Paul Konerko's fine career on the South Side of Chicago as well?
Nobody knows for sure, but the beat writers and columnists are starting to speculate. Gordon Beckham was asked Monday about filling the clubhouse leadership void if Konerko either retires or signs with another team this offseason. The Sox second baseman didn't want to address the possibility of Konerko's departure.
“If Paul wants to play, he’ll play,” Beckham said. “Obviously that’s a
decision for him after the season. He’s got a lot more left in the tank,
so I wouldn’t rule him out of playing next year. If he doesn’t, we’ll
cross that bridge when we come to it. But I think he’s got a while yet.”
But does he? One of the more painful things about being a baseball fan is watching a player who has been good for a long time struggle or hang on too long in the twilight of a brilliant career. Sox fans went through it in the early 1990s with Carlton Fisk. The Sox ended up releasing the future Hall of Famer in June of 1993 because the proud catcher couldn't admit to himself that he was done.
This season, we've seen a steep decline in Konerko's production. The lifetime .281 hitter is batting just .243. Over the course of Konerko's career, his 162-game averages have been 31 home runs and 100 RBIs. This season, he has but 9 home runs and 40 RBIs. His OPS is a career-worst .664, well below his career mark of .850.
Konerko, 37, had wrist surgery last offseason and has spent time on the disabled list this year with back problems. Are the declining numbers the result of injuries, advancing age or both?
Nobody can say for sure, but I know this: I've never seen Paul Konerko take more defensive swings than I have this season. I've never seen Konerko get himself out by swinging at bad pitches more than I have this season. We're talking about a guy who has played 15 years with the White Sox. He's appeared in 2,148 games and made 8,887 plate appearances with this team. I've had the privilege of watching most of them. I feel like I know when Konerko is locked in, and I feel like I know when he's going bad. I'm that familiar with his approach.
And I'm afraid we've reached a point where it is no longer reasonable to expect Konerko to be a big-time run producer in the middle of the lineup. The bat speed isn't quite where it used to be. Konerko isn't trying to drive the ball in a lot of situations the way he did in the past. Often, he's just trying to slap a base hit into right field. There are certain times where that is good strategy, but this Sox team needed Konerko to produce more. He hasn't been able to do that, and I think that's evidence that Father Time is starting to knock loudly for the Sox captain.
So, what do you do if you're the Sox at season's end? We know Frank Thomas is the greatest hitter in team history. But Konerko is clearly in that next tier with Fisk, Harold Baines and Luke Appling, et al. There's no question No. 14 will one day be retired by the team. It's hard to say goodbye to a player like this, one of the best the franchise has seen.
On a personal level, I'm hoping Konerko hangs 'em up at season's end. He has nothing left to prove. He's won a World Series and been to six All-Star games. And that would be the easiest thing for me as a Sox fan. I don't want to see Konerko in another uniform, nor do I want to see him hang on as a shell of his former self.
His contract is up at the end of the year, and if he wants to play in 2014, I just can't see the Sox bringing him back. How big of a market is there for a soon-to-be-38-year-old singles hitter with no speed anyway?