But that seat is special here, at the home of the Chicago White Sox, a team with a rich and complicated history that stretches to the very beginning of the American League. This is the spot where Paul Konerko’s grand slam landed in the 2005 World Series.
You might not remember that home run, though it was the last grand slam to be hit in the World Series, or much about that White Sox championship. It came a year after the Boston Red Sox broke Babe Ruth’s curse, upending the lordly Yankees along the way and inspiring works of literature and cinema.
But the White Sox’ triumph was their first in 88 years, since before the infamous Black Sox scandal, and Konerko was their central figure.
Credit Nathan Weber for The New York Times
He is retiring now, after 16 years here, and said the muted national reaction to his team’s greatest moment was somehow fitting.
If you work for the White Sox or root for the team, he said, you don’t really care what others think.
“Here, you pretty much know, when you do well as a team, you’ll get what comes along with that, and if you don’t, you won’t,” Konerko said this week. “There’s some places that, even when you don’t, you do — it’s just kind of the thing to do, or it’s a social event. It’s not like that here. You’ve got to earn your keep.”
In other words, the White Sox are not an ivy-covered afternoon party, the way it is at Wrigley Field for the hapless Chicago Cubs. The White Sox work harder for the hearts of fans, and they never doubt the sincerity of those who support them.
Konerko, a serious slugger who never left the South Side, has been their perfect representative. The farewell of the Yankees’ captain, Derek Jeter, has been a backdrop to the entire major league season. Konerko, the White Sox’ captain, has been honored at just two ballparks outside the American League Central — Wrigley Field, where he was given his No. 14 from the scoreboard, and Yankee Stadium, where Jeter gave him an autographed base.
Credit M. Spencer Green/Associated Press
“He doesn’t do anything flashy,” said Tyler Flowers, the White Sox catcher. “He’s not the most vocal guy. He’s got zero flair and style. I give him a hard time about that; he’ll wear mismatched gray batting gloves at home. He’s more old-school — he comes in here, he’s ready, he gets his work done and competes. Just goes about his business.”
The White Sox are honoring Konerko’s career all month with nightly giveaways ranging from T-shirts and lapel pins to towels and posters. His No. 14 is bound to be retired before long; the White Sox have an open space between Luis Aparicio’s 11 and Ted Lyons’s 16 in their row of retired numbers above the home-plate suites. Konerko, a bench player now, broke a bone in his left hand on Sept. 2, but has vowed to return before the end of the season.
In some ways, Konerko compares more closely to Bernie Williams than he does to Jeter, a certain Hall of Famer. Konerko, like Williams, may fall short of Cooperstown, but he is similarly cerebral, a thoughtful interview subject with a guitar in his corner locker. Also like Williams, Konerko was heavily pursued by the Baltimore Orioles in his prime.
“I called his agent, Craig Landis, every day, from the moment you could until the moment he signed,” said Jim Duquette, the former Orioles executive, who tried to lure Konerko in free agency after the 2005 season. “We knew it was going to have to be something unique to get him to leave.”
Credit Nathan Weber for The New York Times
Konerko stayed, of course, for five years and $60 million, or $5 million less than the Orioles’ best offer. Landis’s final counteroffer was for $90 million, Duquette said, a figure so high that it signaled Konerko’s desire to stay.
“I would have been curious to see, if we had been willing to do it, would he have actually been willing to go?” Duquette said. “The funny thing is, in hindsight, it would have been a good deal for us.”
One reason Konerko stayed, he said, was his strong relationship with the hitting coaches Greg Walker and Mike Gellinger, who indulged Konerko’s wish to learn everything he possibly could about his swing. Walker, who now coaches for Atlanta, once said he spent more time breaking down mechanics with Konerko than he did with all his other hitters combined.
Mike Aviles, the veteran Cleveland infielder, said he always marveled at Konerko for the way he changed his swing and stance, seemingly using a different one every series. To Aviles, it was a sign that Konerko understood the difficulty of hitting and never tired of working at it.
That is true, Konerko said, but deep knowledge can be as much curse as blessing. A hitter less aware of mechanics might be confused during a slump. But a hitter who knows what is wrong yet cannot fix it endures a different kind of torture.
“Some people don’t want to delve into it, because it’s probably more of a mental grind,” Konerko said. “But this was something we talked about back then: If you want to play late in your career, before your body goes and all that, technique and mechanics were going to hold up as you got older. That was going to be the last line of defense.”
Konerko enjoyed his best season at age 34, in 2010, when he hit .312 with 39 homers and placed fifth — his highest finish — in the voting for the A.L. Most Valuable Player award. Konerko went to high school in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he still lives, and the Diamondbacks chased him in free agency after that season. But again, Konerko stayed.
But given a choice, Konerko always remained. The easier path, he is convinced, would have been to spend a few years here and a few years there, never having to be the frontman for an organization. He is proud of the championship banner, which hangs not far from his grand slam seat, but even more of his unbroken string of seasons in black.
“When I got to those crossroads here, pretty much everything on paper, whether it was money or family, anything that had to do with my life, it would have been easier to leave,” Konerko said. “But I stayed because I just felt an attachment, because I wanted to achieve that first goal from the very get-go. I didn’t want to let that go by.”
Konerko, a first baseman, always found his way back, and at the big moments, the ball always found him. In the 2005 title run, he caught the final putout to clinch each postseason series. Mark Buehrle’s first no-hitter, in 2007, and Philip Humber’s perfect game, in 2012, also ended in Konerko’s glove.
The White Sox think so highly of Konerko that Kenny Williams, their executive vice president, briefly considered him as a candidate for manager after the 2011 season. Konerko, who is married with three children, has no immediate plans to stay in the game.
Robin Ventura, the White Sox manager and their former third baseman, said Konerko would enjoy retirement at first. But soon, Ventura said, he would miss his quest to unlock the secrets of hitting, his daily challenge of trying to master an act rooted in failure.
That effort, and the decision to always pursue it with the White Sox, is part of what defined Konerko here, and made him a local icon.
“We were having a conversation by the cage, oh, I guess this was a couple of months ago, and he was talking me through what he was working on at the time,” Williams said. “I said: ‘You know what’s going to happen to you? About two years after you retire, you’re going to call me. You’re going be walking in your house and feel something and you’re going to call me and say, “I got it! I got it! Now I got it figured out!” ’ ”
Williams laughed. What, he was asked, did Konerko say?
“He said, ‘You’re probably right.’ ”