I think I have noted before that baseball, unlike so many other sports, and likely because of its intimate connection to the seasons, acts like a kind of clock … kind of unusual for a sport noted for not having a clock to keep time on the field.
Baseball, like so much of life, sees eras of stability interspersed with chaos. I think baseball appeals to the very same part of my mind that science does: the paradoxical coalescence of the chaotic and random nature of the quantum realm with the plodding timelessness of the vast relativistic realm of the larger universe.
Take the Los Angeles Dodgers. Between 1954 and 1996 the team had two managers (Walt Alston and Tommy Lasorda; by contrast, the Sox had 16 managers in that same space of time). The team had been owned by the O’Malley family for slightly longer. The stability produced great teams and a wonderful environment. These were the great Dodger teams of Drysdale and Koufax and Buckner and Garvey and Valenzuela and Hershiser. One high school baseball coach I talked to said that he always encouraged his players to reject being drafted into the Major Leagues in favor of going to college, unless they were drafted by the Dodgers, because they would arrange for money to be set aside for college, in case the playing experience didn’t pan out. From 1992 to 1996, every National League Rookie of the Year was a Dodger. The past and future were bright.
That stability crashed down and burned in 1998 like Bikini Atoll when the O’Malley family sold the Dodgers to billionaire tyrant Darth Rupert Murdoch (specifically to the Fox Corporation). Dodgers fans felt like Catholics would seeing Notre Dame sold off to a business coalition of Orel Roberts, Benny Hinn, and Pat Robertson. One of the first moves under the Fox regime was trading away Mike Piazza, the future Hall of Fame and much, much beloved catcher. Anyone in Dodger Nation who was rocking back and forth thinking that Fox Corp would not ruin the team was immediately snapped back into reality. Dodger Nation was most displeased, and the Fox group reacted by giving the people what they wanted. The Dodgers wanted to do some more unloading, and while their first baseman Eric Karros would have been a wise give away, the ownership felt that getting rid of another fan favorite would cause attendance to collapse. They did have a first baseman, a shiny, juicy young first round draft pick who was under-performing. Sure enough, on the Fourth of July, the Dodgers sent their extraneous first baseman to Cincinnati … Eric Karros, popular as he was, did not have a long career ahead of him. By 2002 he was out of L.A., and he was retired by 2004, never having made an All-Star team.
That unwanted first baseman spent the rest of 1998 in Cincinnati. On November 11, 1998, he was traded to the White Sox in return for Mike Cameron.
Cameron was a decent outfielder. Later, playing in Seattle, he would take revenge on the White Sox by becoming the first Mariner to slam 4 home runs in one game. While his career would not last as long as the guy he was traded for, statistically, the White Sox lost on the trade.
Yet, I can say this reliably, not one member of White Sox Township would go back and undo that trade. That was the trade that brought Paul Konerko to the South Side. This weekend, after all of these years … after the strange journey from hopeful prospect of Dodger Nation to exulted hero of White Sox Township, he ends his career.
Given the tendency of the White Sox to constantly move people on to and off of the team, it is very rare that a player with significant playing time retire from the White Sox. In my lifetime, this is only the second time that a player on the White Sox has reached retirement after a significant 10+year career with the team. Prior to free agency in the mid 1970s, this used to be a more common sight around baseball. In that sense, Paul Konerko is a huge success for White Sox fans everywhere. In the entire 115 year history of the White Sox, only Ted Lyons, Red Faber, Luke Appling, Ray Schalk, and Frank Thomas spent 15 or more years with the White Sox. Paul Konerko is only the sixth such player in team history, and with Frank Thomas, only the second to play after 1950.
Moments? Paulie collected his career 2000th hit and 4000th home run with the Sox. His World Series grand slam will remain a part of White Sox lore (40,000 were there, and easily 50,000 will claim to have been there). There was the incident where he get hit in the face, and yet continued to first base. In 2009, he had a 3-home run game against Cleveland.
He is one of roughly a dozen Sox players to bat 0.280 since 1950. He ranks second all-time in home runs, RBIs, sacrifice flies, and extra base hits. He is third in hits and doubles , fourth in walks and runs scored. Only Luke Appling wore the uniform in more games, and only Appling and Nellie Fox came to bat more often. His 10 grand slams are a team record, and just this year he became the first White Sox player to reach 4000 total bases. His nine consecutive years with at least 20 home runs is a team record. His 13 years with at lest 20 home runs is also a club record. 29 games saw him hit multiple home runs … three more than former teammate Frank Thomas for the Sox record. He has hit 259 home runs at U.S. Cellular Field, two shy of Frank Thomas’ career record for the stadium.
Konerko’s retirement is being overshadowed by the national media campaign surrounding Derek Jeter’s retirement. Jeter is certainly going to be a first-ballot Hall-of-Fame player, and playing for some of the best teams money can buy gave him opportunities to establish some post season records. Jeter, like Konerko, was a team captain. Unlike Jeter, Konerko never wore the “C” on his uniform. He led quietly in the clubhouse. One of my colleagues has a son who professionally blogs for the White Sox, and confirmed that Konerko was not only one of the nicest people to work with, but really was the person looked up to by the other players. He leads by power voluntarily ceded to him rather than the power invested to him. In an era where authoritarianism has run rampant, it is nice to leadership working the way it should. In great Broadway tradition, Jeter’s farewell was nationally broadcast, and involved drama both manufactured and real. I suspect this weekend, Paul Konerko’s farewell will be more sedate … much more the way he seems to like it and more fitting the Middle West.
A few years ago, Robin Ventura was hired to manage the Sox. White Sox GM Kenny Williams admitted that there was some discussion about asking Paul Konerko to become a player manager. Many think that Konerko has the disposition to be a great manager or coach. Konerko, however, has said that he intends to stay home and be a husband and father while playing the guitar whenever possible (Cleveland’s baseball club gave him a beautiful new guitar in White Sox team colors and logos). Among the other retirement gifts he received:
- A #14 from the scoreboard at Wrigley Field (from the Chicago Cubs)
- First base from Yankee Stadium (signed by the Yankees, and presented by fellow retiree, Derek Jeter)
- A really big bottle of wine (2005 vintage) and a $10,000 donation to Paul’s children’s charity
Not much … I guess most of the love is reserved for players who attract media attention. Konerko has played solidly and led quietly. The rest of the League may not miss him so much, but on Chicago’s South Side, he will be dearly missed as few players before him have been missed.
Follow up (8/27/2014)
As a rule, I usually never go to baseball games once the school year starts. I did in 1993 to see the Sox play their first playoff game in the new stadium, and again 2006 when the Sox opened the season after winning the World Series. I talked it over with a friend, and we decided to go on out and say goodbye to Paulie.
The pregame festivities were very nice. Among the gifts he received: a custom Bench by Ron (Ron being former Sox slugger and noted philanthropist Ron Kittle). He received a beautiful painting highlighting his White Sox career. He received a shadowbox with baseballs: white baseballs surrounding black ones forming the number “14” … with the white ones each signed by a member of the 2005 World Series champions. The White Sox gave him two guitars (which he collects and plays): a 1976 Gibson (his birth year) and a 1963 Fender Stratocaster (I don’t know nothing about guitars, but I suspect this is a rare/especially desirable model of guitar).
The Chariman of the White Sox had some balloons released form the outfield concourse to reveal the newest bronze statue: Paul Konerko, fist raised as he trots to first base after his dramatic World Series grand slam in Game 2 (both he and his parents received maquettes). For those who have never seen it … its kind of like the US beating the Soviets in terms of “great moments in White Sox history”:
After the World Series, Paul Konerko presented the ball which accounted for the final out to Chairman Reinsdorf. You would think that a guy who has been through 6 Bulls championships wouldn’t be so moved, but Reinsdorf was very touched by the gesture. Reinsdorf related this story to the crowd, Saturday night, and told Paulie that he was not giving the ball back … but did say that they had spent many years trying to track down the ball he hit for that grand slam. The found it, and the guy who caught it was willing to part with it. And so out the gentleman came (Chris Claeys, a true Sox fan), and gave Konerko the ball. That was pretty touching!
Sadly, Paul Konerko has not been hitting well at all, and he was pulled in the seventh inning to allow him to walk off the field to applause rather than people remembering another strikeout or ground out. Before he was lifted, we got to see his replacement, Jose Abreu hit his 36th home run of the year, breaking the White Sox all-time rookie home run record set 31 years ago by Ron Kittle.
Follow up (8/28/2014)
Earlier in the week, our department secretary was kind enough to give me some gift certificates to get some free White Sox tickets. Unfortunately, I had to present them in person at the box office, and my schedule was not allowing for me to get down to the South Side.
I was then hit by inspiration: since I was already going to be there on Saturday … I could get free tickets to Paulie’s final game ever … and keep those as nice keepsakes of a game I never went to. So I did. Of course, my friend Matt asked for a ticket, which I gave him (I had four), and said he was coming down on Sunday, and that a real Sox fan would be there for that special game. I’m above being goaded into most things, but having it implied that I am not a real Sox fan is not going to work. So for the first time ever, I found myself at back-to-back Sox games. Not to mention, it was the first time I got to go to the very last game of the season.
Much like the day before, Paulie was not hitting very well. In the fifth inning, the time had come. After he trotted out into the field, Paulie was replaced,and left the field to thunderous applause. White Sox fans, notorious for not being at games, showed up in droves these two days, so the applause really was thunderous. It was a beautiful day for a game, and an anticlimactic, if not quiet good bye.