Retired slugger Paul Konerko returns to The Cell to have number retired

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Paul Konerko hit all the familiar topics Friday upon returning to U.S. Cellular Field: his 18-year baseball career, the 2005 World Series and his iconic grand slam.

But only when the subject turned to hockey did the former Sox star’s eyes really light up.

Always an avid fan of the sport – even more so than baseball – Konerko said he’s been skating a few times a week since retiring from the diamond last fall. He even attended the Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas in March.

“I was a fantasy camper, which was an awesome thing,” Konerko said before the Sox’ 3-2 win over the Twins. “It was tough games and really laying it out there, which is nice because you don’t have to worry about getting hurt or anything. It’s just fun.”

Konerko also plans on attending the Ducks-Blackhawks game Saturday night at the United Center, where he’ll be sitting along the glass.

But first the beloved Sox first baseman will be honored before Saturday afternoon’s sold-out Twins-White Sox game at the Cell to have his number 14 retired. He’ll be the 11th Sox player to have his number retired, and his 14 will reside between Luis Aparicio and Ted Lyons above the suites behind home plate.

Konerko spoke to reporters for nearly 30 minutes and appeared very much at ease in retirement. He said he doesn’t miss baseball “at all.”

After posting a career .279 average with 439 home runs in his 18 seasons – 16 with the Sox – Konerko said he was ready to be done with baseball. He doesn’t watch the game much anymore and has no desire or intention to return to it in any capacity for the foreseeable future.

He said he was offered opportunities to work in television as an analyst but spurned all of them.

“I would put that in last place compared to all the things you could do,” Konerko said of possible outlets to return. “That’s the furthest thing away.”

Konerko, one of the most beloved players in Sox history and the face of the team for much of his tenure on the South Side, said he never dreamed he’d one day have his number retired.

“As a kid you see stuff at stadiums or you hear about a guy whose number is retired, you don’t really think that that’s something that’s attainable,” he said. “Even when you’re playing, I mean, you just don’t think that’s you. You don’t think that is something you can get to.”

The Sox have been looking for someone to fill the leadership void Konerko left behind.

Jeff Samardzija was a leader for the Cubs before being traded last season, but he was slowed by a rough start with the Sox. He may be breaking out of that funk, though, after dealing eight strong innings Saturday and striking out nine.

The offense mustered just enough to come away with a win after a disastrous series against Cleveland. Geovany Soto hit a two-run double in the fourth inning, and J.B. Shuck hit the go-ahead sac fly in the eighth to snap a three-game losing streak.

Jose Abreu, who extended his hitting streak to 17 games with a single in the fifth inning, could take on the leadership role with time, manager Robin Ventura said, but he’s not there yet.

“[Konerko] earned that respect over time,” Ventura said. “Just enough guys being around him that he became the sound voice. And it’s very rare. It’s very rare for a lot of teams. There’s a lot of teams that don’t get that for quite a few years, at least to that level. I think the White Sox were very lucky for that period of time that he was here, once he was established, to have somebody like that.”

email: djust@suntimes.com

Twitter: DavidJustCST

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