Paul Konerko: Adults Only

I don't like commercials. And I especially dislike when commercials try to force their approximation of sentiment into their skeevy profit-chasing agenda. Despite all the things White Sox commercials have going for them inherently when I am their audience, I find them tedious; an attempt to trick me into something I already like with an empty gimmick.

The Paul Konerko grand slam commercial has a similar, if less loathsome problem. Having a small child re-enact their baseball hero is a relatable experience for almost everyone, but it's not for Konerko.

I'm biased, of course. Konerko's White Sox debut came when I was 12 years-old, and was just beginning to accept that other players were not Frank Thomas and that was OK. His prime came in my late-teens. When he anchored the lineup of a World Championship, I was in my first year of college, and when he had his stirring late-career renaissance season, I was writing about the team for the first time.

Understanding and appreciating Paul Konerko was part of the process of approaching baseball as an adult, and he always gave the impression he was doing the same.

Konerko gave 15 minutes of press availability on the Sunday before last. He mostly talked about his hand, and why he needed to take a few days of swing work to come back. He also talked about Jose Abreu drawing a particularly laborious walk, and praised him for "grinding out" an at-bat. Konerko was not notable for his revolutionary conclusions or ideas. He believes in clutch hitting, productive outs, and almost every other hallmark concept of close-minded traditionalists. Like so many players before him that he's often thought to be smarter than, Konerko has played past his effectiveness, knowingly.

But it's about how he arrives there. Konerko spent about five minutes talking about his hand and his reasons for taking two extra days. He poured over a list of possible things that could go wrong if he wasn't properly prepared, like an overzealous insurance salesman. Then, instead of leaving it at simple praise of Abreu, poured over all the separate reactions and preparations present in drawing out a walk against a pitcher that owns you. There's some saberist insight buried in that process; pitcher-hitter matchup results are mostly trivia, because everyone is constantly changing, reacting, adjusting.

Part of adulthood is beginning to understand nuance, moving behind naive certainty. Frank Thomas was a player for childlike understanding. He produced every year, the same numbers--that streak of 20 HR, .300 BA, 100 R, 100 RBI, 100 BB, which only struck me as truly nutty when it was over--because it seemed like he was the same, baseball was the same, and he would dominate it forever until he decided to stop.

Konerko was different, not simply different from Thomas, but different from himself as himself. A kind way is to say he evolved, but it's too simple. He aged. He progressed through the years. Sometimes he improved because of knowledge he gained, skills he accrued, other times he lost ground in his fights with bad habits and buried himself in slumps and bad habits. His body broke and cracked and parts of his wrist floated around as the games piled up. He conquered all of his issues at once 2010 for a shocking career-season at age 34, but was foreseeing his own demise two years later.

Konerko's career was not just a rising and falling action, nor were injuries some sort of all-ruining force. In our optimistic moments, we often calculate what a player would do if some mitigating factor was removed; a slump, an injury, time spent in an unfavorable ballpark. Watching Konerko showed there were always mitigating factors, success was just about managing them, preparing for them, and fighting them even as the results slumped. Stuff happened and he dealt with it, some circumstances were better for him than others

As is typical, Konerko's discussion of Abreu's 14-pitch walk quickly turned existential. He got wrapped up in Abreu's recognition of the situation--down a run, leading off the ninth, needing a baserunner. "I love it because that's how I've tried to fight my whole career," he said. Konerko, like Abreu assuredly will, has spent his life as a middle-of-the-order masher who seemingly had free reign to do whatever he could at the plate, got caught up in running through all the different situations--from hitting sac flies to grounding out to the right side to push a runner over--for producing runs and being prepared for them all. He took pride in the extent of his accounting, and expressed approval of a fellow acolyte.

I personally wince at the theory behind prime-era Konerko grounding out to second to push a runner to third and hoping someone likely far less qualified brings them home, but his discussion is about the discipline of preparation for everything, fulfilling responsibility. That grand slam, that mythologized moment repurposed as a childlike fantasy, for me, it's easier to see as Konerko fulfilling his duty, having his process rewarded.

Bases loaded, close game, reliever trying to limit damage and get ahead in the count; he recognized his advantage but also his responsibility to hold off for something to really drive, so he keyholes on something pull for power, and jumps on a get-me-over before a slider count could come up.

"He's got nasty stuff, that guy," Konerko said at the time. "He threw it exactly where I was looking."

A legendary moment, but better if you include everything that went into it.