Mum on future, Konerko leaves finale to ovation
Veteran first baseman will take time to decide on retirement
CHICAGO -- Paul Konerko sat at his locker following the White Sox season-ending 4-1 loss to the Royals Sunday afternoon, surrounded by reporters as he has been so many times before.
Whether this moment stands as his last interview session representing the franchise in uniform falls in the undecided category as it has pretty much since Spring Training. The fact that Konerko certainly could return for year No. 18 overall and No. 16 with the White Sox didn't stop the 22,633 in attendance at U.S. Cellular Field from showing their appreciation for one of the most important White Sox figures over the past two decades.
Loud cheers went up when Konerko's name was announced as part of the starting lineup, hitting third and playing first base. He received a standing ovation upon stepping to the plate in the opening inning to face Royals starter Bruce Chen.
And for all intents and purposes, this contest ended with one out in the second inning, because that's when Konerko left the field.
After Jose Quintana struck out Lorenzo Cain to start the frame, Conor Gillaspie jogged from the dugout to first base to replace Konerko. On his way off, Konerko stopped to shake hands and hug starting pitcher Jose Quintana on the mound and then moved to the dugout with the backdrop of his second standing ovation in a matter of 30 minutes.
This move was something Konerko knew about before the game, as he tweaked his back during Saturday night's game. The classy captain fully appreciated the fan's reaction, almost feeling undeserving of the love.
"The fans here have treated me, you know, great over the years," Konerko said. "In a year like this, they treated me better than probably I deserved, really the whole team when you think about it.
"There were moments where they hung in with us where I knew they were antsy about what was going on. It always feels good. It certainly feels better when you're doing World Series parades, but I don't take it for granted at all. It's always good, but this year was little different circumstances."
Konerko, 37, most likely will take a month away from baseball before making a decision as to whether he wants to play. If he decides in the affirmative, then it's up to the White Sox to decide if they will bring him back.
During Sunday's postgame chat, Konerko mentioned probably having lunch with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf in the near future in that they both are Arizona residents. He also couldn't envision any sort of acrimonious departure from this team he has so dutifully represented, even if the White Sox tell him there's no room for the veteran as part of the rebuild or reshape process.
"I'd have to look in the mirror and say: 'You know what? If you wanted to play, you should have done better,'" Konerko said. "You learn that in Little League. I would hope that I'm man enough to do that, so I don't see that happening."
"Personally, I hope he comes back," said White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham of his friend and teammate. "He means a lot to me, this organization and this city."
In his only at-bat Sunday, Konerko popped up to first baseman Salvador Perez. His season totals showed a .244 average, which was his lowest since hitting .240 in 2008, 12 homers and 54 RBIs. All of this was accomplished in a season when Konerko was sidelined with back issues, although Saturday's flareup was not as bad as the injury that cost him nearly a month earlier in the season.
Konerko sits just 22 homers behind Frank Thomas for the all-time franchise mark of 449, and needs six total bases to pass Thomas at 3,950. It remains to be seen if Konerko will get that chance or even wants that chance.
Those stats don't matter to Konerko nearly as much as winning the 2005 World Series, which he terms as his career highlight by far. He also takes pride in coming back to the White Sox both after the '05 season and after 2010, when he could have left via free agency.
"That's my biggest 2-for-2 as far as my career is the way I look at it," Konerko said.
Sunday's setback finished with Konerko taking an on-field microphone and thanking the crowd in attendance for standing behind the White Sox during a 99-loss campaign. He appreciated them staying through the tough times, just as he appreciated their ovations despite the fact that this consummate leader could return for one last season in '14.
If Konerko does return, he smiled and said that there might be a victory lap taken around the field next year in his last game.
"What happened here in 2010, I almost felt guilty," said Konerko, who had his family in attendance throughout this final Royals series. "People treated me so well and it was such a big deal at the end, when I came back, I felt like I kind of played with people's emotions even though that was nothing intentional.
"It was similar to that today where I didn't want to make a big spectacle out of it. There's no escaping it kind of at the end here when there is some unknown about what's going to happen. But I definitely had that in mind, because I didn't want to be out there tipping my hat every time I moved a muscle and all that kind of stuff. I totally love it and the fact they're behind me, but I feel a little awkward not knowing."