- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There were times, infrequent as they might have been, that Paul Konerko was not showered with love in Chicago.
Spoiling your fans will do that sometimes.
But when the 2005 postseason hero, four-time All-Star and one of the best clutch hitters in the game appeared to actually be at the end of his 12-year White Sox career, fans were well aware of what they were about to lose and the love was on full display at U.S. Cellular Field.
Konerko didn't know quite what to do with himself.
"It was awkward," he said. And not just because he has made a career of deflecting praise and concluded a season in which he consistently avoided talking about the future.
"In my mind, there was just so much up in the air," he said. "I felt, at worst, there was a 50-50 chance I wouldn't be back. So you're going through all the motions of saying goodbye to people and tying up all the loose ends just in case you're not coming back, but at the same time, you know you might. But what's the alternative?
"So it's kind of a weird situation, and mentally, it kind of drains you."
But as a result, Konerko got the rare experience that most athletes do not -- a feeling of closure. And better yet, he gets to do it again.
"At the end of the year last year, it was the one time in a number of years, let alone last season, when I actually took the time to actually hear that just because that's the last time I could have had the chance to hear it here," he said. "But now it's back to the grind."
He was ready to leave. Regardless of the fact that Sox general manager Kenny Williams had assured him that even if they acquired Adam Dunn, the club still wanted both of them, Konerko was prepared to go after hearing that Dunn had signed a four-year, $56 million deal with the Sox. And he was preparing himself emotionally to devote himself to a new organization.
"A year ago today, I knew I'd be playing somewhere this year, getting ready for a season to help a team win, whether it was this one or another one," he said. "Obviously, you don't know what to expect. But I've seen too many guys who have played a long time, and it's inevitable; it's not anybody's fault when you have to switch teams, and any team that gets you doesn't want to hear about any of your personal issues, about how you miss where you came from. They're paying you to do a job, and they want you to do it. I was ready for that."
Ready, even if it meant not going westward, near his offseason home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"No question moving west to me was always the best thing if I did move, but I was pretty prepared," he said. "When you get into your mid-30s in this game, if you want to continue to play, you have to be very flexible that you might have to play in a place you never thought of. Especially at the position I play. ... If you play first base or DH, you can count on your hand how many teams have availability there. So it makes it pretty simple. You know right away."
The last time Konerko was a free agent, he had just handed Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf the game-winning ball from the final game of the World Series. The process went more quickly and smoothly, Konerko said, before he signed a five-year, $60 million deal called a "retirement contract" and a hometown discount for the Sox, who had just traded for Jim Thome.
This time, there was more back and forth. The process took longer. But ultimately, Konerko displayed his loyalty once again by turning down proposals from Arizona, where he lives in the offseason, and signing a three-year, $37.5 million deal to stay in Chicago.
They are a dying breed, those athletes who spend 15 years on one team. The bonus for Sox fans is that Konerko, who will turn 35 on Saturday, is coming off a season that could stand proudly among his career gems -- career bests in on-base percentage (.393), slugging percentage (5.84) and total bases (320) while batting .312, hitting 39 home runs and knocking in 111 runs to finish fifth in the American League in Most Valuable Player voting.
"I think that means more, being in one place for a long time like that," said Sox 24-year-old second baseman Gordon Beckham, one of many protégés of Konerko's. "People look back and know they may have been great players but know they don't have any real roots to one spot. When people look back, they'll say he was an incredible White Sox player. Everybody will always associate him with the White Sox, and that's pretty cool."
If Konerko took a premature bow last fall, it was time. The fact that he still feels weird about it is all you have to know about him.
"It probably should be just at the end points of someone's time in a place that you actually take the time to hear that kind of stuff," said Konerko, who had a rare stand-up triple in Thursday's victory over Seattle. "While you're there working and grinding, it really has no place in your day.
"I get paid to do a job. That's what I'm coming back to do. There will be plenty of time when I'm done playing when you can just sit around and talk about all the nice things and the good times. If I have any thoughts of that kind of stuff today, I can't think of a more blatant way to be selfish to your teammates. That really has no place in this clubhouse this year."
At least not in Konerko's kind of clubhouse.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.