BY DAN McGRATH
For the Sun-Times
In retirement, Paul Konerko remains the White Sox’ biggest draw.
Proof came Saturday, when 38,714 fans turned out at U.S. Cellular Field for the official retiring of Konerko’s No. 14 jersey. Having wobbled through an uncertain start, the Sox are 28th among 30 MLB teams in attendance this season, but another “Konerko crowd” that included standing-room patrons nearly doubled their 19,686 per-game average.
The ceremony came eight months after Konerko concluded his storied 16-year run on the South Side. The send-off then was a sentimental victory lap, a fitting tribute to a franchise icon. It drew 38,160.
Konerko conceded that it was “really cool” to have his number preserved among those of nine other White Sox luminaries, plus Jackie Robinson, and he was clearly moved by the crowd’s reaction.
“You keep your head down for 20 years, then you look up and realize it meant something to a lot of people,” he said. “I never took that for granted.”
Some of what was said at Konerko’s Sept. 27 farewell was repeated, or at least paraphrased tribute, but the crowd couldn’t get enough of it. Neither could the Minnesota Twins, who stood at the rim of their dugout and joined in the ovation when Konerko was introduced.
Aside from the honored guest’s typically gracious remarks, the highlight was a video montage of everyday Chicagoans recalling their favorite Konerko memories and explaining why Paulie means so much to Chicago.
Simply put, he was one of us. The effort, the passion, the obvious fact that he cared so much endeared him to a city that treasures those traits, even more than the consistently strong numbers he delivered.
And when he presented Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf with the final-out ball from the 2005 World Series at the Sox’ victory celebration, Konerko revealed himself to be the thoughtful, generous, thoroughly decent guy we thought he was, at a time when many athletes of his stature are self–absorbed divas.
On a sun-splashed, delightful Saturday, the Cell was the place to be in Chicago—at least until the Blackhawks dropped the puck a few hours later. The large, exuberant crowd had a hand in creating a great baseball atmosphere. The question that hung in the air longer than a Hector Noesi slider: Why is this scene so rarely replicated?
The Sox have played 23 games at the Cell since Konerko hung ‘em up, and before Saturday they had drawn a larger crowd once—38,533 for this year’s home opener.
And not to inject the Cubs into White Sox business, but it’s fact that they outdrew the Sox by significant margins in every one of Konerko’s 16 seasons, even though the Sox had the better record in eight of them. Konerko insisted his team’s second-banana status never bothered him.
“You get what you earn here,” he said. “I used to tell the younger players, ‘Don’t expect people to show up if you don’t win.’ “
The Sox can’t catch a break in their Sisyphus-like struggle to capture more of Chicago’s baseball hearts and minds. Their shaky start has been exacerbated by weather so cold it makes the games uncomfortable to watch even on television—no one is having fun.
Five straight road wins over lesser teams finally got the Sox back to .500 last week, and a splendid pitching matchup of Chris Sale vs. Cy Young winner Corey Kluber kicked off a homestand that offered a chance at progress in the A.L. Central. They beat Cleveland 2-1 on Monday, in a well-played game of crisp country hardball. It drew 17,712.
Total in the house the next three nights: 49,148. The Sox lost all three games. Coincidence?
Konerko’s successor as the face of the franchise has yet to emerge. If that’s a factor in the anemic attendance, he won’t be walking through the clubhouse door on a rescue mission. He said he has no interest in working in baseball “at this time.” He’s plenty busy getting his three kids to their activities and playing hockey “two or three times a week” to stay in shape.
When he described skating a few shifts with Wayne Gretzky at the Great One’s fantasy camp, he sounded as excited as a guy who’d hit a grand slam in the World Series.
“I didn’t play the game easy, I didn’t hit easy,” Konerko said. “I made a lot of changes daily. It was mentally grinding. I don’t miss that at all.”
But we do. Already.