LOS ANGELES — When Paul Konerko broke into the big leagues with the Dodgers in 1997, he was supposed to be the next Mike Piazza or Eric Karros.
He wasn’t even sure he was going to be the first Paul Konerko.
“I used to take this game much more seriously than I should have,” said the Chicago White Sox first baseman, who will likely be named to his sixth American League All Star team. He currently stands second by about a half-million votes behind Detroit’s Prince Fielder. “I remember putting so much pressure on myself when I was (with the Dodgers), that I was driving myself crazy.
“Every at-bat, every play in the field was like the end of the world — well, not the end of the world — but you know what I mean. And I honestly didn’t know if I was going to succeed in this game. I always knew I had the talent, but I was worried early on about getting a chance, then being able to deliver when I did get in the lineup.”
During his first two seasons, he had reason to be concerned.
In 81 games with the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds, he batted a meager .214 with seven home runs and 29 RBI. Over a full season his run-production numbers projected to 14 homers and just 58 runs batted in. In comparison, one of the men he was being compared to — future Hall of Famer Piazza — never had a full season of less than 24 homers and 92 RBI until his career was winding down with the Mets in the early 2000’s.
Konerko’s salvation began on the Fourth of July in 1998 when the Dodgers traded him to the Reds for closer Jeff Shaw. It happened in the middle of a nationally televised game, and left him the answer to the trivia question: Who was involved in the first nationally televised major league trade? (“That’s one that will be talked about forever. It’s always a good story,” Konerko said with a laugh. Lefty Dennys Reyes was also sent from the Dodgers to the Reds in the deal.)
November of ’98 brought around Konerko’s redemption, when the White Sox traded defensive dynamo Mike Cameron to Cincinnati for the Dodgers’ former number one pick in the 1994 draft.
After a slow start in the Windy City, Konerko began to relax and eventually became a player who might have his name linked to Piazza’s again — as a Hall of Famer.
He batted .294 in 142 games, clubbing 24 homers, driving in 81 runs and scoring 71 times. On a team that boasted Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee, Konerko was second in homers to Ordonez (30) and RBI to Lee (84). Except for the 2003 season when he was plagued by injuries, Konerko always hit at least 27 homers and never had fewer than 97 RBI from 1999-2007. And he says that once being a Dodger is just a distant memory.
“Yeah, it is,” Konerko said without rancor. “We don’t come back here as a team very often, and this time was actually the first time I ever played against them (at Dodger Stadium).
“I can look back now and kind of laugh (at the frustration), and not be bothered by the bad at-bats or bad plays that were ultimately the dominoes that started the (process) of me being traded.” He also admitted that he was very concerned about ever getting a prolonged opportunity to show what he could do with a bat in his hands.
“You get a little bit scared about it,” he said. “I saw a lot of guys I played with in the minors who were talented, but at this level a lot of times it becomes a numbers game. If you don’t perform after a couple of months, you could get squeezed out because of a guy right behind you. (The club) wants to give him a chance. Then he’s off and running and the next thing you know you have that label of (permanent) prospect. I was probably getting pretty close to that point where I’d have bounced around from team to team.
“In another month or two (in 1999) with the White Sox, if it hadn’t worked out here, who knows what would have happened.”
Thirteen years later, though, Konerko is sitting in the visitor’s dugout at Dodger Stadium, talking about another possible All Star appearance (“that would be nice recognition at this point in my career”) and the fact that he’ll definitely be mentioned in the Hall of Fame discussion five years after he retires.
“To even be asked to respond to questions that have to do with (the Hall of Fame) is pretty flattering,” said Konerko, who then pointed out that he really doesn’t think about it unless reporters bring it up to him. “It’s really kind of interesting to me, too.
“My thoughts are: I’m going to play as long as I really want to play — which might not be much longer, although I haven’t made up my mind yet — and I will play as hard as I can when I step onto the field. As long as the passion is there, I’ll keep playing. But I will never start a season thinking that if I can just do this or that, it will make the difference in me getting in (the Hall). To me, that would be the worst thing you can do. I’m not into chasing down any numbers. I have a wife and three kids, and there are more important things than playing baseball. I’m not going to hang around just to hang around.
“I’ve been fortunate to be part of a World Championship team, and it’s nice to know that I don’t have to chase down that ring. I’m looking forward to being able to spend more time with my family when I retire, and when it’s time I’ll be prepared to walk away clean. I’d love to win another (World Series), but I’ve got one already and no one can take that away from me.”
White Sox manager Robin Ventura has been answering the Konerko-to-the-HOF-question with a standard, light-hearted “what do you think I’m going to say? He belongs in there for sure,” said the first-year, first-time leader. “Seriously, though, he’s an outstanding player and is terrific for our club, and those things obviously count when you evaluate someone for that. It will be interesting to see, that’s for sure. But selfishly, I hope it’s something we don’t have to think about for a lot more years, because the guy can still play at a very high level.”
When it’s pointed out to the slugging first baseman that after a particularly frustrating game as a Dodger rookie, he told a radio reporter that this “******* game is going to kill me,” he laughed and talked about his 180-degree turnaround.
“When you’re younger, you kind of associate baseball as what you are and who you are,” he said. “But as you get more into the game — and life — having a wife and kids, you realize that this isn’t who you are, it’s what you do. That’s a huge difference. You go out every day and give everything you have, then you leave it (at the ballpark) when you leave. Once you get the hang of doing that, you get perspective on what’s really important. And I believe you actually end up playing better.”
Profound statement — and it sounds like something you might hear Konerko deliver on a hot July Sunday afternoon — in Cooperstown, N.Y.