Were he to return to the White Sox in 2014, Paul Konerko had a strong inclination he might have to become a part-time player.
Now that he has run through all the scenarios and digested what lies ahead, Konerko said Wednesday he hasn’t only accepted his new role, but its one he has already begun to embrace. Konerko and the White Sox announced the team’s longtime captain would return next season after he signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract on Wednesday.
An everyday player for the past 15 seasons, Konerko will play a much more limited role on the field -- one he deems necessary -- while he’s expected to play a bigger one in the clubhouse.
“I had already starting processing this a while ago,” Konerko said. “I'm excited about it because truthfully, I wouldn’t be coming back to any situation if I knew I was slated to play a lot. … I’ve been in there for a long time. Minor leagues, major leagues, the whole thing. At some point the check comes on that with your body and I think to that degree, of being a guy who’s out there 150 games, I had to be honest and say I don’t think that’s possible.”
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Konerko felt healthy for much of 2013 when he appeared in 126 games aside from a serious back injury in June and July. But the veteran also began to feel the aches and pains of a pro career that began in 1994 and spent more time than he cared physically preparing to play. That took time away from working with his teammates throughout a difficult 99-loss season.
The White Sox took a full-time role for Konerko out of the equation last month when they added first baseman Jose Abreu to a roster that already included Adam Dunn. But they also noted, both publicly and privately, Konerko was welcome to return.
Whether it was lunch with owner Jerry Reinsdorf or a meeting with general manager Rick Hahn and manager Robin Ventura, the White Sox informed Konerko of their vision for his role.
“It really wasn’t a difficult process on our end,” Hahn said. “It was more about giving Paulie all the information and the time and space to come to his own decision about how he felt about the new role. Really it was just incumbent upon us to be honest with him.”
Despite those efforts, Konerko still needed convincing, which has occurred through a series of conversations with coaches, teammates and other teams. He spoke to Dunn -- “I’d have a hard time doing this without him knowing about it,” Konerko said -- and other players, Ventura and new hitting coach Todd Steverson. Given his expanded role in the clubhouse, Konerko wanted to make sure he wouldn’t interfere with Steverson’s job were he to talk to teammates about hitting. Konerko said Steverson gave him an OK and said he hoped the veteran would return.
One final piece to the puzzle, Konerko said, was when other teams, including one 2013 playoff team, asked if he had interest in a similar role with them next season. Those inquiries made it clear a part-time role was in his future and also put the White Sox offer into context.
“It wasn’t crazy for the White Sox to be thinking it either,” Konerko said. “That was a little bit of a confidence booster to have that kind of contact with other teams, but also the role it was, it let you know that’s where you’re at.”
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There’s no clear amount of games Konerko is expected to play or at-bats he’ll receive. His main tasks are to be the designated hitter against some left-handed pitchers and play a big role in the clubhouse. Konerko also knows he may go days at a time without playing and be forced to sit on a poor result for several games.
Ventura knows it won’t be simple, but believes Konerko is capable of making the change.
“What he has meant to the organization, it’s nice to have that presence there that he has been over the past 15 years,” Ventura said. “There was never a question of Paul. It was for him to get to that point of the role that is kind of laid before him and if he wanted to transition into that. It is a challenge for a guy of his stature who comes to the ballpark to play every day. He has to be prepared for that. He has to not only come and be productive on the field, but have a little more energy and things he can do off the field and in the clubhouse.”
To prepare for the switch, Konerko plans to talk to several former teammates to see how they handled similar roles. He knows he probably would have to alter his routine as well. But as far as he’s concerned, Konerko has already taken the biggest step in his transition.
“To do this role, I don’t have to start accepting it now,” Konerko said. “I’ve already done that. That’s what took this so long is to make sure that I played out the scenarios in my head. … This is a whole different animal and you just have to know that and accept it and the guys who are good at this role are the ones who accept it. They don’t sit there and say ‘I’ve got to play well so I can get in there.’ Then you wind up not doing your job. This is a different job description and I want to be good at it.”