Fans, Konerko share special relationship

Fans, Konerko share special relationship

CHICAGO -- Joel Antol was in Madison, S.D., on Friday while, at U.S. Cellular Field, the Royals were celebrating their first playoff berth in 29 years.

As the champagne soaked the visitors' clubhouse, Antol was wrapping his radio call of a high school football game, scurrying his way out of the press box. He trekked 240 miles northeast to Minneapolis, where he caught a 6:30 a.m. flight to Chicago.

"I had to be here for Paulie," Antol said of retiring White Sox icon Paul Konerko, who was honored with a near-40 minute pregame ceremony in front of 30,000 plus on Saturday.

Linda Wisniewski and her only daughter, Sandra Bohlman, have been coming to Opening Day together since the latter was a child. It's an annual tradition -- no husbands or (grand)children allowed.

Wisniewski and Bohlman extended their ritual on Saturday, wearing two crying baby face masks bought at Party City en route to the park, to personify their heartache of watching their favorite player's final weekend.

"We're going to miss him," Wisniewski said. "He's our favorite. Paulie is by far the best. He's just a good guy. He has great integrity."

Added Bohlman: "He cares about his fans. He's classy."

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Lou Gould grew up at 32nd and Wells, a stone's throw from old Comiskey Park, which he insists is better than the still-standing, 100-year-old Wrigley Field 10 miles north.

Gould was at the gates on Saturday a full 90 minutes before they opened, three-plus hours before Konerko's ceremony. The payoff: being in the first row just behind the White Sox on-deck circle during batting practice.

"When you grew up as close as I did, it's built in your blood," Gould said of his love for the South Siders.

Gould noted ticket prices and a few sour seasons have kept him away from the ballpark in recent years. But Gould said he wanted to match Konerko's loyalty to Chicago, where the All-Star stayed after a completed contract, with higher offers elsewhere.

"There's very little loyalty in baseball, and really, in sports these days," Gould said. "Those kind of guys like Paulie, Derek Jeter -- they're few and far between these days. Paul shows it a lot by playing. You get a feeling much more that he loves the game. He'd come out here and play for a dollar a game as if it were a sandlot game."

Bohlman said the White Sox have been a unifying platform for their family, particularly during Konerko's tenure, when the team consistently contended.

The echoes of Hawk Harrelson reverberate through the kitchen while Wisniewski cooks; Bohlman busy in the living room with her four-year-old son watching the game, barely versed, yet chanting: "Paulie! Home run!"

Antol grew up in Cubs territory on the North Side, but was entrenched in White Sox mores through his father, who two months prior made the plans to attend Saturday's ceremony. A 600-plus mile separation to South Dakota generally reverts their meetings only to the holidays. But this weekend, it was baseball that brought them back.

"You look back over the last 14-15 years, he's been a part of every big moment," Antol said of Konerko. "It's Paulie. We really wanted to be here for this."

Konerko spoke to the crowd for eight minutes during his pregame ceremony in front of one of the park's largest crowds of 2014.

"I'm not even going to say fans, I'm going to say friends," Konerko said to a roaring ovation. "All my friends in this building right now. You know, for some reason when I got here early in my career, I don't know what it was, I really hadn't done anything, but you guys treated me like I had been here and there was some kind of a connection I felt.

"The relationship between myself and you guys, it just fit right. I tried to earn that as best as I could for you guys. Like I said, I could have had a good career anywhere, but never would have happened in this city and this stadium could I have had without all of you guys. It just fit and it worked and I tried to run with it as long as I could and I really appreciate all the support.

"So when you look at that statue out there, or you look at that number that's going to go right there, just realize that when you look at that when I'm not there and you're at these games, your fingerprints are all over it. It wouldn't be there without you guys, so thank you."

Daniel Kramer is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.