Much has been made about this being Paul Konerko's farewell season. I've been a bit of a curmudgeon about it since it was announced that he would be back for 2014. My objections to his return were both for strategic reasons and emotional ones. The roster, particularly the bench, was looking incredibly inflexible, and having a 1B/DH who can only really hit LHP is a player with narrow uses. Emotionally...well, Konerko really looked like he didn't have anything left at the end of 2013. Besides, it felt like there had already been a lot of Farewell/Lifetime Achievement Award type moments that season, and it didn't make sense to do another lap of that, particularly on what looked to be a rebuilding team with its eyes primarily on 2015. But, that doesn't change the fact that I think he's awesome.
I suppose it's fitting that the end of Konerko's career will leave mixed feelings as that is how his White Sox career began for me. It's easy to forget that the retiring slugger wasn't always on the White Sox. He was originally drafted by the Dodgers in 1994. He was given the briefest of looks before LA decided that the 22-year old who had played about ~50 games in the majors wasn't nearly as useful as a good reliever and traded him to the Reds along with Dennys Reyes in exchange for the closer Jeff Shaw. Cincinnati only played Konerko for 26 games before trading him to the White Sox for Mike Cameron.
Mike Cameron's skill set had all of the classic trappings of an underrated player. An elite but not particularly flashy glove in CF, Cameron was also an efficient base-stealer and his low average often masked the fact that his bat was above average. When the trade happened I was a big Mike Cameron fan and had never heard of Paul Konerko, so the newcomer got off on the wrong foot with me.
Konerko was immediately an above-average hitter for the White Sox, and would be above-average or better every year of his tenure with the club until 2013...except for 2003. Somehow Konerko's age-27 season, a year that is supposed to be at or near most guys' peak, was abysmal. He mustered an OPS+ of 83. After years of the media gleefully declaring Frank Thomas cooked and Konerko as his successor, I felt smugly vindicated - more so that Frank had a lot left in the tank, of course. I was not happy that Konerko had done so poorly. What's worse, I was miserable that Konerko was obviously the biggest underperformer on a team that would lose the AL Central to the Twins by only 4 games.
But Konerko would make up for all of that with style. For over 9,000 PAs, Konerko was 20% above the league average for offense, and was by far the best hitter on the 2005 championship team, with magical playoff moments to match. He was a huge part of that team that was so locked in during the playoffs that you just knew he was going to crank those dingers off Angels pitching in the ALCS. You could tell that he was going to take Chad Qualls deep for that grand slam in the World Series. It was a deep, competent lineup - but Konerko was by far the most dangerous and exciting threat they had.
Aside from those highlights, some of the things I will remember fondly...
- Any time he actually made a play with his "speed" -- his inside the park home run against the Devil Rays on an insane ricochet in the outfield, or any time he somehow beat out an infield hit.
- I really loved watching him play first base defensively. For all that his range was never great and got worse as he aged, he did come up as a catcher and stop over at third base before finding his natural position as a first baseman. Konerko was always sure-handed when he did get to a ball, and I particularly enjoyed his throwing. Konerko had an accurate and strong arm, and was great at knowing when to try to start a double play from first.
- Konerko's bat speed. The dude could just turn around on velocity with such a simple, effortless swing. I attribute a lot of the really unusual arc of his career - the aforementioned crater at 27, and then the three year mini-slump at ages 31-33 before suddenly posting the best two years of his career at 34-35 - to that very skill. I remember one of Konerko's problems in the first half of his career was almost that his bat was too fast. Pitchers could steal strikes off of him or force grounders by busting him inside. Konerko would swing so quickly on it that he would rip a screaming liner foul, or blast a grounder right to the third baseman. Given his lack of speed, anything a 3B or SS could get their hands on meant an out. In 2003 Konerko lead the majors in double plays hit into. But by age 34-35, Konerko had learned how to harness his batspeed (and perhaps it had slowed a bit by that point), and he was successfully serving tennis-style forehands to left field more often than blasting a liner into the third base clubhouse.
As time went on, other old favorites left and Konerko was the last man standing. By all accounts, he is a great teammate, and I was very open to the idea of him as the player-manager before Robin Ventura was hired. And hey, this commercial always made me happy.
The 2005 playoffs and championship constitutes the high water mark of a very distinguished career. But really the loss will be felt beyond the highs and lows. Konerko has been a steady presence at first base, a reliable and welcome sight for fifteen years. His absence will be bizarre, and with his retirement the last tie to the 2005 team will be cut. Well, unless they bring back Neal Cotts or Brandon McCarthy, I suppose.
Whether Konerko can get back on the field in the remaining couple of weeks doesn't change the fact that he was this stable, lovable force that came through so many times - and, in retrospect, the times that things didn't work out just made the times he did succeed that much sweeter. In many ways, Konerko fits the White Sox of his era, with the ups and downs, the disappointments, the cherished joy when it came. But when you step back and look at it, far more good than bad.
I wish you all the best, Paulie. Thank you for the memories.