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A Good Guy Who Wore Black

To play or not to play? That was the question last winter when Paul Konerko toiled with his decision about one last year with the White Sox after Rick Hahn opened the door for a swansong season at a reduced salary.

Of course, Paulie chose to return for his 16th season albeit in a defined role where his responsibilities have included mentoring Jose Abreu and other young players along with pinch-hitting, DHing against left-handers and playing an occasional first base.

So how has the plan worked out? It depends on how you look at it.

From a performance point of view, not very well. The 38-year-old Konerko, nursing a broken hand, although indicating that a few more at-bats will be in the cards in the season's final 13 games, has been a non-entity on a ballclub sporting a 68-81 record. A 279 lifetime hitter with 439 home runs, Paulie is chugging along at .220 with five homers and a modest 22 RBI.

The one place he's excelled is pinch-hitting, where he's 8-for-26 for a .308 mark.

At the risk of heresy, Konerko has been on a downward trend since two months into the 2012 season, On the lovely Sunday afternoon of May 27 of that season, when Paulie went 2-for-4, driving in four runs, in a 12-6 win over Cleveland, Konerko was leading the American League with an apoplectic .399 average.

Konerko has been a .243 hitter since - he finished at .298 in 2012 and hit .244 last season - while adding just 31 home runs and 118 RBIs in the past two-plus seasons. Clearly, his skills have eroded.

No, this arrangement to bring Paulie back for the 2014 season was anchored in sentiment and love, emotions that most often have minimal influence in the pure business decisions of the world of sport and elsewhere. This being the age of downsizing and inversions, management everywhere tends to consider the bottom line ahead of loyalty and allegiance.

No one has been more loyal to the White Sox than Konerko. Twice - after the glorious 2005 season and again in 2010 - Konerko was a free agent who re-signed with the Sox even though he probably could have negotiated a more lucrative deal with the Orioles or Angels.
No one, including Paulie, denied that his days as one of the most clutch, fearsome hitters in the American League were over. But having him on the 2014 roster wasn't going to make much difference on a non-contending club. As it's turned out, the team is 19-24 in games when Konerko has been in the starting lineup, which isn't much different than when he isn't.

Konerko is making $2.5 million for eight months' labor this season, akin to fantasyland for most of us. However, considering that someone like Ronald Belisario and his 6.29 ERA make $3 million, Paulie agreed to play for cheap.

Furthermore, Sox management wanted to get this one right after botching so many other departures in the recent past.

Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, who also played 16 years on the South Side, left town in 2006 after two injury-plagued seasons stung by comments from GM Kenny Williams, who labeled him "an idiot" and "selfish." Williams said the Sox wouldn't miss the Big Hurt. Williams softened the blow by trading for a productive Jim Thome. However, big Frank slugged 65 homers the next two seasons while driving in 209 runs in Oakland and Toronto.

Then there's Mark Buehrle. At age 32, after 12 years in a Sox uniform, Williams opted not to offer the lefthander a long-term contract, unlike the Marlins, who signed him for four years and $58 million. "I'm happy for Buehrle, but we have to move forward," said Williams at the time.

Well, Buehrle continues to win his 13 or 14 games a year - he's 12-9 with a 3.40 ERA with Toronto this season - while pitching his usual 200 innings. What a weird move forward!

Another hero of 2005 and a veteran of eight seasons with the Sox was A.J. Pierzynski, whose 27 home runs, 77 RBI, and .278 batting average in 2012 at the age of 35 weren't enough to propel Sox management to offer A.J. another contract. Pierzynski had another solid season last year in Texas, while Sox catchers Tyler Flowers (.195 BA) and Josh Phegley (.206) flailed. Pierzynski finally looks like he's petering out, having been bounced out of Boston this season, but he's now on the Cardinals' roster and likely headed to the playoffs.

While only playing five seasons with the Sox, World Series hero Jermaine Dye was cast aside in 2009 at the age of 35 after a solid season of 27 HRs and 81 RBI. He never played again. Did I mention that this is a business?

So the Sox should be commended for bringing back Konerko for one final campaign. In that regard, the season has been splendid. He has received warm receptions each time he's stepped onto the diamond at The Cell. This month the scoreboard tidbits have recounted the highlights of Konerko's career.

And there have been multitudes of great moments, although none so electrifying as his grand slam home run in 2005 against Houston in the second game of the World Series. It came in the bottom of the seventh on a cool, damp night at The Cell, erasing a 4-2 Houston lead and forever cementing Paulie's legacy in White Sox annals.

Aside from being a consistent and reliable hitter and a gifted first baseman, Konerko's steady demeanor and respectful approach to teammates, opponents, media and fans have characterized his career. I can't recall him ever being tossed out by the umpires. In fact, attempting to picture him arguing a call is fruitless. In a clubhouse dominated by the rants of Ozzie Guillen, Konerko always seemed to be the go-to guy when the beat reporters sought the voice of reason.

And he played hurt and never used an injury as an excuse for striking out or popping up. Konerko has made almost $130 million playing the game, but if he thought he could help the team, he was on the field.

Apparently it's been a two-way street for Konerko as he's appreciated what Chicago has to offer as much as he is admired and loved by the people who live here.

"I know it's the right time to retire," Konerko said last week. "Just doing all the math, it's the right thing to do. I don't have much emotion about that . . . [But} there's so many things you get connected to, the people, the restaurants, and all that stuff . . . To just be done with the city of Chicago because you're done playing, that's probably the toughest thing."

Finding another athlete with Konerko's skills both as a player and a person won't be so easy either.

Winding Down
As Konerko waited for his hand to heal, the White Sox had a nice week at The Cell, taking three of four from Oakland and two of three from Minnesota.

There were plenty of highlights, beginning with the Oakland opener when Tyler Flowers homered with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game at 4 and then slugging No. 14 in the 12th inning to win the game.

Rookie Chris Bassitt pitched six strong innings on Wednesday, and Avisail Garcia stroked a clutch two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the eighth to beat the As 2-1 before Chris Sale shut out Oakland for eight innings on Thursday in a 1-0 Sox win. Sale stretched his record to 12-3 and lowered his league-leading ERA to 1.99.

The heroics on Saturday in a doubleheader against Minnesota - rain and cold forced postponement of Friday's night game - belonged to Dayan Viciedo, whose two-run shot in the bottom of the ninth of the second game gave the Sox a 7-6 walkoff win. All this after Sox pitchers combined for 17 strikeouts - a franchise record - in the 5-1 victory in the opener. Jose Quintana, who fanned 13 Twins, picked up his eighth win of the season.

In addition, Jose Abreu started hitting home runs again, collecting one on Saturday and another on Sunday in a 6-4 loss. Abreu hadn't homered in 18 games until Saturday.

So now it's off on a nine-game road trip to Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Detroit before returning home for the season's final four games against the Royals. If the Sox run the table, they'll finish .500. That won't happen, but it sure would be nice to close out the season by playing like they did last week.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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