8:47 AM CDT, July 19, 2013
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — His beard was gone, if only for a day or two. His back felt good enough, if not quite fine, and he was wearing gym shorts, like the rest of the Birmingham Barons, when he took batting practice in 95-degree heat Thursday afternoon.
Paul Konerko looked almost like a kid again. But he's 37 and has played more games for the White Sox than anyone except Luke Appling, and the likelihood is he's going to play only 64 more, at the most.
When Konerko stepped into the batter's box at Regions Field to face 23-year-old right-hander Andres Santiago, he was testing a degenerated disc in his lower back that had kept him out for all but one game since June 23. He said he would stay in the Southern League for four games even if everything went great.
"I really haven't been out there for a month,'' said Konerko, who hasn't been his usual self at the plate this season. "It seems like a year.''
While Konerko felt the rust, it didn't show. He flied out to right field, lined a singled to right and had a leadoff walk on a 3-2 pitch in three plate appearances before a pinch runner replaced him. He looked comfortable throughout the game against the Chattanooga Lookouts.
Konerko has had a lot of time to ponder his future but said he hasn't resolved whether he will pursue another contract when this one, his sixth in 15 seasons with the White Sox, expires at season's end.
"I made a goal at the start of the season that I wanted to be present every day and not think beyond the end of the season,'' Konerko said. "You make a lot of goals when you're a baseball player. Most of the ones I made (this year) aren't going to happen. But that's one that I can still fulfill.''
Since Konerko woke up on a Monday morning with shooting pain in his back, the White Sox have gone 6-13. They weren't doing well before then, either, as they are in a 13-31 unraveling that has set them up to be sellers before the July 31 deadline for non-waiver trades.
Konerko's stock seldom has been lower, given the .249 batting average and .682 OPS to go with his $13.5 million salary. As a 10/5 player, he has full no-trade rights. But unless he returns looking like the guy who carried the White Sox to the 2005 World Series, he probably won't have to decide whether to stay or to go.
That's OK with him.
"Trying to think like another team, usually the guys who are traded are going better than I am,'' Konerko said. "From the way I look at it, I expect to stay (in Chicago). I don't want anything to happen. I just want to be present. I want to be present for every at-bat, every game. I know that sounds easy but there are a lot of times where you have more baggage than you want.''
Konerko has been an All-Star six times for the White Sox, including in each of the previous three seasons. But his age has been showing.
Konerko's production has dropped in the second half of the season every year since 2008. His uncharacteristic first half this season came after he had only a .771 OPS after the All-Star break last season, his lowest since 2002.
He has to wonder if it's time to say goodbye.
Whenever Konerko exits, he will go down as one of the franchise's best players ever.
Frank Thomas is the only hitter who has more home runs with the White Sox than Konerko, who has hit 422 since the Reds traded him to the Sox for Mike Cameron. His OPS ranks behind only Thomas, Jim Thome, Zeke Bonura, Joe Jackson, Magglio Ordonez, Jermaine Dye and Minnie Minoso on the White Sox's all-time list.
It has been quite a ride, and he knows it. But he doesn't want to slip away after a bad season, being appreciated for what he did in the past.
He's not going to dwell on that, however. That would be part of the baggage.
Konerko always has worn blinders on the field, and that's the way he will be when he plays again in Chicago, even if it's for only a little while longer. He never gets ahead of himself, and he's not going to start now.
"We still don't know what's going to happen,'' Konerko said.
No, we don't. But word to the wise: If you've ever bought a Konerko jersey or just serenaded him at U.S. Cellular Field, you might want to be there for Monday night's game against the Tigers — for that matter, every time you can until he rides off into the sunset.
Guys like Konerko don't come around very often.
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