Call to Cooperstown? White Sox legend Paul Konerko debuts on Hall of Fame ballot
When Jim Thome was inducted into the Hall of Fame in July of 2018, Paul Konerko was part of his entourage.
There was always mutual respect between the two, and Thome and Konerko became close friends when they were White Sox teammates from 2007-09.
The Sox played an exhibition game in Cooperstown in 2002, but it was all business.
"In and out," Konerko said. "I didn't really get a chance to soak it in."
That changed on the Thome trip.
"It was awesome," Konerko told the Daily Herald in a phone interview. "It was really cool to go there as a non-player at that point and just really take it all in, and to be there with your kid (Owen) who was old enough to understand it all and be really into it.
"After watching so many Hall of Fame speeches on TV your whole life, I had never been there to experience it. And to see the whole day unfold, it was like baseball purity at its best. It's a really cool thing. It's one full weekend all about baseball. It kind of makes you feel, even as a player who played for a long time, it was kind of what it felt like back in Little League."
One of the greatest players in White Sox history, Konerko is eligible for Hall of Fame induction for the first time in 2020. The ballot comes out this week.
Qualifiers played 10 or more major league seasons and have been retired for at least five years.
Konerko played 18 seasons -- the final 16 with the Sox.
The first baseman retired after 2014 with a career .279/.354/.486 hitting line, 439 home runs and 1,412 RBI.
In White Sox history, Konerko ranks first with 4,010 total bases and 13 seasons with 20 or more home runs, second with 432 homers, 1,383 RBI and 2,268 games played and third with 2,292 hits and 406 doubles.
Konerko also was an six-time all-star and he had 5 home runs and 15 RBI in 12 games during the 2005 postseason while leading the Sox to a World Series sweep over the Astros.
"He was such a special player for the White Sox for such a long time," said Robin Ventura, a Sox standout himself and Konerko's manager from 2012-14. "Players like Paul don't come around very often so you appreciate them as much as you can."
During his playing days, Konerko was always team first and reluctant to sing his own praises.
Not much has changed in retirement.
"I think I speak for most players, when you start your career you're not thinking down the line of anything like that in terms of getting on the Hall of Fame ballot or even being considered for something like that," Konerko said. "I don't even know how they do it, to be honest. But it's definitely a neat feeling. I think for me, five years ago I was done playing and it feels like 50 years, to be honest. It feels like a long time ago.
"So to see kind of a connection, 'No, no, you did play. We're going to put you on this thing,' it's kind of cool to be recognized after the fact, after you're done playing.
"Once you're done playing, I think the first year or two out, you still kind of feel connected and all that, and then it just kind of all goes away unless you stay in the game. It's fine, that's all part of the deal and I enjoyed it while I was doing it, for sure. But it's nice to be honored by something like this."
Going back to the Thome trip to Cooperstown, Konerko recalled drinking a glass of wine while taking in the surroundings.
"Being there, you're looking around and there's Hank Aaron," he said. "There's Johnny Bench. And you're going, 'OK, wait a minute here. Do I belong in this room?' My focus tends to always go to, 'Who's not in?' I look at some guys and I'm like, 'Dale Murphy's not in the Hall of Fame?' Larry Walker's another one. I kind of look at it like, 'Oh (bleep), I wasn't as good as that guy.'"
Hall of Fame voters are going to decide if Konerko is good enough to merit enshrinement, and he's a compelling case.
Murphy never garnered the required 75 percent of the vote in the regular Baseball Writers' Association of America process, but he has new life on the Today's Game Era ballot. That's how former White Sox designated hitter Harold Baines got into the Hall of Fame last year.
Murphy has a .265/.346/.469 career hitting line with 398 home runs and 1,266 RBI. Walker has a .313/.400/.565 slash line with 383 homers and 1,311 RBI. He is not on the Today's Game Era ballot this year.
Edgar Martinez was voted into the Hall of Fame last year on his 10th and final time on the BWAA ballot. His career hitting line is .312/.418/.515 with 309 home runs and 1,261 RBI.
On his seventh try, Jeff Bagwell was inducted into Cooperstown in 2017 after posting a .297/.408/.540 slash line with 449 homers and 1,529 RBI.
Konerko's numbers are comparable to Martinez and Bagwell, and they are comparable to Murphy and Walker.
The White Sox legend is likely not going to be a first ballot inductee like former teammate Frank Thomas, but Konerko is a solid candidate for Cooperstown down the road.
"I just did the best I could when I was out there for the years I played," Konerko said. "You never think about it when you're playing. For most players, (the Hall of Fame) is not a box that's even created. My boxes were more localized, being with a team and trying to be all I could be to one organization because I felt like if I was with that team for 10, 15 years, whatever team that would be, everything else would come along with it.
"So it kind of all stayed contained to that idea. With this Hal of Fame stuff, it's totally cool and I think my kid gets a kick out of it and all that because now he's playing and into the game. But I have to tell him, 'Calm down, your dad wasn't that good.'
"It is kind of neat, but I think I'm smart enough to realize there are so many moving parts to it. When you see a lot of guys that are deserving and don't get in ... it's not that I'm not proud of my career or that I didn't do well, but there's not a single thought where it would be a letdown if I didn't get in."