No hometown discount, no relationship deal, no commitment to finish his career at U.S. Cellular Field. Thirty-four years ago, major leaguers finally got the right to choose where they'd play when the reserve clause finally was gutted. And with his 35th birthday in plain site, Konerko on Thursday made it clear this next contract is one for himself and his family, not the city and the clubhouse that has embraced him as one of the all-time greatest Sox.
Do you blame him? Players greater than Konerko have been turned out of their longtime teams when they were deemed too old or otherwise not useful. Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays did not finish with their original teams. But with free-agent rights, two can play the same game. That equalizes Konerko's relationship with Jerry Reinsdorf, a loyal man up to a certain point where return on dollars factors in.
In a thoughtful 20-plus minute discussion late Thursday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field, Konerko explained that he already has an identity as a Sox, fulfilling an early career goal to play with one team a decade. There's no reason based on sentiment to continue to retirement as a Sox. This is probably Konerko's last decent contract, and he has to make the most of it.
But he also has a level head on his shoulders. Konerko would not commit to demanding a specific multi-year deal. He knows all too well the free-agent market has been battered by the recession. A lot of teams have suffered attendance drops in both 2009 and 2010. The lucrative deals of recent years may be fewer and far between.
Teams' competitive stature also will play a factor in Konerko's decision. He said he might be offered more by the Sox and still bolt, depending on the deal offered and the team situation. And he said in no uncertain terms the Sox must upgrade themselves, on and off the field, to catch the Minnesota Twins, a team he says is not going to come back to the pack anytime soon. This line of thinking could be a veiled reference to the tumultuous relationship between Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams along with an analysis that the Sox farm system pales in comparison to the bountiful crops of players the Twins enjoy.
I've long been a firm advocate of re-signing Konerko. There are few team leaders as respected as him throughout baseball. All his teammates call him the "king." Some players simply deserve to serve out their careers with the same franchise.
At the same time, I see the same caution lights as Sox management, which Guillen claims is in favor of bringing back Konerko. He's no five-tool player. Without speed, power and clutch hitting are his attributes. But if his power begins to ebb next season, would his contract be worth paying a guy hitting, say, 23 homers and driving in 75 runs in the second or third season? That's the risk the Sox must weigh. I say it's worth it, because Konerko's personality and role-model status is worth about half of any new deal.
If Konerko departs, the hole in the clubhouse will be greater than at any time in recent history. If you're a Sox fan, you're going to have to cross your fingers that the declining number of truly affluent teams might have the same caution flags as just discussed.
Konerko and the Sox are the most logical match. But both have leverage. However it turns out, the wish is the recriminations are few.