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We Miss Paulie More Than He Misses Us

Anyone expecting gut-retching emotion, a breaking voice, a few tears, or an event dripping with nostalgia was sorely disappointed Saturday as the White Sox retired Paul Konerko's No. 14 at The Cell.

Instead what we got was a dapper 39-year-old striding confidently from centerfield to home plate amid the cheers of a full house for pre-game ceremonies. Paulie was not only extolled for all the offensive categories where he ranks near the top in team history, but also his leadership role both on and off the field, his commitment to the city of Chicago, and his persona as a hard-worker, loyal teammate, solid family man and student of the game. He played 16 seasons on the South Side despite twice being a free agent when he could have gone elsewhere for more money.

Seated to the right of the plate with his wife, three kids, mom, dad, and brother, Konerko appeared to be enjoying himself. He continually smiled as people like Jim Thome and Hawk Harrelson poured on accolade after accolade before Konerko's uniform number joined nine others for White Sox posterity. Even when his wife Jennifer and their children counted down the seconds to the unveiling of "14" painted on the upper deck fa├žade, the poise and smile remained as he slapped palms with his older son. Meanwhile, the respect and appreciation of the crowd of 38,714 thundered down from the rafters.

And why not?

When asked the day before if he missed the game, Konerko replied, "Not at all."

Comfortably tucked away in his Arizona home, Konerko can wake up every day with the freedom to decide how he's going to spend his time. No more pressure about when to arrive at the ballpark. No more treatment for a sore wrist. No more packing up for another road trip. In 18 seasons in the big leagues Konerko made almost $130 million, so money is no concern.

Life now has to be an improvement over Paulie's final two seasons when his skills had pretty much abandoned him. You have to think the team's 188 losses made retirement look especially appealing. As a seldom-used DH and first baseman last season, he rightly could have considered that tutoring emerging stars like Jose Abreu and Adam Eaton in his role as team captain was his primary responsibility.

The void in leadership of the underachieving White Sox of 2015 has been targeted as one reason for the lackluster team being 19-22 after Sunday's limp 8-1 loss to the Twins.

Apparently replacing a man of Konerko's stature hasn't been easy.

However, for a guy who was used to playing every day - even when injured - his role in the clubhouse didn't come close to being a leader on the field. He realized it was time to begin a new chapter, which no doubt made his return on Saturday much easier since he's never second-guessed his decision to call it quits.

Perhaps he'll be responsible for taking out the garbage this week. That sure beats a four-city, 11-game road trip for a club that just lost five of seven at home while still trying to find its identity two months into the season.

One swatch of irony occurred about 30 minutes after Konerko was finished thanking everyone from Jerry Reinsdorf to Kenny Williams to his hitting coaches Greg Walker and Mike Gellinger. It occurred in the top of the first when the Twins' Torii Hunter, almost eight months Konerko's senior, took a Chris Sale fastball over the fence in left center for his seventh homer and a 1-0 lead. Hunter and his teammates observed the entire Konerko fete, but that didn't stop them from beating the Sox 4-3.

Some ballplayers in their late 30s and early 40s have plenty left in the tank. Thome was 41 when he quit, and Frank Thomas, who was conspicuous by his absence Saturday, remained in the game at age 40. Barry Bonds hit 28 homers when he was 42, while Nolan Ryan was still striking guys out in his mid-40s.

But Konerko got it right. Paulie's 14 now lives between Luis Aparicio's 11 and Teddy Lyons' 16. Only the octogenarians remember Lyons, who pitched 21 woeful seasons on the South Side, beginning in 1923. The Sox were a .500 ballclub in just six of those seasons.

The good news was that no one was watching. In none of Lyons' seasons did the team draw a million fans, and, of course, there was no television. In 1932 they drew slightly more than 3,000 a game in cavernous Comiskey Park, with its capacity of more than 50,000. Nevertheless, Lyons won 260 games while losing 230.

The first number to be retired on the South Side was Luke Appling's No. 4 in 1975, a quarter of a century after he retired. Appling, like Teddy Lyons, is another Hall of Famer of whom few fans have a visual memory. His first season was 1930, and he went on to play 20 years with the Sox. Today's team could really use someone like Appling, known as Old Aches and Pains, who was a .300 hitter in 16 different seasons, ending with a .310 lifetime average. He was the American League's leading hitter in 1936 and again in 1943.

Appling also is the 75-year-old who belted a 250-foot home run in an old-timers game in Washington, D.C., on July 19, 1982. That was the only time I saw him "play."

Throughout baseball history the New York Yankees have been pace-setters, and this certainly applies to retired numbers. The Yanks have 16 jerseys - no franchise comes close - that will never be worn again, starting with Lou Gehrig's. When he was forced from the game in 1939 with aymotropic lateral sclerosis, the disease that now bears his name, the team vowed that no one would again wear No. 4. Babe Ruth's 3 was next in 1948.

Since Gehrig's premature retirement, 160 players have been honored by having their numbers retired. The number 20 is most popular, having been retired 10 times (think Lou Brock, Frank Robinson, Don Sutton, Mike Schmidt et al.).

A few players like Nolan Ryan (three teams), Greg Maddux (two), Henry Aaron (two) and Robinson (two) have been honored by more than one team. Manager Casey Stengel's 37 was retired both by the Yankees and Mets. Three teams - the Nationals, Mariners and Marlins - have yet to retire a number, although it's doubtful if any Seattle player will don the jerseys of Junior Griffey, Edgar Martinez or Randy Johnson any time soon.

Four players - Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Rusty Staub and Tim Raines - had their numbers retired by the Montreal Expos, only to have them "unretired" when the franchise moved to Washington in 2005 as the Nationals.

Meanwhile, our White Sox clearly could use a candidate or two to have his number retired in the future. Sale's career is just beginning, but his match-up last Monday against Cy Young winner Corey Kluber lived up to the hype as a battle between two of the league's premier pitchers.

Kluber was coming off an eight-inning, 18-strikeout performance against the Cardinals, and he was outstanding, limiting the Sox to a run over eight innings while fanning 12. The only run was manufactured by Eaton, who tripled in the sixth inning and with two outs made a mad dash to the plate on a ball in the dirt that couldn't have rolled more than 10 or 12 feet away from catcher Roberto Perez. Eaton managed to jar the ball loose from Perez to tie the game.

Sale was almost as proficient as Kluber, also pitching eight innings on a yield of four hits while striking out seven. Once Kluber exited, the Sox took advantage in the bottom of the 10th when second baseman Carlos Sanchez sent a two-out line drive just inside the left field foul line to score pinch runner J.B. Shuck. Both teams played errorless ball in one of the best games in memory at The Cell, as the Sox surged to a game over .500.

But the euphoria didn't last as the Sox dropped the next three to the Indians before losing two of three over the weekend to Minnesota.

For the seven-game homestand, the Sox scored just 15 runs to 27 for the Indians and Twins. The Sox hit .201 over the seven games, striking out 65 times. Although the pitchers posted a respectable 3.52 ERA, John Danks spotted Cleveland a 5-0 lead after two innings on Thursday, while the Twins knocked around Jose Quintana for six earned runs in as many innings on Sunday.

The defense wasn't much help either, making errors and/or misjudgments at crucial times. Even Eaton, an above average and often outstanding center fielder, botched Joe Mauer's hard drive to center in the fourth inning on Sunday, leading to four Minnesota runs. The way the offense was behaving, the game was over then and there.

So now the boys hit the road to Toronto and Baltimore (a doubleheader on Thursday for the two postponed games from earlier in the month) before visiting Houston and the Texas Rangers. Their road record is 7-12. Unless that improves, the present mark of 19-22 will dip even further.

In that case, there could be more retired numbers, but they won't be painted on the upper deck facade. They'll be replaced.


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

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