CHICAGO -- Scouts and opposing pitchers often marvel at how lightning quick his hands are -- they see him as an ageless wonder. But around the White Sox clubhouse, some of Paul Konerko’s teammates give him flack for the gray hair in his goatee. Others like to point out how much they loved to watch him play on TV when they were younger.
Regardless of whether or not he has become the old man on the roster, Konerko, 37, doesn’t feel as if his skillset has eroded. As he heads into what could be his final season in the majors, Konerko admits he has pondered life after baseball -- “You can’t just be blindsided by the end of your career,” he says. But the man those on the South Side lovingly refer to as “Paulie” also believes he can still produce big numbers.
“It’s fair to say I don’t feel the way I did 10 years ago,” Konerko said. “But I feel not much different than I did four or five years ago. When it comes to playing the game and hitting and all that kind of stuff, that’s a whole different ball of wax, but I feel pretty normal.”
Those words can’t be much comfort to opponents.
Konerko has averaged 29.6 homers and 93.4 RBIs per season and has a .285/.361/.504 slash line since he arrived in the American League Central 14 years ago.
Some point to last season as a sign Konerko’s production is due to drop. His 75 RBIs were his fewest since he drove in 62 in a 2008 season marred by injuries.
But Konerko looks at the 2012 campaign, one in which his average rose to .399 on May 28, as a season disrupted by freak injuries. He was hit in the face in May, battled a since surgically repaired wrist in June and suffered a concussion in August.
Several scouts in the press box last week tended to agree with Konerko’s assessment, as he put the finishing touches on a spring during which he hit .339 with five homers and 12 RBIs.
“You expect his skills to decline and he keeps on going,” one scout said.
Teammate Matt Thornton believes he knows why Konerko hasn’t fallen off the pace. He thinks it’s because Konerko’s lower half hasn’t failed him.
“A lot of times when guys get older it’s their speed that goes away,” Thornton said. “Paul’s game has never been speed. He’s a professional hitter and you see the work he does and how much time he takes to prepare himself. He knows how to set pitchers up. … That’s not going to go away. He’s too smart, too good, too prepared to have his hitting go away.”
While opposing pitchers may not have to concern themselves with Konerko’s foot speed, they can’t help but notice how fast his bat moves through the zone. Pitchers know Konerko can turn on a four-seamer quickly if they make a mistake and leave it in his zone.
“He's got great hands,” Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. “You don't throw a fastball by him ever. Regardless of age or anything, those will always be there.”
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Konerko’s tireless work ethic shows his energy remains high.
He’s one of the first players to arrive at Camelback Ranch every morning. But unlike years past, Konerko believes he has figured out how to work efficiently.
He wants to be smart about his repetitions. If he works in the cage for a while and feels good about where he’s at, he quits. He does the same while he’s in the field with grounders.
Why continue working when he has attained his goal? Why not, as Konerko said, “save some bullets” for when it matters?
“You can’t always just grind it down when you go out there and I think I’ve been pretty smart about it so far,” Konerko said.
What impresses teammate Gordon Beckham the most is how Konerko’s work always has a purpose. He believes Konerko -- whose .977 OPS in 2010 and .906 in 2011 are the first and fourth highest of his career -- has stayed consistent because he has always evolved at the plate. If the pitchers adapt to Konerko, adapts to them.
“He’s always evolving,” Beckham said. “It seems like he’s always making changes in his approach and his swing to what the pitcher and the league is giving him. He always works on it. He’s very work driven, which is really good. … It’s never good enough. He’s always looking to do more.”
A player can never have too much luck, and Konerko has had quite a bit when it comes to injuries. Only once in his 14 seasons with the White Sox has Konerko appeared in fewer than 142 games.
Tyler Flowers teases Konerko the most about his age, but the catcher does it as a sign of respect. He’d love to have a career arc like Konerko’s and still be going strong in a decade. Flowers also insists he doesn’t call Konerko an old guy, “I just call him dad once in a while,” he said.
“You have to have a lot of things go right for you,” Flowers said. “You have to stay healthy, you have to be consistent. I think when you’re at that stage you can’t really afford to have a real bad year. … He seems to be better now than he was 10 years ago.”
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Konerko has been with the White Sox so long, the early part of his career when he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds is a blur.
Konerko, the 13th overall pick of the 1994 amateur draft, was traded twice in six months in 1998.
What Konerko didn’t know when he was acquired from the Reds in November 1998 is Chicago would still be his home after 14 seasons.
“It doesn’t seem like any of that even happened,” Konerko said. “Other than some minor-league moments, because I had some good friends there, and you always remember your minor-league days and stories. But it doesn’t feel like I was ever anything but a White Sox.”
Konerko knows the days of calling 35th Street home could come to an end after this season. He has seen “frontline guys” who wanted to return move on twice in the past two seasons. Mark Buehrle won 13 games in 2011 only to be allowed to walk as a free agent after the season. A.J. Pierzynski’s departure is a little fresher in Konerko’s mind, as the catcher blasted a career-high 27 home runs last season on his way out the door.
“They didn’t come back,” Konerko said in January. “So there are things that obviously are not in your control. I’m not naïve to know that teams have agendas and plans and I understand that part of the game. I say that with no edge.”
From the minute he arrived at SoxFest in January and at Camelback Ranch in February, Konerko has said he doesn’t know what his plans are for 2014.
It’s impossible for him to know in March how he’ll feel after the 2013 season about the possibility of playing again next season. He doesn’t know if he’ll want to endure the grind any longer. He doesn’t know if his skills will dictate his career ends. All is pure speculation and Konerko doesn’t want any part of that.
“It’s always on the table that your last year could be coming because everyone is coming so much younger and the rosters shows that,” Konerko said. “I’m aware of that. But it’s something that will be talked about after the season, regardless of how the season goes. ... There are so many moving parts to it.”
One area he doesn’t mind is the teasing, even if it’s constant. Konerko has maintained his energy level throughout a long spring and doesn’t feel like he has withered away.
“I don’t feel like (I’m old) but I’m told I’m that,” Konerko said with a smile. “There were guys I played with that when I was 12, I remember seeing them on TV. It’s kind of the circle of the life of the big leaguer. … I try to spin it and say it means I had to have gotten here through all the years. That’s a cool thing.”