Thursday, September 25, 2014

An Ode To Paul Konerko

There's been a crazy level of hype and discussion this season about the impending retirement of Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.  (I am pretty much in agreement with Keith Olbermann on the need to tone it down.)  I'm more interested in the retirement of a very good but less well-known player: Paul Konerko.

Paulie (as he's known to my fellow White Sox fans) has been the team's offensive rock for over a decade,  a steady influence in the clubhouse, and the kind of player who people already assume will be a manager.  Unlike Jeter, however, Konerko will not be going to the Hall of Fame.  He is one of those stellar players good enough to hit 400 home runs and go to six All-Star games, but never lead the league in anything.  As far as the non-ChiSox baseball world is concerned, Konerko is an easy inductee into the Hall of Very Good a la Tommy John and Tony Oliva, and they leave it at that.

It's different for us White Sox fans.  Other mainstays like Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, and Mark Buehrle left through trade and free agency, but Paulie has been on the team since 1999.  His grand slam  in game 2 of the 2005 World Series might be the greatest moment in team history since the days of straw boaters and spats.  He is in top three all time for the White Sox in hits, home runs, and RBI.  I can't think of another player on the team more loved and respected by the fans.

That Konerko is taking his bow in the shadow Jeter is about the most White Sox thing he could have done.  The team has built its identity around being overlooked and contrarian.  They play in a newer yet plain ballpark that is neither the multipurpose ashtray of the past, nor the retrofied amusement park of the present. White Sox fans are constantly aware that their team is second fiddle in the Windy City to the Cubs, even though the Sox have won a recent World Series and have generally been the better team over the last three decades.  When the Sox won their title in 2005, it was their first since 1917, and their first World Series appearance since 1959.  However, the magic of breaking that losing streak did not become a national story and obsession, since the Red Sox had broken their curse the season before.  In any case, the White Sox did not have some kind of colorful "Curse of the Bambino" schtick.  Whereas the 2004 Red Sox win was treated like a historical event, the 2005 White Sox victory was just another World Series win like all the rest.

In the end, that suited the perennially overlooked White Sox team and their fans' mentality to a tee.  Maybe more than any other fan base, White Sox fans are level-headed and realistic.  They knew the reasons their team sucked for so long were pretty mundane, and not supernatural.  When their team stinks, they don't blow their money on tickets, they want to force the ownership to do better.  They can often be very demanding of their managers and star players; even during the championship run in 2005 manager Ozzie Guillen spent plenty of time on the hot seat.

In many respects, Konerko is the perfect fit for the White Sox.  He has steadily put up good numbers over the years, plugging away and able to turn in one of his best seasons while he was in his middle thirties.  Konerko has done this, and lead the team, with quiet consistency.  I first made the fateful decision to be a White Sox fan in 1999, having moved to Chicago (the first major league city I'd ever resided in) in the fall of 1998.  The Cubs seemed like more fun, and Sosa was in the midst of his glory years, but being a bit of a crank and contrarian (and living on the South Side at the time), I realized that the White Sox were really more my style.  That year also happened to be Paulie's first for the team, when I looked at him skeptically, wondering if his impressive AAA numbers would translate to the bigs.  Sixteen years later, it is hard to imagine what it will be like to see my favorite team take the field in the spring without him.

1 comment:

Matt J. said...

Well put. I was raised a Cubs fan, but without the Sox hatred that often goes with the territory. When I cared about baseball the most, both teams were terrible, so the fan rivalry seemed kind of pointless and driven by stereotypes. I even flirted with the Sox for a while in high school and beyond, since their games were more affordable than those of the Cubs, and many Cubs fans bugged me (or maybe it was the national perception of Cubs fans? No matter).

I always appreciated Frank Thomas (I think he's my favorite), and got to meet Ozzie Guillen a couple of times (his description of Bobbie Jenks is priceless), but Paul Konerko was and is a class act, and whenever the Cubs and Sox played during interleague, I dreaded his at-bats. One thing that always struck me about him was how much he put into every single plate appearance. He would focus so intently, and swing with such force, that when he missed, he would seem to screw himself into the ground, Bugs Bunny-style. And when he connected, as in the highlight you mentioned in the post ...