Paul Konerko has somewhat quietly established himself as one the most prolific sluggers in White Sox history. The humble first sacker has never put up the gaudy numbers of a Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, or Magglio Ordonez-players who have overshadowed him in his 11 seasons on the South Side-but he has consistently helped to put runs on the board. A 1994 first-round pick by the Dodgers who came to Chicago via Cincinnati, Konerko currently ranks second in ChiSox history in home runs, and is third in RBI, total bases, and extra-base hits. As of mid-September, the 33-year-old Konerko’s career numbers were a workmanlike .278/.352/.491 with 324 round trippers.
David Laurila: How do you view the career you’ve had in the big leagues thus far?
Paul Konerko: Well, it’s obviously still going, so you don’t want to talk about things too much in the past tense. But, all in all, I’m lucky that I’ve spent pretty much all of my career with one team. It’s been 10-plus years, and I’m probably more proud of that than any of the numbers, or any of the statistical things. That and the World Series are far and away at the forefront of my mind as far as things that I’ve experienced in my career. Being with one team and winning a World Series with that team are definitely the highlights. But, like I said, my career is still active, so I try to discipline myself to not think about stuff like looking back, especially during the season. In the off-season you have some time to think back, but during the season you don’t want to lose too much focus on a day-to-day basis. For that reason, it’s a tough question.
DL: You were drafted by the Dodgers in 1994. Does that seem like a long time ago, or more like it was just yesterday?
PK: It seems like a long time ago. Still, from the time I made it to the big leagues, to now, seems like it has gone by pretty quickly. Time just flies by, and by the time you know it you’re older. When you’re 22 or 23, you’re kind of a prospect trying to make it in the big leagues, and then all of a sudden you’re 32 or 33 and you’re old in this game. So it goes by pretty fast, and while there’s what other people perceive, all that really matters is what you think, what you’re focused on doing at that time, and what you think you can do. Everybody has their own thoughts on that stuff. Looking back, it’s what, my 15th or 16th year of pro ball? It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but it is a long time, I guess.
DL: Thinking back to the beginning, has your career pretty much gone as you envisioned, or have there been a lot of surprises?
PK: You know, my only goal as a minor leaguer, or as a person who just came out of the draft, was to get to the big leagues and hold a position down for one team for a long time. It wasn’t with the team that drafted me, and that was kind of a wrinkle, and it wasn’t with the team that they traded me to, which was another wrinkle, but eventually it happened with this team. Now that it has, what I’ve learned is that no matter what you do as far as milestones, or once you’ve achieved certain goals, you’re not satisfied. You always want to move on to the next one. There’s never a point, really, where you’re playing this game and can just sit back. You’re proud of things, but the second you start thinking you’ve done something, it comes up and gets you, so you have to keep working.
DL: How surprised were you to get traded not once, but twice, so early in your career?
PK: I think that you’re always shocked when you get traded. Fortunately, I had people around me who taught me very well that this is a business, and that it’s not the end of the world when you get traded; it just means that there is another team out there that wants you. I knew, from that perspective, that stuff like that happens, and that there had been far better players traded than myself. So you definitely know that it’s possible, but it’s always a surprise. It was an adjustment, but I am glad that I got to go through the minor leagues with the Dodgers. The coaching-and the people that they had in the minor leagues when I was there-was tremendous. I feel that I learned a lot, stuff that I still use today. They taught me the game well, so I feel that it’s a good thing that I was with the Dodgers.
DL: Who has most helped you to develop as a hitter over the course of your career?
PK: There are a couple. Our hitting coach here [with the White Sox], Greg Walker, and another one of our coaches, Mike Gellinger, those two have had a lot of, you know-my best years have been with them. As far as listening to their style, and their philosophy, we see eye to eye on what we think the approach, and mechanically, what hitting should be. It’s always good when you can work with the hitting guy, on the team you play with, and see eye to eye with him. So there’s no question that he’s my guy. Both of those guys are when it comes to hitting.
DL: How would you describe your hitting approach?
PK: You know, that’s a pretty tough question, and almost impossible to answer. But mainly, I’m a middle-of-the-order guy, and have been since I was drafted, so my goal is be a run producer. I want to drive in runs and score runs. At the end of the day, and at the end of the year, that’s kind of what my season is going to be judged on. Now, obviously you don’t just go after a result; there are approach things every day that you have to figure out. You have to figure out what’s going to make you successful that day. But to answer just what my approach is, that’s impossible, because it’s an ever-changing thing.
DL: Do you view yourself as a power hitter?
PK: I like to think of myself as a good hitter first and a power hitter second. I think that the times I’ve been in that mode of thought, I seem to do better than when I’m thinking that I’m a home-run hitter-that you can hit home runs because you’re strictly a power hitter. That doesn’t get everybody in trouble, but it gets me in trouble, so I try to stay away from that.
DL: Your career OBP is pretty solid. Is that important to you?
PK: Again, those are things where I think that you kind of have to just play the game that day, and look at what’s in front of you. If you need to get on base for your team by drawing a walk, maybe if you’re leading off an inning…you know, you try to be a hitter like that. There are very few guys out there that are just one gear, straight power hitters. Or even just straight base hits. You go up there and try to have good at bats, and in the end, it will all kind of come out in the wash whether you’re more of an average guy, or a home run guy, or an RBI guy. You can’t concern yourself…those are numbers, and you can’t concern yourself with them. That said, it’s hard not to, because they get thrown at you a lot from exterior places. The main thing is just to have good at-bats, because you’re going to get 500 or 600 in a year, and how many of those can be tough? Can you be a tough out and a tough at-bat for the pitcher? That’s what I think your focus has to be on.
DL: While some hitters are free swingers, others try to only swing if the pitch is in a specific zone, and as a result often accumulate more walks and strikeouts. Where do you fit into that equation?
PK: Again, there are different philosophies, and I’m probably somewhere in the middle of that. I draw a decent amount of walks, but I’m also not going to walk 100 times a year. I’ve never done that; I think the most I’ve ever had is 80-something. So I’m going up there to swing the bat. I’m up there to let it fly, but at the same time, you have to be conscious of what is going on in the game that day-what your team needs and what the situations are. Situational hitting is what makes or breaks a team, winning or not winning. As a hitter, you have to focus on that stuff and try to be as good as you can in the various different situations that you get throughout the season. You can’t just be one-track minded about the way you hit. I’ve never been like that. You try to change with what is going on at the time.
DL: How similar are Jim Thome and Frank Thomas as hitters?
PK: With the end result, they’re very similar, because they’re both very dangerous guys that can carry a ballclub. They do kind of go about it a little differently. Frank was obviously a right-handed hitter, and his numbers simply don’t lie. And he had really good at-bats. But, you know, that’s a tough question. Their numbers are very similar. They both walk a lot and hit a lot of homers, so… you know, now that I think about it, I guess they’re pretty damn similar. I’ll say this: hitting aside, both of them, with their preparation and how they got ready to play each night, you can see why they’re both future Hall of Famers. They’re people who have done so much in their careers, but even though they’ve hit 500 home runs, and won MVP Awards, and played in All-Star Games, they still approached every game as if they hadn’t done anything. That’s another way in which they’re similar. There was never any complacency. Every time they took the field, they’d get after it as if they were hungry to do more, and that gets you a lot of respect. With what they’ve done in their careers, it would be easy not to do that.
DL: How important is protection in a lineup? Some people feel that you produce better with a dangerous hitter behind you, while others argue that isn’t necessarily the case. What do you think?
PK: I think that in theory it’s true. The way this game is played, you play the percentages a lot, and nothing is a perfect science, but I think that over the long haul you have to take it on an individual basis. There are arguments for and against. There have been guys who have had great seasons with a big hitter behind them, and then when that big hitter left, or they went somewhere else, they never had those years [again]. So that’s a good argument that the hitter makes a difference. There have been other times where a guy has had a big hitter behind him and had big years, and then that hitter left for another team, and he never missed a beat. So I think that you have to look at it individually. But I guess that my short answer would be that it can’t hurt to have a big hitter behind you.
DL: Given the stage, is the home run you hit in the 2005 World Series the most notable one of your career?
PK: Absolutely. It’s all about winning, and when you’re in the playoffs, it’s all about doing well in a winning context. And it doesn’t get any more of a winning context than the World Series. So yeah, it was a great moment. It was a great post-season, in general, for all of us. I think we went 11-1, so everything just shook out like it was meant to be. I’m smart enough to know that there were guys who played 20 years, Hall of Fame guys, who never got a chance to win a World Series. I was conscious of that at the time, and I’m still conscious of that. I’m very lucky to have won one, because not everybody gets to do that. Hopefully I’ll get that opportunity again.