NORTH SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It’s spring training in Arizona and Paul Konerko is back at a familiar spot — first base.
But instead of taking throws from Joe Crede and Juan Uribe, the White Sox legend is spending a Tuesday afternoon catching baseballs from a group of 11-year-old little leaguers, most of who have no idea that this 43-year-old dad is a six-time All-Star and World Series hero.
“Most of the guys who are actively playing in the big leagues might not know a guy who played five years ago, so, I’m going to guess these 11-year-olds might not know either,” Konerko said with a laugh.
After an 18-year career in Major League Baseball, Konerko has a new job: Little League coach.
Konerko and former White Sox reliever J.J. Putz both coach their sons’ team in T-Rex Baseball, a prominent 11U travel team in the Phoenix area.
“Yeah, we’ve fallen far,” Konerko said with his trademark sarcasm. “We both have kids. We’re teaching the kids how to play. We think.”
Konerko retired from baseball after the 2014 season, and the idea of him becoming a coach or manager seemed like a logical fit. Baseball is in his blood. He loves the game. He’s a great communicator. He can talk about hitting for hours, days, weeks.
And this coaching thing has really started to connect with him.
“If my kid didn’t play, if he quit tomorrow, I’d coach,” Konerko said. “Maybe not this age, but 15 or 16-year-olds. I’d coach. I like it. I don’t know about professionally or anything like that but I enjoy seeing the light bulb go off, especially hitting.”
Can he see himself coaching or managing in the majors one day?
“I just don’t know,” Konerko said. “The schedule just scares the hell out of me. That really worries me. I think about it but every time, I can’t get over the commitment.”
Hmm. So, he thinks about it, eh? Let’s come back to this.
For now, he and Putz make a great team. The 6-foot-5 Putz, who collected 189 saves in his 12-year career, is a towering presence over the kids. He’s the perfect bad cop manager. Konerko plays good cop No. 2.
“I’m probably a little harder on the kids,” Putz said. “Paul is a shoulder for them to cry on.”
Konerko nods with approval.
“I’m like the bench coach that is on his side in the office and then when I walk out, I’m like, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ I go to the players and I’m like, ‘I can’t help you guys. Our manager is nuts,” Konerko said about Putz. “Technically speaking, he’s the No. 1. He makes the final calls on everything. It’s his team. He’s the head coach. I’m the No. 2. So, of course, I second guess everything he does and try to throw daggers behind him at his back when he’s not looking.”
The players refer to Konerko as “coach.” Well, except for his son Owen, a confident kid who seems focused on carving his own path.
“I call him 'Paul,'” Owen Konerko said.
“I’ll say, ‘Come on, use your feet,’” the elder Konerko explained. “He’ll say, ‘I am...Paul.’”
The young Konerko is a good hitter with a soft glove in the infield, just like his dad. He's also not the swiftest around the bases. Again, just like his dad.
“Slow boots,” Konerko said about his son. “He’s trying to drive more in than he’s letting in right now. He’s kind of like a Manny Ramirez. How many is he going to give up? Well, how many did he drive in today? We win.”
With over 2,300 games of MLB experience, Konerko has a wealth of knowledge to share with these little leaguers about hitting, fielding and winning. But before he speaks, he thinks hard about what to say to the kids and when to say it.
“It gets a little frustrating,” Konerko explained. “I want to tell this kid this but he believes he’s good. I don’t want to go there too fast but at the same time, if I’m not telling him this, then it could be anybody else coaching him. I should have some insider knowledge here. What’s going to make you good five years from now? So, it’s always that sort of thing. Should I go there with this kid right now or just let him be and let him see if he figures it out?”
With his son, it’s a whole different story. There is no filter whatsoever.
“I don’t take that chance,” Konerko said. “We’re working on this now. He’s learning stuff that (former White Sox hitting coach Greg) Walker taught me in 2009. Stuff I didn’t know until I was, like, 30. I’m already working on it with him now.”
With a big tournament around the corner, Konerko and Putz are focusing on defense today, putting their players through infield and outfield drills, as well as chaos drills, which Putz describes as “A lot of things going on at one time. It makes the kids tighten up and focus. Seldomly does it work.”
The same goes for locker room pep talks. Konerko and Putz have tried everything in their bag of tricks to motivate their squad before big games, all to no avail.
“We’ve had so many talks on this field and beyond,” Konerko said.
“That would be an understatement,” Putz followed. “(Konerko) has pulled out movie quotes, coaches in movies and these kids just look at us like, ‘You guys are idiots. We don’t care.’”
“I think I pulled out some Herb Brooks the other day from ‘Miracle,’” Konerko said. “We got beat in the championship of this tournament. It didn’t really work out.”
Konerko and Putz both hung up their cleats in 2014. That meant their names were both on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this January.
“We were actually on this field when we got the results,” Konerko said. “We stopped practice. We looked. He got a vote. I got 10. We stopped for about 20 seconds and we carried on.”
Putz is proud of his one vote and thankful that someone thought of him.
Konerko’s 439 home runs are more than Hall of Famers Andre Dawson, Cal Ripken Jr. and Billy Williams. Putz can’t believe his fellow coach received only 10 votes from the Hall of Fame writers.
“I’m still a little shocked that he’s not on the ballot still, to be honest,” Putz said.
“Thank you, J.J.,” Konerko said.
“No offense to the people who stayed on, but if you look at his numbers and put them side by side, there was a period in time when he was definitely one of the most feared guys in the league,” Putz said. “I think they got it wrong.”
With his playing career five years in the rearview mirror, Konerko is not one for nostalgia. To him, the South Side legend who hit a grand slam in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series is a totally different person.
“Paul Konerko the player, that guy’s like dead,” he said. “I don’t even think about it like that anymore. I don’t. When you first get out (of the game), you still kind of have that thing but then you realize, it was great but it’s over. Every now and then there are some moments where you think, yes, I guess I did some good things there.”
“You kind of have a moment of reliving those old times but for the most part, this is the getaway right now. Coming out here and coaching,” Konerko said.
But is coaching in Little League or high school his end game? There are probably 30 major league teams that would love to have Konerko in their dugout.
For the record, I’d like to personally abolish all 29 clubs not named the White Sox from reaching out to him for a job from here to eternity.
So, is a return to the majors a possibility? From the sound of it, maybe one day. But not now.
“At least while my kids are this age,” Konerko said. “My daughter is eight, (Owen) is 11. Until that goes by. Until maybe my daughter is in her mid-teens or something, 16 or 17. I couldn’t imagine going away for that season again. It’s a grind, man. And coaches nowadays? It’s tougher than it ever was. What you’re expected to do and know. All the analytics stuff. You really have to strap it on. It’s not like sit around and smoke a cigarette anymore like it used to be. I respect the hell out of the guys that are doing it.”
We don't know what the future has in store for Konerko. For the sake of today, Little League suits him just fine. He accomplished so much as a player, there’s certainly nothing more for him to prove.
But if the day comes when he’s looking for another challenge and a major league team comes calling, maybe, just maybe, he’ll pick up the phone and listen.
It does have a nice ring to it.