Maybe it was an ex-teammate’s prank, one last gag after he had been traded, but Adam Eaton thought there was no way Paul Konerko was on the other end of his phone that December day.
He believes it now but that’s only because he and Konerko continued to text over the winter and eventually worked out together in the batting cages at Konerko’s Scottsdale, Ariz., home.
But sure enough, shortly after a Dec. 10 three-team trade sent Eaton from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the White Sox, Konerko called his new teammate.
Though mentoring teammates is one of many tasks Konerko has performed over the years as team captain, this season it will be his most important work.
As Konerko enters his 16th and final season with the White Sox, the club is asking the man with the second-most RBIs in franchise history for more production off the field than on it.
Konerko is listed behind new first baseman Jose Abreu and veteran Adam Dunn on the depth chart. He will only play against select left-handed pitchers.
But Konerko doesn’t see his new role in a negative light. He has insisted since December that he has not only has accepted this new venture but he’s also enthusiastic about it and Eaton can attest to that.
“I was kind of calling BS at the time,” Eaton said. “There’s no way it’s Paul Konerko calling me. Like he gives a crap about me. It shows what type of person he is and he’s very welcoming.”
It took time to decide but Konerko was equally open about returning to the White Sox in 2014 as long as it was in a reduced role. He’s aware of the impact nearly 2,800 professional games has had on his body and that he’s no longer an everyday option.
But Konerko still wanted to return this season.
He didn’t want his career to end like that, with excess time spent in the training room, uncertainty about his future leading to less enjoyment, and those 99 losses.
Numerous discussions with manager Robin Ventura, general manager Rick Hahn, hitting coach Todd Steverson and teammates in October and November convinced Konerko he could handle a reduced role on the field and he could also thrive in it.
He’s not a coach -- Konerko wouldn’t dare insult the staff’s everyday effort. But he can aid teammates and be productive even when he doesn’t play.
“I have a pretty good memory of the stuff that I went through, and you kind of see it when someone’s right there, right where you were, the moment, when you’re scuffling or you’re thinking about something,” Konerko said. “When I recognize those I can be a positive influence on that. … You try to keep an eye out for somebody that’s in that and say ‘Hey, don’t go down that road. I’ve been there. Don’t do this. You want to comeback tomorrow and do this.’ I feel like I’ve played long enough to where I’ve done it right a lot and done it wrong a lot.”
Konerko doesn’t view what he has done in the past as mentoring -- it’s just part of the job and helping teammates. He and Dunn might hit together in the cage and spend 15 minutes discussing their observations. He might ask Eaton where he’s going to live in his first season in Chicago or how he deals with the media. Or he might give Abreu tips on how to alter his approach at the plate based on cold weather or how to deal with travel.
Konerko sees it as being similar to how anyone might treat a co-worker who’s new to the office. He credits former cubicle-mates, such as Eric Karros, Todd Zeile, Tom Prince, Mike Piazza, James Baldwin, Cal Eldred and Bill Simas for aiding him.
“There’s a lot of things up here you have to deal with that has nothing to do with your game but affects your game,” Konerko said. “You learn that as you go. In any workplace it’s human nature just to pass that on to your team.”
Gordon Beckham has had more talks with Konerko than he can recall.
Because Konerko is “very cerebral,” Beckham said Konerko tends to analyze every aspect of a topic in a sport where most players simplify.
The second baseman has had to learn what information to elicit and which to ignore.
“He’s always there for you,” Beckham said. “You’ve just got to make sure you don’t try to think the game like he does because he’s on a different level in terms about thinking of different aspects. For me it was learning what to take and what to let go in one ear and out the other because the way he sees the game is sometimes different than how I see it.”
Ventura has been in a similar role when he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004 at age 36. Just as Konerko will see far fewer at-bats because Abreu is the starter and Dunn will face right-handers, Ventura returned for a limited engagement in his final season.
He finished 2004 with 175 plate appearances (his fewest in an injury-free season by 278) and only started 25 games in the field. His .699 OPS was the second-lowest of his career.
But it didn’t matter -- Ventura loved being one of the veterans in the clubhouse.
Last September, Ventura said he hoped Konerko would return because his presence makes the manager’s job easier. While he knows an adjustment is needed, Ventura thinks Konerko will enjoy this season regardless of what he hits or how often he plays.
“It’s different for him,” Ventura said. “He thinks a lot. But he has done great. You get to a point where you relish what you are doing and you take pride. He’s one of those guys. It is a different situation for him. It’s going to take some time for him to kind of get comfortable doing that. But there is some enjoyment in doing it. I did it my last year and I enjoyed it.”
If there’s anything White Sox fans know from the previous 15 seasons it’s that Konerko has thought this through. He has dissected all the scenarios of what he might endure this season, times where he might only start once a week, times where he might pinch hit and then sit two games.
He suspects he’ll have more time and energy for teammates because his body won’t wear down from playing every day -- aspects that were absent in 2013 because Konerko did everything he could physically to prepare for each game in hopes of turning around the disastrous journey.
He’d love to contribute on the field but knows the days when he was a 35-homer, 100-RBI guy have passed. Still, Konerko believes he has plenty of value to offer.
“There’s never going to be a time that I take the field that I don’t want to do well,” Konerko said. “But I also know there’s going to be a lot of time this year where I don’t touch the field and I can have a really good day. That’s never been inside of my job description before. It’s always been about sheer production … I’m not that guy any more. I can chip in and help when I’m in there, but I also know that there’s a lot of times when I’m not going to be playing that hopefully you can help out with all the stuff you can’t see in the numbers.”
Those unheralded efforts began in December when he picked up the phone and dialed Eaton’s cell phone. Eaton said he never would have approached Konerko on his own out of respect.
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But now the two have worked out and hit together. They’ve bounced ideas off each other because Konerko, who said he never wants to be a “finished product,” is just as much about taking information as he is giving it. He likes to learn how other players approach the game, to see “how they tick,” he said. Konerko remembers Eaton from previous spring training games and liked how he played so he decided to track him down.
Good thing, or valuable time might have been wasted.
“I was going to sit at my locker, and hopefully he’d come up and talk to me because in your right mind you would never go up and actually talk to him,” Eaton said. “You don’t initiate. If he wants to talk to you, he’ll come and talk to you. So it was nice that happened right away like that, and he broke the ice. … It has been great.”