CHICAGO – Each Opening Day the previous 15 years, White Sox captain Paul Konerko could be found manning first base.
It was an odd sight Monday at U.S. Cellular Field, during the White Sox’s season opening 5-3 win against the Minnesota Twins, to watch Konerko sit on the bench while Cuban slugger Jose Abreu debuted at first.
Although Opening Day signifies a new season, it also brings the beginning to the end of an era for the Sox. Konerko, who will retire at the end of the season, is the last player remaining from the White Sox’s 2005 World Series title team. Yet Konerko and the White Sox have no qualms about the situation.
“Throughout the whole game, Paulie actually came and congratulated me when I made a good play or hit the ball,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “That’s something I’m very thankful for. To be honest with you, I’m very proud to be right next to Paulie in the dugout and be able to play with him.”
As Konerko steps back and takes on a reduced role this season, guys like Abreu, Chris Sale and Adam Eaton represent the new era. Sale, who made his second consecutive Opening Day start, delivered a solid performance, allowing three runs on five hits in 71/3 innings with eight strikeouts to pick up the win. And he walked off the field to a standing ovation.
“I think [Sale] controlled his emotions of opening the first game and going out there and really putting us in a position to win,” manager Robin Ventura said. “And the young guys, they were exciting and I think again the [windy] conditions you really had to concentrate and for us to play a clean game defensively is big and is just a step in the right direction.”
Five White Sox made their first career Opening Day starts – Abreu, Eaton, Avisail Garcia, Conor Gillaspie and Marcus Semien – and it’s the start of a youth infusion that general manager Rick Hahn believes the team needs.
“I do think the energy has changed,” Hahn said. “I do think the vibe has changed. And I think a lot of people in the front office and the coaches’ room and the clubhouse are excited about the direction we’re going. But we’re going to be tested.”
The White Sox will still have some hiccups this season as youngsters gain big-league experience. Semien, who is starting at second base while Gordon Beckham continues to recover from an oblique strain, went 0 for 4 in Monday’s win and Garcia finished 2 for 4. Both struck out and hit into a double play.
“I don’t know which one of the new guys will stutter at some point, but inevitably it will happen,” Hahn said. “As we all know, Joe Crede and Aaron Rowand had to go back to the minors before they became established big leaguers. Development is not linear. Sometimes there are fits and starts and sometimes guys pick up right where they left off in the minors or in a foreign league.”
It’s not difficult to see that the White Sox are moving past last year’s 99-loss season. Granted, Monday was only one game in a regular season of 162, but the White Sox are confident this new group can grow together and find sustained success similar to past White Sox teams.
“Finding players like Paul Konerko and Jim Thome and A.J. [Pierzynski], those staple guys, they aren’t easy to come by,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “You can’t blame them for hanging onto those guys for a long period of time. They’re once in a decade kind of players in their own right. You have to build everything up. It’d be nice to get a core group that prove themselves.”
• Meghan Montemurro can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @M_Montemurro.