Sunday, September 28, 2014

"I don't want to say 'fans,' I want to say 'friends'."

I was at U.S. Cellular field last night to say so long to Paul Konerko, one of my all-time favorite baseball players. Konerko's retiring after 18 seasons, 15 with the Chicago White Sox, leaving behind a solid and productive career, including—as of this morning; he has one game left this afternoon—over 9,500 plate appearances, 2,340 hits, 439 homer runs, 1,412 RBI, 410 doubles, a .279 batting average, and an OPS of .841. He played in the postseason three times, including a World Series Championship (2005), made six All-Star Teams, and, as Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf reminded the throng last night, is the first player to hit a solo, two-run and three-run home run, along with a grand slam, in postseason history. If his career numbers numbers are likely to keep Konerko out of the Hall Of Fame, it's worth noting that they were compiled in the Steroid Era, that Konerko played clean, and that they were excruciatingly earned. An outstanding fastball hitter and excellent first baseman, Konerko was not a supremely gifted player otherwise: he was awfully slow, struck out too much, especially late in his career, was prone to hitting into rally-killing double plays, and endured ghastly, painful-to-watch slumps. As I've written before, Konerko's body language was always an indicator of the degree to which he worked hard, day in and day out, to maximize his relatively limited baseball skills. When he struck out, or popped up feebly to third, or sent a ball dribbling harmlessly to second, he often reacted with a visible I really can't take this anymore frustration: head down, shoulders slumped, a pose of anger and resignation he'd take with him as he stalked to a sullen dug out. Few baseball players I've seen in my lifetime have so graphically proven the argument that baseball is a very, very hard game to master over a long career. To put up the numbers Konerko did is testament to his love of the game, a game bigger than individual statistical peaks and depths, a game that is brutally humbling to even the most gifted. To a regular starter like Konerko, the daily lessons in humility were as part of his game as strapping on his jock and locating his batting glove. Paul Konerko's career numbers were etched, determined, and it often appeared, tabulated at a cost.

That's misleading, and possibly precious: Konerko loved playing baseball, and retiring must be tough. Last night's pre-game festivities for Paul Konerko Day were a predictable blend of warmth and boredom: Sox television announcer Hawk Harrelson held forth, gently mocking Konerko while setting up video board clips of his greatest achievements; Jerry Reinsdorf spoke well of The Captain, and presented him with his World Series grand slam ball pried loose from the guy (Chris Claeys) who caught it. That was a nice moment. But generally the video tributes from teammates, ex-teammates, and players around the league and across the decade were full of dull platitudes and corny jokes, and were marred by surprisingly sub-par sound at The Cell. Konerko spoke, of course, looking like he willed himself up to that microphone as he willed himself through a particularly brutal slump: this is my job. With class, he thanked all responsible for the ceremony and congratulated the Kansas City Royals on their successes. Then, smiling and gesturing broadly to the crowd of 38,160, he said, "I don't want to say fans, I want to say friends." That seemed genuine sentiment, not sentimentality, issuing from a graciousness and humility that many who personally know Konerko speak of. Later during the game, my friends and I walked the outfield concourse to check out the new Konerko statue, facing the bronze likeness of Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas. Alas, the crowd was too thick for me to get close, but the photos I did take speak volumes, I think, for the love and affection that this city has for Konerko.


As for the game—oh yeah, the game—the Sox won, 5-4, forestalling the Royals' unlikely, and terrifically exciting, grab for a first place tie in the American League Central Division. John Danks pitched well, Jose Abreu hit another monster home run. Konerko came to bat three times. In his last AB before manager Robin Ventura pulled him to yet another standing ovation, Konerko struck out looking, twirled on his back foot in a kind of Drat, fooled again dance, and sulked back to the dug out.

Perfect. It's a hard game. Thanks for gutting it out for so long and giving us so much pleasure watching you play. See you, Paulie.

An era ending.

The Captain's number.

Black and white balloons rise into the air from the site of the new Paul Konerko statue.

9:04 pm. Last At Bat on Paul Konerko Day


Post-season update: in a fitting farewell to a career played out of the limelight, Konerko was named, with Jimmy Rollins, as co-winner of the 2014 Roberto Clemente Award, recognition for "players who best represent the game of baseball through positive contributions on and off the field, including sportsmanship and community involvement."



John Domini said...

Compliments, Joe. A fitting tribute to this sturdy gamer.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, John.