Konerko quietly one of game's best

Paul Konerko has quietly become one of the game's best hitters.

Are Kenny and Ozzie getting along? What’s Jerry going to do about it? Fire Kenny? Trade Ozzie? Hire Michael Jordan?

(Hey, there’s an idea: No. 23 can run the White Sox and earn back the money David Stern just fined him. Bring in Jerry Krause to manage. Replace Adam Dunn with Bill Cartwright.)

In all seriousness, the not-long-ago world champs have devolved into a six-month melodrama on the South Side: Chicago Soap. The White Sox lost again Monday, 14-4, to the scalding Detroit Tigers. At 11 1/2 games back, the final scores don’t matter anymore. The fans are mostly interested in whether Jerry Reinsdorf wants general manager Kenny Williams and/or manager Ozzie Guillen to return in 2012.

It speaks to the way we follow modern professional sports that the most-talked-about members of the White Sox organization are either (a) management types or (b) underperforming millionaires (Dunn, Alex Rios).

Paul Konerko? He’s just having an excellent season, which is precisely what his bosses are paying him to do. How rare. How honorable. How refreshing.

How sad that his example has been underappreciated.

If and when the White Sox start acting like the American League heavyweight they ought to be, there is no need for them to acquire an image-changing player. One of the best professionals in baseball has been playing first base at U.S. Cellular Field for more than a decade. But I wonder how many of those around him are truly paying attention.

Konerko never asks, “Where’s my recognition? Where’s my contract extension? Where’s my TV show?” He shrugs. He smiles. He works. He leads.

He observes.

“Baseball’s a game of personalities,” Konerko said in an interview last week. “Regardless of how this plays out — whether it keeps going, or if this is the end of the line, or whatever — I’m pretty sure I can say I probably played in the wildest, craziest time of this organization’s existence.

“There’s been a lot of different groups here over the years, if you follow the history of the White Sox. I’ve got to believe the last seven or eight or nine years have been the most … crazy. But we got a championship in there. You can’t forget that.”

I know what you’re thinking: The White Sox gave us Bill Veeck, Disco Demolition Night and uniforms without pants. How can the on-again, off-again feud between Williams and Guillen compete with that?

The same idea ran through my mind. But then I realized something: Those disco records were blown up in plain sight. Heaven knows what drama Konerko, the team captain, has seen behind closed doors. And he has a reputation for being as honest as anyone in the major leagues.

I’ll take his word for it.

The White Sox are fortunate that the coming offseason hysterics have nothing to do with Konerko, who has two years and $25.5 million left on the contract he signed before this season. He collected his 2,000th career hit earlier this year. Even at 35, he’s one of the elite sluggers in the American League. Five hitters have ranked among the AL’s top 10 in OPS during each of the past two seasons: Jose Bautista, Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz, Robinson Cano … and Konerko.

If you’re surprised, then you’ve arrived at the essence of Konerko: He puts up superstar numbers without superstar fanfare. That must be to his liking, or he would have done something about it by now. He plays in America’s third-largest market and has hit a grand slam in the World Series. If he wanted to become an endorsement star, he could. But he would rather devote his time and money to the charity he started in support of foster children. For that reason, the MLB Players Association included Konerko among the six finalists for its 2011 Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award.

Konerko doesn’t chase fame. He hits. And he’s been able to avoid fixating on the expectations associated with his eight-figure salary. That is a valuable trait. Based on their performances this season, I’m not sure Dunn and Rios have it.

“Just focus on the game at hand — nothing before, nothing after,” Konerko said, when asked to explain the mindset that has helped him remain so productive. “Every pitch — that’s all you have control over. When that gets thrown, the next one.”

And how many of those pitches he might have left?

“I certainly don’t think beyond this contract — if I think about anything, it’s just getting through it,” he said. “It gets harder every year, the older you get, to play at the level you’re accustomed to playing. Hopefully I can just get through the next couple years with the approach we talked about earlier — just trying to be as simple as I can, day to day.

“That could be it, two years from now. Who knows? If it is, then great. If it isn’t, then that’s great, too. If you retire at 37 or 38, I don’t think many people would say you left much on the table.”

In the meantime, the White Sox need his example as much as his bat. As an organization, they need less talk and more production — which, come to think of it, describes Paul Konerko’s baseball philosophy quite nicely. Guillen, unsatisfied with his current contract, told the Chicago Sun-Times last month, “Let’s get this straight: I’m the face of the franchise.” He’s probably right. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

The White Sox have the perfect spokesman for the philosophical transformation they need to undergo in 2012. And he’s the guy who plays first base.

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