Konerko, least appreciated star in the game, quietly excelling, again
Paul Konerko has carried the Chicago White Sox to first place in the AL Central
He is on pace for his sixth season of at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs
Konerko has been remarkably consistent but generates very few headlines
It is not difficult to guess the identities of the six men who have hit the most home runs in the major leagues since 2004. Included among them are men so famous that their easily chantable nicknames long ago supplanted in popularity those given to them at birth; men so valued that they have signed four of the eight most lucrative contracts ever bestowed upon members of their profession; men whose public images are so inextricably linked to their abilities to hit baseballs a long way that it would be nearly impossible, for the semi-educated baseball fan, to imagine such a leaderboard without them.
To quickly come up with the seventh man on the list -- after Albert Pujols, Adam Dunn, David Ortiz, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Howard -- you'd likely have be a denizen of Chicago's South Side, or you have been paying very close attention indeed to the game for the past decade-and-a-half or so. He is Paul Konerko, currently in his 14th season as the first baseman for the White Sox, and if he is the least heralded, least discussed star currently playing, this is how he likes it. The 36-year-old Konerko once again made that clear last Sunday, a day on which, unusually, he heard his name being uttered in the national discourse, as he ended it with a batting average of .399. "I don't think you pay attention to numbers ever until the season is over," he said, when a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times asked him about the possibility of his hitting .400, "but you certainly don't want to pay attention to them in May."
Two days later, Konerko's batting average had dipped all the way down to .386 -- still baseball's best by some 14 points -- and he was on track for yet another typically Konerkian year. He is on pace to hit 36 home runs (he currently has 11) and to drive in 107 runs (he has currently knocked in 33), which would be the sixth season of his career, and the third in a row, of 30-plus homers with 100-plus RBIs. It would be a great accomplishment, but not so unusually, eye-catchingly great that many will pay attention to it, even after the season is over.
We tend to focus on our stars in the same way we do the national report on The Weather Channel. We are captivated by the freak storms in the Great Plains, the sweltering highs somewhere in south Texas, the blood chilling lows in some Alaskan outpost; the 102-miles-per-hour fastballs thrown by Justin Verlander, the nine home runs in a week hit by Josh Hamilton, the month-long struggles of Albert Pujols. We don't much care about, or hear about, the weather in a place like, say, San Diego. Another cloudless, 75-degree day? Ho hum.
Konerko is the San Diego weather, underappreciated by nearly all those who aren't able to happily bask in its day-to-day, and year-to-year, splendor. "He's so consistent," says his teammate Dunn, who had himself been a model of consistency until suddenly last season, his first in Chicago, he wasn't. (Dunn -- who has now returned to his career standard -- hit .159 in 2011, and by most measures had the worst season that any very good player has ever had). "Even when he's struggling -- which he doesn't really do -- he's still getting his hits, driving in runs, getting real quality at bats."
In a world in which Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee are making $19 million apiece this season, Konerko has also been a consistently good deal for the White Sox and their GM, Kenny Williams. Each year since 2006, in which his average output has included 31 home runs and 95 RBIs, he has made no more and no less than $12 million -- not a pittance, certainly, but well outside the game's top 25 annual salaries, even in '06. He will make $12 million again this season, before receiving a well-deserved raise in 2013 -- to all of $13.5 million. "All I know is that he has been a rock solid producer for us, on the field and off the field," says Williams. "Yes, I agree with the assessment that he's underrated. But he doesn't begin to care about anything like that."
In fact, when Williams was searching last fall for a skipper to replace Ozzie Guillen -- presumably, one who could replicate Guillen's success without his volatility -- the GM thought of Konerko's remarkable steadiness of character and performance, and briefly, fancifully, flirted with the idea of making him baseball's first player-manager since Pete Rose held both roles for the Reds in the mid-1980s. "Did I consider it seriously? No, because he'd drive himself nuts being a manager and a player," says Williams now. "But guys like him, the leadership qualities that they possess can translate into managing and, as I was thinking out of the box, his name came to me as that of one of the best leaders that I know." Williams settled on the similarly even-keel Robin Ventura, who, with a major assist from Konerko, has the Sox in first place in the AL Central after a surprising 28-22 start.
"I definitely think we have the right guy in that manager's seat," says Dunn. "But I could certainly see Paul being a manager one day, too."
That day appears far off, as Konerko is currently enjoying the finest stretch of his career. His best two seasons, as measured by OPS+, came in 2010 and 2011. So far this year, his 198 mark trails only Hamilton's 204; Konerko is also second to the Rangers outfielder in offensive WAR, 2.6 to 3.1.
Even so, Konerko's fate seems sealed. He seems destined to become a symbol of the banality of greatness, and, five years after his retirement, one of those borderline Hall of Fame candidates whose credentials are endlessly, and often ultimately fruitlessly, argued. He got his 2,000th hit last year, smacked his 400th home run earlier this season and has made five All-Star teams. But 3,000 hits and 500 home runs are a long ways off and he has never finished in the top four in MVP voting.
Konerko, one suspects, will have little interest in any of it. A key factor in producing numbers such as his while going relatively unnoticed is that you have to want to go relatively unnoticed. You have to want to shun the spotlight, and the nicknames, and the ad campaigns, and the soundbites, and the drawn-out and public megacontract negotiations. This Paul Konerko has done very successfully. But not as successfully, we might notice some day, as he has played.
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