Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Posted: 2:20 p.m.
By Brett Ballantini
CHICAGO A spring training clubhouse is an odd thing.
When camp opens, one side of the room is filled with veterans who are unlikely to ever have to pack their belongings and take that walk down a long, dark hallway to minor league camp after being cut. The other side is steerage class on the Titanic, the non-roster invitees and bonus babies of a club, one or two of whom hope to make enough of an impression to warrant wearing the big-league duds until late Marchif not into Opening Day.
No matter how removed those veterans are from the steerage class of hopefuls, theyre always around. The two groups dress, play, and shower together. Once they leave the clubhouse, theyre all doffing the official White Sox cap.
So even the King, team captain Paul Konerko, tucked off in a corner of the clubhouse, is not immune to the sights and sounds of steerage class struggles. And those struggles evoke a time when he too was strapped to make a big-league ballclub, a player with no position and thus, perhaps, no future.
Sure, I remember what it was like to be scraping for a job, Konerko said in Glendale. Sometimes, it actually doesnt feel like it was that long ago.
Going by the authority of the Skybox Dugout Access card pictured, its been 13 years since Konerko was floating about the majors, a man with 1997 Minor League Player of the Year tools but nowhere to ply them. For this, he was honored not only with a No. 66 Los Angeles Dodgers uniform, but membership among the Little Dawgs.
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Konerko started his pro career as a catcher, before moving to first and dabbling at third (in his minor-league career, Konerko would play every position on the diamond save for shortstop and pitcher). He mashed at every level, with a career OPS of .920 and never batting less than .277, which he did at age 19 at Single A San Bernardino.
Hitting was never a problem. Fielding, that was another issue.
In one of their first drills together this spring, Konerko recounted his fielding struggles to new acquisition Adam Dunn, who was taking grounders along with the captain on one of Camelback Ranchs pristine infields.
I was OK at third, Konerko said by way of navigating his history around the diamond for Dunn, if it was hit right at me.
Konerkos Little Dawgs card notes that he was blocked at the infield corners by Eric Karros and Todd Zeile and may be converted to the outfield, a position to that point hed never played. Zeile would spend just a month and a half longer with the Dodgers before being doorstopped into the Mike Piazza-Gary Sheffield trade, with the Florida Marlins shipping him to Texas two weeks later for a couple of Rangers farmhands. (Konerko was given less than a two-month audition in place of Zeile before being shipped to the Cincinnati Reds for closer Jeff Shaw.)
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Karros, blocking PK at first base, at least stuck around southern California for five more seasons, producing a modest 11.3 WAR (Wins Above Replacement, a standard measure of overall player value) before a December trade delivered him to Chicagothe North Side, that is.
After being traded to Cincinnati, Konerko played a total of 21 games in the outfield (amassing a .912 fielding percentage) at AAA Albuquerque.
L.A. would suffer for having bailed on Konerko. Zeile obviously did little for the Dodgers before being dealt, compiling a 0.4 WAR in his six weeks remaining with the team. Shaw was the Dodgers closer until 2001, saving 129 games and producing 4.3 WARbut at a cost of 15.2 million over that time. Combining Zeiles and Shaws production with Karros, the Dodgers squeezed 16.0 WAR from the players blocking Konerko from the majors back in 1998.
Konerko? Well, after being swapped to Cincy for Mike Cameron in a much more even-handed trade, he settled in for 12 years on the South Side, producing 29.2 WAR for the White Sox in that span. Converting Konerkos WAR record to dollar value, PK has provided about 86 million in value back to Chicago on the field, at a cost of about 89.5 million in salary. For a longtime high-salaried player, thats an impressive ratio.
You can see in Konerkos eyes he hasnt quite forgotten those times long before the millions, or any of his 358 career homers for the White Sox. There were plenty of other Little Dawgs in that 1998 set, including future White Sox teammates Cliff Politte, Mike Caruso and Greg Nortonbut none who grew up into, ahem, big dawgs on the playing field like Konerko.
Konerko may not be dressing in steerage class any longer, but part of what makes him the King of the Chicago clubhouse is the fact that he hasnt completely forgotten being there.
Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's White Sox Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute White Sox information.