- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Whenever Paul Konerko comes to bat, the 20,000-and-change at U.S. Cellular Field sound like 40,000.
Every time, regardless of the situation, a chant of "Paul-ee! Paul-ee!" fills the air. The Chicago White Sox don't need any contrived scoreboard machinations or musical cue to fire up the fans. Their love of Konerko is old-school and genuine, and most of all, it is deserved.
In the bottom of the fourth inning Thursday, Konerko came to bat with the score tied at 2 and the bases loaded. Konerko, no stranger to big moments, blasted a 3-2 fastball from Jon Lester into the center-field bleachers for his 39th home run of the season.
Will it be his last in a White Sox uniform? Let's hope not.
Five years ago this fall, Konerko pulled the ultimate apple-polishing move. The free-agent-to-be pocketed the ball from the final out of the World Series and then presented it to owner Jerry Reinsdorf at the team's downtown parade.
The consensus was: How do you not re-sign that guy?
When everyone thought the Sox would get outbid by the Los Angeles Angels or Baltimore Orioles for Konerko's services, they ponied up $60 million over five years to keep him. The ball probably had nothing to do with it, but it was memorable. Konerko was already the face of a World Series winner. His Game 2 grand slam shook the Cell like an earthquake.
It's been a long time, hasn't it? In some ways, it feels like the parade was last year. But it wasn't. Five years is a lifetime for a baseball team.
The gleam of that group has long worn off, and the survivors from the team are few.
After this weekend, Mark Buehrle could be the only one left, along with Ozzie Guillen and his coaches.
Think about it. If the Sox bring back Omar Vizquel as a role player next year, there could conceivably be as many members of the 1995 Indians, which won the AL crown, as the 2005 White Sox on the roster.
General manager Kenny Williams has done an admirable job reinventing and restocking this roster, trying to reach that level of success. But it's been unattainable. And the road back hasn't always been easy. Take this tumultuous season, for example.
"When you win a World Series with people, no matter how rocky it gets after that or how much you don't win after that, you always have kind of that special place for those guys that you were with along that journey," Konerko said.
It's been a difficult season, low-lighted by a running feud between Williams and Guillen, the two biggest personalities in the organization, if not the city. The team was up and down, rarely at an even keel. It doesn't feel like these White Sox have a winning record, but they do.
"There are so many things I learned from this year," Guillen said. "I learned how much I love Chicago. How much I love the organization. How much I want to be here. It was a unique year. Very, very weird year. But in the meanwhile, every year is going to be like that, especially when you're losing. When you're winning, everything is just thrown away. But when you're losing, everything comes up."
And when you lose, change is necessary. There is no World Series ball to offer this year.
I wrote about Konerko a couple weeks ago. It was the game he got nailed in the face by a pitch against the Minnesota Twins and begged to stay in the game. It was a made-for-adulation moment and I used it as a reason for his return.
Konerko was reflective and wide-ranging when he talked to reporters before Thursday's game. It was a planned session and, with the wordy Konerko at the mike, it ran for 20 minutes. Even if he's asked to come back, he'll have to think about it, he said.
"It's about the game," he said. "It's not so much about the contract or the years or the money. It could be that I get more here and don't come back. You know, I've got a family to think about. How do I fit in on a team? There are a lot of things that go into it. It's not about, I've made a lot of money in this game, and it's not all about that. At the same time when it gets to those situations it's always been that the player has to take the discount, never the team going above to get him back. You see it from all angles."
Konerko's importance to the organization shouldn't be overlooked or forgotten.
He's the unquestioned clubhouse leader, the voice of the team. More importantly, he's never hit better, putting up a line of .312 average with 39 homers and 111 RBIs. This isn't Frank Thomas in decline. Those are MVP numbers. Konerko, still as slow as a Molina brother, is in great shape and can still play a solid first base. He has five good years left, easy.
"He's the leader of the team and we need him back for that purpose alone," Gordon Beckham said. "If he does what he did this year next year, great. But he's the leader of the team, and I'm not sure, if he leaves this team, if there's anyone here who can fill his shoes right off the bat. We need him mentally as much as we did physically on the field."
Konerko moved into Elder Statesman Corner this year, moving from his stall near the dugout door to Jim Thome's locker at the far end of the wall. That was Frank Thomas' old space. At 34, with flecks of gray in his hair, Konerko drinks tea before games and reads magazines while everyone else is glued to their iPad. He said he's finally comfortable as a leader.
"I probably enjoy it a little more now because I feel like I have a little more of a kind of an idea of how to do it more," he said. "A few years before, I think I was looked at like that but I'm not quite sure I was really earning it the right way, because I didn't have myself in order the way I went about it. So I felt like it was kind of contradicting. If I didn't do it the right way myself, how am I going to tell Gordon Beckham or somebody else? But now I feel a little bit better. I'm still not perfect, no one is, but I feel like I can say something to him or to Carlos [Quentin] or to those guys and I feel like that's what I'm striving at."
The party line is that the 2011 budget will decide Konerko's fate. There aren't any clear suitors for him, teams that are willing to pay $10 million-plus per season for the next three or four years.
I understand the White Sox's fiscal limitations, especially with a fan base that barely fills U.S. Cellular Field, despite their fervent attachment to the team.
The Sox have been big spenders even though they are second fiddle in the market.
But I don't want to hear a cry of poverty if they don't re-sign Konerko.
After all, this team traded for Jake Peavy and claimed Alex Rios, two very expensive question marks when they were acquired last summer with no ties to the organization.
Williams indulged in his Royals fetish and traded for Mark Teahen and rewarded him with a $14 million extension to avoid arbitration. He signed mystery man Dayan Viciedo for another $10 million, and wasted $4 million for a month of singles-hitting Manny Ramirez.
Think that 20-some million dollars spent on Teahen, Viciedo and Ramirez would come in handy right now?
You can't build a team worrying about feelings and playing tit-for-tat salarywise, but what is your team about if it doesn't include a player like Konerko?
For his part, Konerko thinks the White Sox have work to do to catch the Twins, which ran away with the AL Central with a dominating second half.
"We've got to up our game a little bit," he said. "It's not just about the talent on the field. It's no different than Little League. It's not always the talent that finishes first, second, third, as far as who has that on paper. I do think that [the Twins] are a great team on paper, too, probably at this moment, a better team. So if you're not the better team you have to do a lot of things to catch them that are beyond the talent. That's something that will have to be addressed if they want to go in that direction.''
The White Sox have to make a business decision, but it's personal too. Konerko is a White Sox lifer and in a lot of ways, the Sox are a family. Sure they bicker and fight behind closed doors and insult each other via social media platforms, but Jerry Reinsdorf's organization values loyalty and continuity over pretty much anything. Guillen said he's already given his two cents to his bosses, Williams and Reinsdorf.
"There's no doubt in anybody's mind they want him to be back here," Guillen said. "Moneywise, that's another problem. Do we want it? We all do, there's no doubt. Hopefully they get something done. We'll see what happens."
Pierzynski has a good chance to come back if the organization doesn't feel that Tyler Flowers is ready to take over. Jenks is presumably gone and Garcia is a question mark. But Konerko is the important one. He's family.
"With PK, hopefully he'll be here," Guillen said. "When you create a family, it's hard when you don't see those people anymore."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
The White Sox would be wise to once again retain Paul Konerko.