Konerko-White Sox deal almost didn't happen

Konerko-White Sox deal almost didn't happen

CHICAGO -- Some debate continues on as to how close the White Sox actually came to walking away from a new deal being forged with Paul Konerko at the Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

General manager Ken Williams addressed the media during the Tuesday evening of Major League Baseball's annual get-together, presenting all the respect and plaudits having been earned by an organizational icon and true class act such as Konerko. But the gist of Williams' speech was how it was time for the White Sox to explore other first-base options.

A contractual impasse apparently had been reached.

Less than one day later, Konerko was speaking on a lunchtime conference call concerning his new three-year, $37.5 million deal after Williams' news conference at the Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort to announce the agreement. So, was there ever any valid worry of separation anxiety forming between the White Sox and their captain, or was Williams posturing as much as he could while treating Konerko with the utmost dignity?

White Sox assistant general manager Rick Hahn insists the organization's mindset was actually to move in another direction before the two sides eventually came together.

"We absolutely felt that way," said Hahn, who served as the team's chief negotiator in the Konerko dealings and backed up Williams' somewhat dire Tuesday assessment. "Kenny and I had a meeting with a representative for another player after he met with the media [on Tuesday]. In all candor, it was time to start moving down that path aggressively.

"At the same time, Paul remained a priority throughout. We were not going to make the commitment elsewhere without at least one final push with Paul and [Konerko's representative] Craig [Landis] to try to get something done. Fortunately, it worked out for both sides.

"It was nice that neither side made any bones about wanting to make the deal work. But the desire and economics were two different things. He had viable alternatives, and we knew we had them."

Referring to Hahn as the White Sox contract specialist does a disservice to all the other responsibilities fulfilled by the assistant general manager as a trusted and valued White Sox front office member for the past decade. Teams such as Pittsburgh, St. Louis and most recently the Mets wouldn't have shown interest in Hahn as a GM candidate if he was simply about number crunching.

For this particular tale, though, the focus is on Hahn's work with contracts and Konerko's latest, in particular. This is more of a big-picture viewing of the captain's return and not so much an account of every single detail going on between the two sides since the end of the 2010 regular season.

Hahn prefers to not directly talk with a player in the negotiating process, keeping the dealings primarily between himself and Landis, using Konerko as an example. According to Hahn, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who has a close relationship with Konerko, had a couple of offseason conversations with the team's leader, but those were "more of an expression of appreciation and desire and hope."

"Quite frankly, it can be a difficult balance when you are dealing with a player having the stature of Konerko," Hahn said. "Really, as much as he's done for the organization, the memories of '05 and what he means to our clubhouse and our lineup ... there's a lot of history and emotion that can get involved.

"You have to do your best to sort of move that to one side. At the same time, when you are looking at the numbers and trying to go back and forth to come up with something equitable, there will be disagreements.

"Craig Landis is there to do a job, and that's to get the best contract possible with his client," Hahn said. "We are trying to do what we feel is appropriate by Paul, and at the same time, accommodate other payroll needs. We do have diverging interests at times, but fundamentally, both sides wanted to get something done. Ultimately, that's what we were able to do, but not without its obvious hiccups and its difficulties."

This final agreed-upon offer to Konerko was different from the original one made, and Hahn explained how there are very few situations where the team can say of an opening offer, 'Here it is. Take it or leave it.' Without going into too much detail, Hahn mentioned how initially there were disagreements with Konerko's camp over length and structure, and by the end, they had to work through issues about deferral and cash flow flexibility to get it done.

At the news conference, Williams told a story of how the Konerko agreement was arrived at while he sat with Hahn enjoying a sushi dinner Tuesday night. It was that one last effort Hahn spoke about above, an understanding reached to satisfy not just both sides but the fans and the White Sox man in charge.

"Jerry was more involved in expressing the desire to have Paul back," Hahn said. "He didn't want to have any part of the negotiations in terms of dollars and length.

"In Jerry's ideal word, he gives us a payroll to work with and we allocate it as we see fit. He's very much informed how things are progressing and of Plans A, B and C and why we are prioritizing certain players and paying certain amounts. But in terms of the nitty gritty of the exchange, he tries to stay out of that."

Frustrating would not be a final description for Hahn to place on this whole Konerko process, not with the past history of working out multi-year deals and the common goal in mind for both sides. It was more of a process, a challenging but hopeful process, leading to a mission accomplished.

"There was some back and forth, and it was tenuous at times," Hahn said. "There were still, when dealing with a player you want to bring back who wants to be back with you, it's hard not to lose that kernel of optimism at the end and find a way to make it work."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Being Ozzie Guillen and follow him on twitter at @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.