He’s played in only 61 of a possible 114 games, but you could say that Paul Konerko has been on the field for every single one of them.
Ask players inside the Chicago White Sox clubhouse about the effect Konerko has had on their play this season and his fingerprints are everywhere. His presence is felt in both his actions and his words.
Like the time Konerko came up to Adam Eaton after the outfielder had a big two-hit day.
“He said to me, ‘You can be a game-changer in this game,’” Eaton recalled. “I laughed. I was like, no way you would even say that to me, and I didn’t comment back. Then he nodded his head like, ‘I’m freaking serious.’ When he said that, it just gives you this confidence.”
Confidence and comedy.
When things are going good, Konerko is known to keep the dugout loose. Not the most nimble of runners himself, the White Sox captain likes to make fun of Tyler Flowers as he rumbles around the bases.
And when it comes to hitting advice, the veteran first baseman tells it like it is.
“He doesn’t sugarcoat things,” Flowers said. “If you have a bad at-bat and you want input from him, he’s going tell you, ‘That was ugly. That ain’t it. Whatever that was, don’t do that again.’”
When Konerko talks, his teammates listen.
“He can say five words to you,” Eaton said. “But it’s a very meaningful five words and that may be the only sentence he’s going to say to you the whole day, but you better listen up because it’s probably going to help your career in some way.”
One time, Eaton had a huge hit in a game, but made a costly mistake on the basepaths. After the game, Konerko came walking by.
“He said, ‘Great hit. We’ll work on the baserunning later,'” Eaton said. “Just little things like that, like, ‘Hey, get your head out of your ass and be a better baserunner.’ He doesn’t go to great lengths about it like some coaches who will talk your ear off. He can just spit something out and you take to it and it makes a lot of sense.”
Eaton has played in only 180 major league games. Flowers is at 286. That’s peanuts compared to the 2,329 games the graybeard Konerko has logged in his 18-year career.
“I just try to give them everything I’ve got. Give them the whole playbook,” said Konerko, a Lombardi-esque figure who’s playing his final season in the big leagues. He insists that he’s a player and not a coach this year, but in reality, he’s probably something somewhere in between.
“I’m not going to say he’s another coach, but if he wanted to he could be, and a lot of times he does act as a coach for a lot of us, just from his experience,” Flowers said. “He’s here to help as many people as he can within his own boundaries.”
Players approach Konerko all the time looking for advice. They’ll ask about situations in the game, the pitcher on the mound, what kind of pitch he might throw them, picking the brain of the player who has one of the biggest brains in the game.
It’s not a knock on the White Sox coaching staff, but sometimes the best guy for the players to go to is their captain.
“If I ever have a tough question, he sure as heck can answer better than anyone else,” Eaton said. “He’s played so long in the big leagues and experienced so many situations, questions that I have had throughout the season, you really can’t ask anyone else because he has such insight to literally every situation that’s ever happened in damn near 20 years in the minor and major leagues.”
In his 16 seasons with the White Sox, we’ve seen Konerko at his best and his worst.
Like in 2003, one year after having one of the best seasons of his career (.304, 27 HR, 104 RBI) he followed it up with his absolute worst (.234, 18 HR, 65 RBI).
“The truth is, you have many years or many halves where you’ve done it completely wrong, at least I did,” Konerko said. “So I think I see that pretty well. When I see a guy struggling, I’ll say, ‘Listen man, I know you’re up there right now chasing results. You’ve got to get back to getting through the process of what gets you good and the results will follow.’ I think I have a pretty keen eye for a guy being off because I know what it looks like, I know what it feels like.”
Konerko has barely seen Jose Abreu struggle. The White Sox rookie leads the major leagues in home runs and RBI. Konerko can’t take any credit for his success. Or can he?
“I think Jose Abreu is having the season he’s having in part because of Paul,” Eaton said. “I see Lino Diaz (White Sox interpreter) and him talking, telling him this or that, really helping (Jose) along the way.”
The ever-humble Konerko disagrees.
“The only times I’ve talked to Lino is to let (Jose) know that this guy really likes to quick-pitch you, or give him some piece of information that is something I know he couldn’t possibly know,” Konerko explained. “Because honestly, when a guy has been going the way he’s been going all year, even if you notice something that you think could help, you just shut up. You don’t say a word. He’s just at a different level. I don’t talk with him like I talk to Beckham or Eaton or Flowers. He’s a different animal.”
The father of three children, Konerko is a parent at home, and also inside the clubhouse. Just don’t tell him that. It’ll make him feel old. Or at least, older than he is.
“It’s almost like being young and you’re with your buddies and you’re doing something you shouldn’t do and then all of sudden you see one of your parents around there. Paul is that figure looking over us,” Flowers said. “We may be screwing around and then all of sudden you see him and you straighten up and do what you’re supposed to do. That’s one of the big effects he has on us, which is making sure everyone is doing everything the right way, which is how he’s played the game.”
Father knows best. So does Paul. He’s blazed a trail for the White Sox to follow.