Konerko excelling in role of White Sox captain
Respected first baseman modestly accepting of Guillen's honor
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There's a standard answer 12-year veteran Mark Buehrle provides when a young White Sox player comes up with some sort of question a seasoned performer would be better suited to handle.
Go ask the White Sox captain.
"They will come up and ask me, even on the road, how much we tip this guy or, 'What do I need to do here?' And I tell them to go ask [Paul] Konerko," said Buehrle with a laugh. "I have an idea, but I don't know if I'm right.
"He's dealt with more stuff like that. He knows the right answer, where I don't want to tell them and be wrong."
Konerko officially has begun his 13th year with the White Sox and will make his 13th straight Opening Day start and 11th consecutive at first base on April 1 in Cleveland. This 2011 season also marks Konerko's sixth as the White Sox team captain, an honor bestowed upon him by manager Ozzie Guillen, which he respectfully turned down at first.
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At that time, in January 2006, the strident hockey fan joked how the wearing of the "C" on his uniform wouldn't mean discussing penalties on the diamond like hockey captains often do on ice. And in the end, Konerko accepted the honor but declined the uniform letter.
Joining the Yankees' Derek Jeter and the Red Sox Jason Varitek as Major League Baseball's only captains, Konerko has excelled in this particular role. The interesting thing is Konerko has not changed his game, his approach or his functioning as a team leader just because of the title.
"People go to Paul for advice, and the good thing about Paul is, no matter what question you ask him he's got every angle covered," said White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham of Captain Konerko. "Sometimes in professional athletics, there are people who don't look at the other side of the coin. That's one of the things he brings to the table."
"It's a funny thing about it because he doesn't need a title," Guillen said. "This guy is so low-key, and he's not going to have to put a C on his uniform. That's the way he is. But with the respect I have for him on the field and off the field, the love I have for him, that's the least thing I can do."
Guillen decided to name Konerko as captain after he agreed to a five-year, $60 million free-agent deal following the team's 2005 World Series championship, leaving more money on the table to return to Chicago. When Konerko became a free agent once again after the 2010 campaign, Guillen announced there would be no new captain if Konerko didn't return.
This title was not presented to Konerko simply as a reward for loyalty. The White Sox manager surveyed other people in the organization before making the announcement and looked for a player people respect and look up to the most. His research resulted in Konerko.
"Not a better man to do it than him," Guillen said.
"One thing it might be is he has been here the longest," Buehrle said. "But we all respect him so much with the way he handles himself on and off field. He's a true pro."
After once again coming back to the White Sox via that three-year, $37.5 million deal agreed upon in December, Konerko remains on the longevity list for longest-tenured player with his current team. Konerko ranks eighth behind Atlanta's Chipper Jones (1993), Jeter (1995), the Yankees' Mariano Rivera (1995), Boston's Tim Wakefield (1995), the Yankees' Jorge Posada (1996), Colorado's Todd Helton (1997) and Varitek (1997).
Being with one team for 15 years, when this current contract expires, and being a position player makes a difference in the overall team influence, by Konerko's own admission. But six years later, Konerko's position of reticent acceptance hasn't changed where this special honor is concerned, although he admitted it has made a difference in his overall game.
"Ultimately, it has made me better to how I prepare and go about my business and try to be an example I guess, or whatever," Konerko said. "You don't always do it right, and I don't care who you are in baseball, you are going to have bad days and you don't go about it the right way. For the most part, I've limited those and tried to limit those to be better, and some of that comes because of that labeling of captain.
"I try not to put too much stock in it. A clubhouse with the best teams I've been on were always ones where everyone in there had an equal voice. Nobody was above anyone else. You want to be one of the guys and not have anybody labeled different than anyone else, and it's kind of weird in that sense.
"So with the captain thing, I've always felt a little bit odd with that. Like I said then and I'll say now, there are a bunch of teams in baseball that don't denote someone captain. At the same time, I've always been flattered and still am that [Guillen] said that and did that.
"As far as what comes with it, it definitely gives a lot of ammo to my teammates to wear me out on a lot of different things for sure," added Konerko with a wry smile.
Beckham might joke about Konerko "analyzing everything to the Nth degree," and Buehrle might poke fun at Konerko "taking too much time" and going into too much detail with his explanations. But every White Sox player to a man, including fellow free agent A.J. Pierzynski, knew the White Sox needed Konerko back for 2011 and beyond simply to be the White Sox.
On the flip side of the playful jabs taken by his friends, hitting coach Greg Walker countered with this high compliment. Konerko had his best year in 2010, and that success went beyond his .312 average, 39 home runs and 111 RBIs.
"Others had comparable years numbers-wise," Walker said. "What he did for our team, on and off the field, that's the best year he has had since I've been here. He has matured as a person and as a player."
Following his usual team-first attitude, the White Sox captain didn't exactly pat himself on the back for past work.
"Yeah, but I didn't really have the bar too high for myself," said Konerko with a smile when asked about his best year being 2010. "I had the year that every player should have when you've been around for six to eight years or more. You should be like that period. It has nothing to do with being captain.
"It probably took me a handful of years longer to get to that point, unfortunately. Hopefully now I can maintain that and make other people ... I think what [Walker] is saying is I made some people around me better. Hopefully I can continue to do that. That's something I didn't always do. I didn't make any players any worse, but I just probably wasn't as dialed in on that kind of stuff."