Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko finishes a question-and-answer session with about 200 loyal White Sox fans.
He stops at the corner of the stage, reaching down to a handful of outstretched hands holding posters, baseballs and caps, shouting "Paul … please … Paul."
There are more autographs, questions, microphones and directions from his handlers, before he gets to a private hotel room on the 39th floor.
As his wife, Jennifer Konerko enters, the ballplayer looks at her anxiously: "Where’s the baby?"
"She’s with your mom," assures Jennifer.
The slugger may have added World Series champ to his resume last season, but he also added a more important title—dad.
As Konerko starts a new season with the world champion White Sox on April 2, he also continues his first year up to the plate as Nicholas’ dad.
"He’s like any typical new dad," says Elena Konerko, the new grandmother. "When Paul holds his baby in his arms, he just smiles ... Paul’s hands look so big next to the baby.
"He’s participating," she says and then laughs. "He’s doing more than my husband ever did."
"People always make a bigger deal about a baseball player, basketball player, celebrity, singer, and they’re having a kid," says Konerko. "It’s not any more special than anybody having one anywhere else."
Of course, hitting 40 home runs, driving in 100 runs, winning a World Series championship (for a franchise that hasn’t won one in 88 years) and signing a $60 million contract isn’t typical. And having a baby in the midst of charging towards a World Series championship isn’t typical either.
Still, Konerko’s mother says, "He’s very proud. ... After the games, he waits to take the baby from Jennifer’s arms."
The away game
Konerko’s wife, Jennifer, was 37½ weeks pregnant when the White Sox won the American League Championship Series, earning a berth to the World Series. Worried that she would go into labor just as he stepped into the batters’ box at the fall classic, Jennifer Konerko opted to have the doctor induce labor on the team’s schedule.
"I first got pregnant and I thought it was great timing," she says. The baby was due at the end of October—more than enough time for the end of a regular season.
But last year was anything but regular.
"They kept winning and winning," she recalls.
Returning from the team’s Oct. 17 American League Championship Series win in Anaheim, Jennifer Konerko wondered how to make the delivery fit into the team’s schedule.
Her husband, the team’s ace clean-up batter, already had decided there was no contest if the baby’s birth and the big game coincided.
"I was going to go home, regardless," Konerko says. "I think you have to, especially on the first one, right?"
"I called my doctor and asked if we could induce," Jennifer Konerko recalls. The doctor said it was safe and they scheduled the procedure.
Konerko made it for the morning of the delivery—Oct. 18, 2005.
Elena remembers it well.
"He was in awe," says the new grandmother. "He had a beautiful grin on his face. He was so proud. He was very tired, but very relieved that it was able to work out that way."
Elena was waiting just outside the birthing room when her son came out, shortly after Nicholas’ birth, with a digital camera in hand, eager to share photos of the newborn.
Having the baby before the World Series took the pressure off Konerko and his wife.
"I don’t think I had any time to think about having a baby because of what was going on," Jennifer Konerko says. "Anticipation? I had none. I had two hours to gather stuff and get to the hospital."
Now that the Konerkos are a family of three, there will be a lot of decisions made based on timing through the long season. Most of the time, Konerko is on the road. The season began Feb. 22 in Tucson with spring training.
The schedule this year has them jetting to Baltimore on July 27, to Kansas City July 31, Toronto on Aug. 4 and finally back to Chicago on Aug. 6. During the season, the Sox will travel as far as New York and Los Angeles, with stops in Detroit, Seattle, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Boston and Oakland.
"The cities we go to sometimes don’t line up well for travel—night games, extra inning games, sometimes it just doesn’t hash out well," says Konerko. That can make for long stretches without being home.
The team’s regular season ends Oct. 1 in Minnesota—unless, of course, the Sox make the playoffs, which seems likely at this point.
"Day to day, it’s tough. I go in at one o’clock for a home game and I don’t get back until 11," says Konerko.
Most parents look for a measure of security—especially after their first child is born. Konerko, beginning his eighth season with the Sox, has that $60 million contract to keep him in Chicago for the next five years and is financially set for far longer.
But baseball is a fickle business. There are no guarantees and no security.
"Unfortunately, you have to worry about it," says Konerko. "I could still get traded in the early part of this contract. But that’s business. We make good money and the compensation for that is, one day you could wake up and they could tell you you’re going 2,000 miles away. That’s just the way it is."
Jennifer Konerko will spend a lot of time at the family home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where there is a backyard for Nicholas.
"You’re essentially a single parent during the season," adds Jennifer Konerko. "It’ll be fine. You just have to learn how to deal with it. You gotta do what you gotta do."
The home team
Most child experts would agree that one of the most important things a parent can do is spend time with their children. So how will the Konerkos handle a father’s absence?
"The good news is that we get four and a half straight months of nothing," says Konerko of his off season. "If you really slice the time up, the person that works the normal job, 8 to 5 throughout the whole year, probably gets less time with their kid than I do."
Konerko turned 30 in March. If he can avoid injuries and stay productive, he’ll likely be nearing the end of his professional baseball career when his contract expires.
"If you’re lucky, you play into your upper 30s and then you’re done. If you can get through it, not many people can be in their late 30s and retired and have all that time after that."
But what about parenting during those years of baseball celebrity?
Konerko has been around Major League clubhouses for many years, and he’s seen the hazards that can come when your father is high profile.
"When he’s 5 or 10 years old, you have to be almost harder on them because that’s when they really want to get carried away with it," says Konerko. "They’re constantly in the clubhouse, they’re constantly around. They’re getting to do what every other kid would love to do."
And Jennifer Konerko plans to take a page from her parents’ book. "I was always taught to never take anything for granted," she says. "They need to learn appreciation, respect, just like any other kid. Just because this is your daddy, it does not make you any more special than anyone else."
But Nicholas will enjoy comfort while he is growing up. Baseball has set a nice table for the Konerkos. And it’s only natural he would look to athletics to teach his son about life.
Many analysts say the hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball. Even the best hitters fail more than they succeed. Hitting a .300 average means a long and successful baseball career. (Konerko is a career .279 hitter.) But that means seven out of 10 times a player fails to get a hit.
Failure comes with the territory.
Yet, one of the trends in kids’ sports is games without scores—no winner, no loser. "I could not disagree more," says Konerko. "I think that it’s healthy for a kid to do bad.
"You should never be down on a kid for losing. [But] youth sports should be for getting kids ready for real life. You’re going to have a lot of tough things in life.
Stepping up to the plate
Sure, Paul can turn a 95-mile-an-hour fastball into a home run, but is he as good at changing diapers?
"No, not at all," Konerko says flatly. "I do it but it’s not fun for the child."
"You do all right," says Jennifer, patting her husband’s leg. "They’re so small, and it’s tough with big hands."
Just as Konerko learned baseball from watching some of the great players of his day, he and his wife are learning parenting from the experts they know.
Jerry Dawson, a retired teacher from Chaparral High School in Scottsdale and Konerko’s high school baseball coach says of the Konerkos: "They have great models to follow in their own parents. I’ve been a teacher for 35 years and that’s the greatest indicator of how good of parents you’ll be. They’re very grounded and very sincere. What you’re seeing with those kids is what they are. They’re just good people. They were raised right and they’re going to raise [Nicholas] right."
Konerko’s mom, Elena, and his dad, Hank, live close to Scottsdale. They also will be available to make occasional trips to Chicago or anywhere else on the road if Jennifer needs help.
Elena is impressed with what she’s seen from both parents so far. "They’re not possessive and I think that’s beautiful. They share their child with everyone. It’s a really wonderful thing to witness. I find that so unusual with new parents."
Both parents also know that they have to depend on one another.
"We keep talking about how we can’t wait until he starts saying things, walking … I look forward to it, but it comes up so fast, you don’t want to anticipate it," says Jennifer, who pretends she is holding little Nicholas, cradling her arms by her waist. "Can you stay this small?"
Babies grow up. And Nicholas Konerko stands to have more advantages than most kids. Still, Nicholas’ dad’s parenting goals are as lofty as his baseball accomplishments: "He’s going to be raised like anybody else would try to raise their kid. You just try to raise a good kid."
Mike Phillips, Jack’s dad, is editor of the weekly Chicago Parent E-News Update, and assistant to the editor at Chicago Parent.
Sox aren’t the only players at the Cell
It’s hard to imagine having attended a White Sox game last season and not watching every minute. Yet that’s exactly what we did. Because even during a world championship season, the games can get long for kids.
The White Sox management knew this, which is why last year they opened the 15,000-square-foot Pontiac Fundamentals at U.S. Cellular Field, where kids can take a break from watching the game—by playing it.
This is more than just a play area. It is a place kids where can learn about the game, improve their swing and get some coaching on pitching techniques. (OK, they can also learn about softball.)
My son, a real player, was poised at our seats with his glove, waiting for a ball. No way did he want to leave a championship season game to go check out a "kiddie play place," as he called it. I practically had to drag him to the area above the left-field concourse just before the seventh-inning stretch. But once we got there, I couldn’t get him back. And that was fine.
He spent more than 30 minutes catching pop-up flies and grounders in the youth-size baseball diamond area. If you don’t remember your glove, they have loaners, and everyone listens to the coaching while standing in line. When it’s your turn, the coaches pay attention to you. You catch one or two pop-ups or grounders while one of the White Sox Academy instructors gives you pointers. Then, you get in line and do it again. That day, the line moved quickly, so my son got a lot of great practice.
Then he took to the batting cages. There are four cages with different pitching speeds for younger and older players. Next thing we knew, the fireworks were going, signaling the end of the game.
The area is free and accessible from both the lower and upper levels of the ballpark. You just have to have a ticket to get into the field. It opens when the gates do and remains open throughout the game.