By Adam Hoge-
U.S. CELLULAR FIELD (CBS) Paul Konerko remembers every Opening Day.
Not just where he was and who he was playing, but the details too.
His first one? 1998 in St. Louis when he was with the Dodgers. His first one with the White Sox? 1999 in Seattle.
“I just remember after that series we got home at like eight in the morning because we played a night game and we flew from the west,” Konerko said. “Something happened and we got home and was driving home and it was light out. We were driving home from Midway Airport in the morning in rush hour traffic coming into the city. That was a lot of fun.”
Monday’s 1-0 win over the Kansas City Royals was Konerko’s 16th career Opening Day and 15th straight with the White Sox. And given that he’s 37 years old and not signed past this season, it very well could have been his last.
But if you think Konerko woke up Monday morning thinking about that, then you don’t know the White Sox’s cornerstone first baseman.
“Every now and then I get asked questions like that so then I have to think about it,” Konerko said before the game. “There’s a lot of big thoughts that get asked, but the discipline is: my job today is no different than Gordon’s or Dayan’s or anybody. It’s come out, play a good game and help this team win. That’s where it ends. That’s my goal. To keep it right there. I can control that so I will.”
Konerko is a man of routine. He came to U.S. Cellular Field Monday and attacked the day just like he did on the last day of the 2012 season when the White Sox knew they weren’t going to playoffs. It’s the same way his approached Opening Day last year. And that’s how he’ll attack this entire season, even if it ends up being his last.
“Just come in every day and have the discipline to go through my routines and do it. Just do it every day,” Konerko said. “The numbers and all that stuff, they’ll be what they’ll be and they’ll be a byproduct of the work.”
If the numbers are productive, then this most likely won’t be his last in a White Sox uniform. Konerko needs 34 home runs to pass Frank Thomas for the most in franchise history. If he gets close to that number or breaks it this year, then he’ll likely be back in 2014. If he doesn’t, then this could be the end of a great career. Konerko has made it clear: he’s going to let his play — and his health — decide whether this is his last season or not.
The question is, will we see the guy who hit .399 with 11 home runs and 33 RBI in the first 45 games of last season or the guy who hit .254 with just 15 home runs and 42 RBI in the last 99 games? Was last year’s falloff the result of the ongoing wrist issue which was finally corrected by surgery at the end of the last season or was it a result of age?
“I don’t think you ever feel like everything is exactly perfect, but no complaints,” Konerko said about his health. “I feel ready to go.”
But even if Konerko has a productive 2013 and wants to play another year, he’ll have to work out a new deal with the White Sox.
“The likelihood of him coming back? We’ve been down this road twice before, both two years ago and seven years ago and I think at least on one of those occasions we ran the tribute video during his last at-bat,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said Monday. “I’m sure we’ll do it again at the end of this season. But each time we’ve been able to work something out. It’s been a matter of at the end of the season sitting down with Paul and hearing what his thoughts are and what our thoughts are and being able to come to some sort of an agreement.”
Given that Konerko has spent the last 15 Opening Days in a White Sox uniform, it’s probably more likely that he’ll spend next year’s Opening Day on a couch than on someone else’s roster.
“I’m probably most proud of that from a personal standpoint,” Konerko said about the length of time he’s been with the White Sox. “The World Series is the proudest moment or the proudest thing I’ve done in the game, but from an individual standpoint, no doubt just being with a team that long, anything else is a little bit behind that.
“Any statistic I have or anything you can throw out there, someone else has done it or someone else is doing it. There’s so many guys who have been good in this game or way better than I’ve been, but I take pride in (spending 15 years with the White Sox) because the number (of guys who have done that) gets real small when you start to break it down.”
The latest Opening Day for Konerko started with him cleanly fielding a ground ball off the bat of Alex Gordon. In fact, he successfully converted three unassisted putouts in the game, as if anyone would expect otherwise.
Batting in the fifth spot of the order for the first time since 2009, his bat was quiet, going 0-for-4. White Sox manager Robin Ventura said Konerko will bat fifth against righties and fourth against lefties this season, switching with Adam Dunn.
The first baseman admitted he had some butterflies, saying, “I don’t care how many you go through, you’re always nervous.”
Konerko was replaced in the ninth inning by newcomer Conor Gillaspie, a move Ventura attributed both to getting Gillaspie used to his new home ballpark and keeping his first baseman fresh. Pulling Konerko in the ninth inning isn’t something White Sox fans are used to seeing, but moves like that could become the norm now that he is 37.
With Konerko in the dugout, closer Addison Reed finished off the 1-0 victory and later in the clubhouse, the first baseman admitted he was glad it was over.
“As a player, they’re all special, but when it’s over, I think everybody is kind of happy because there’s just a little bit too much of a build up to Opening Day,” he said.
Only time, health and production will tell if that’s how he’ll feel a year from now when Opening Day 2014 comes to an end.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.