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2005 Sportsman of the Year

My Sportsman Choice: Paul Konerko

Posted: Tuesday November 8, 2005 12:01PM; Updated: Wednesday November 16, 2005 11:31AM
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Paul Konenro (left) hit 40 regular-season home runs for the Wold Champion White Sox.
Paul Konenro (left) hit 40 regular-season home runs for the Wold Champion White Sox.
David E. Klutho/SI
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By Tom Verducci

When I think of 2005, I will think of Paul Konerko, who was the best player and the team leader on a Chicago White Sox team that won the most awaited world championship in the history of the World Series. Chicago had waited 88 years for a year like this, longer than even Boston waited for its championship (just without the whole literary genre of angst-ridden fans and scribes and pseudo-mysticism).

Indeed, the White Sox seemed more ignored than cursed all these years. Even when they made it to the World Series, the Sox were saluted by a global athletic shoe company in a full page newspaper ad as the "Southside'' White Sox, an interloping copy writer insulting the team and its neighborhood by getting their home wrong in their moment of glory. (It's South Side, bandwagon riders.)

With Frank Thomas injured, Konerko, who arrived in November 1998 in a trade for Mike Cameron, was the longest tenured member of the World Series team. He was only 22 when he came to Chicago, joining his third organization in little more than five years in pro ball.

I'll remember Konerko standing there in the middle of the infield at Minute Maid Park in Houston, the championship freshly minted with a 1-0 win in Game 4 to finish the sweep. Ever observant and aware, Konerko knew the significance of the night and cherished it.

"I hit cleanup on a world championship team,'' he said. "What else do you want? This is it, this is what you think about in high school, in Little League. If you can even dream it up, this is it.''

As great as that sounds, there is much more to why Konerko is my Sportsman of the Year. Sure, the first baseman also had a great season, hitting 40 homers and driving in 100 runs. So respected and loved is Konerko in his own clubhouse that the players nearly went berserk when he reached 100 RBIs with a sacrifice fly in the last game of the year. The guy they call "Paulie,'' the way you would a brother; he is a grinder who plays every game as if he's still trying to prove himself in the big leagues.

He is unusually accommodating and honorable with the media. He was the last one to leave the Chicago clubhouse nearly every night in the postseason, lingering to answer what often were the same questions he had answered four times over, each time with honest, insightful thoughts. And when he did leave he would do so with an apology, telling reporters, "Sorry, guys, but I really have to go.''

I appreciated his candor, for instance, when he spoke about the White Sox' good fortune to play their best baseball at the best time, saying, "We could start the playoffs tomorrow and get knocked out in the three games.''

Moreover, there was that once-in-a-lifetime week he enjoyed in October, beginning on the 16th. That Sunday, with his team clinging to a 4-3 ninth inning lead in Anaheim, he drove in the back-breaking run that clinched Chicago's first AL pennant since 1959. On Tuesday he was home in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Jennifer, for the birth of their first child, Nicholas. And on the next Sunday he became the first player in World Series history to hit a grand slam that turned a deficit into a lead in the seventh inning or later.

Three days later, the out that ended the longest world championship ever in the making wound up, appropriately enough, with Konerko. He caught a throw from shortstop Juan Uribe for the last out. I had sensed long before that moment that Konerko was one of the rare gifted athletes who "gets it,'' who understands team sports are not opportunities for self-aggrandizement. But I gained even more appreciation for his honesty and humility with how he reacted to such an opportunity, what with this whole ownership of "last out'' baseballs becoming a cause celebre in recent years.

"It's going to go to somebody,'' Konerko said that night. "not for me. It's for a certain person and an organization that's waited a long time. I'll be long gone and it will still be there.''

Two days later, at a World Series championship parade, Konerko gave the baseball to owner Jerry Reinsdorf, no strings attached. Konerko understood the baseball had tremendous institutional value -- it belonged to the White Sox and the republic of their fans -- and sitting on a mantel in Scottsdale was no way to acknowledge and share that value.

There are certain players (alas, nowhere near enough) who act in such a respectful way that it makes me think what a wonderful job the parents must have done in raising their son. Derek Jeter, for instance, is one of those men. Konerko is another.

I don't pretend to know the man as a close friend or relative might, but I do see how the players who spend seven months around him -- a baseball clubhouse reveals nearly all of a player's character -- revere Konerko. I do understand the magic of his year. First Sox world championship in 88 years. First late-inning, game-changing World Series grand slam. First-born child.

And I do appreciate his humility in a world that never has enough of it. Much of the world's conflict is rooted in a lack of humility, an arrogance and insolence that the Greeks called "hubris.'' In the small world of professional sports, this kind of look-at-me-aren't-I-great bravado has grown tiresome and, sadly, to be accepted behavior. That's why we should appreciate Konerko, a team player in the best sense of the title. He is a champion. He is a sportsman.

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Sports Illustrated will announce the 2005 Sportsman of the Year winner on Friday, Dec. 9 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.

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