On Paul Konerko and South-Sidedness

The second team in the Second City deals with it, thanks to their captain.
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… It was just the White Sox trying to play it out. You know, trying to make it look better. Trying to make it look better for all of us. They represented not Chicago, but the South Side. Do you know what it feels like to be a South Sider in a world of North Siders? Yeah. Let me tell you about that. They got this special ball team up there. They call 'em the Cubs. And they have this ballpark that has these vines growing up. And on top of the vines they got these little guys wearing Wrigley gum hats. And this big fat clown of an announcer who's always saying, "Yeah, the Cubs are gonna have a great year! The Cubs are gonna have a great year!" And I remember one time the White Sox are playing the Cubs in the City Series, which is the only kind of glory we ever saw, and Mike Kreevich got lost for fifteen minutes in the vines in center field. They had to call the game for a while when they went out there and looked for him. Mike Kreevich, White Sox outfielder, who hadn't seen a leaf in years! This guy lived in nothing but concrete and coal mines. Mike Kreevich, there's a name. There is a White Sox name. … This is a name that's made out of old red bricks. Used bricks. The kind of bricks you buy at the lumberyard, got chunks of tar hanging on it, and old concrete, pieces of straw and other things--can't even discuss it.

Jean Shepherd, from "Balls" in Jean Shepherd & Other Foibles (1959)

Konerko is a White Sox name too. A large contingent of baseball fans, bloggers, and writers have recently deduced what White Sox fans have known for years: Paul Konerko is one hell of a ballplayer. He's always done his job well, and he's always done it with little national attention, despite winning a ring in 2005 and hitting more than 400 home runs in 16 years in the majors. Two weeks ago, after Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija threw a wild pitch that sliced Konerko's brow in a nationally televised game, the baseball world belatedly took notice of the stats the White Sox slugger had compiled through the first two months of the 2012 season. It's difficult to ignore a guy with a massive black eye and a batting average near .400. His torrid output continued after the beaning and he was the hottest hitter in baseball for most of the intervening time. His average has cooled a bit after reaching .399 on May 27, but Konerko is clocking an OPS of 1.062 through 50 games, well above his nothing-to-sneeze-at career mark of .862.. Konerko, unsurprisingly, is taking his stats and the attendant media glare in stride.

Paul Konerko, axe murdered

{Paul Konerko as drawn by Dmitry Samarov}

Paul Konerko arrived in Chicago as quietly as he's done everything else in his career, as a former first round pick who was cast aside by the Dodgers and then the Reds after very short trials. During 1999 spring training, a long-vanished jobber named Jeff Abbott, apparently a fan of irony and alliteration, dubbed the low-key newcomer "King." Konerko had hit just seven big league homers in 247 National League plate appearances. Despite low expectations in 1999, he earned the everyday first base job before the full heat of summer arrived. In the thirteen years since, Konerko has averaged 147 games per season (not because he's avoided injuries, but because he's played through them), hit 400 home runs, and played rock solid defense at first base (Gold Glove awards be damned). Sox fans took to him almost immediately. In 2000, a potent offense featuring Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, and Paul Konerko helped the Sox reach the postseason for the first time since 1993. Fans called him “Paulie” and Chicago magazine included him in its list of the city’s most eligible bachelors. In 2004 he clubbed 41 home runs and succeeded Frank Thomas as the face of the franchise. When he crushed a grand slam in Game Two of the 2005 World Series, he became a Sox legend. That offseason, he earned even more South Side respect when he turned down big free-agency offers to stay in Chicago for less money—something he’d do again in 2010. When Ozzie Guillen named him captain of the White Sox prior to the 2006 season, Paul Konerko's 14 became a lock to join the retired numbers on the outfield walls upon his retirement.

But for most of the baseball world, the 2005 White Sox World Series title is a kind of blurry dot between the Red Sox victories in '04 and '07. The White Sox, for their part, have done little to impress themselves upon the national consciousness since 2005, but Konerko has performed exceptionally well, especiallysince 2010. His production has improved even as he gets old in first-baseman years, and as the White Sox fielded lineups without much protection for their captain. Their designated hitters have included a platoon headlined by Mark Kotsay in 2010 and the black hole that ate Adam Dunn’s 2011. So why has Konerko's hot start this season caught so many people by surprise? Obviously, it’s the fault of the Cubs.

The Cubs have always had a significant upper hand on the White Sox, ever since 1901, when the Northsiders allowed the newly formed American League to place a club in Chicago—on the condition the new team not use "Chicago" in their official name. Charles Comiskey testily responded by calling his AL club the White Stockings, a moniker formerly used by the Cubs. It's been back and forth ever since—though both teams had a massive World Series drought that lasted from 1917 to 2005, the Cubs have won the popularity contest, in part because huge areas of the South Side were pummeled by blight. Even before white flight emptied out the South Side, the White Sox have historically been perceived as a hard-scrabble team with hard-scrabble fans—a fine identity, but one shared by many a baseball team. The Cubs are just the Cubs, a team that loses more than it wins, and is somehow all the more loved for its seeming cursedness (and century-old cathedral of a ballpark). In 1995, Studs Terkel was asked to describe the longstanding differences between the Chicago ballclubs:

The Cubs have been a legend for years. Nothing to do with baseball. You have to understand that. The Cubs’ popularity had nothing whatsoever to do with baseball. It’s a place to come to as, say, the Air Show is, the Auto Show, the Art Institute. It’s a place to be at, and many have come from suburbs and nearby towns. It’s not really baseball. It’s a place to be at. We see that with the bimbos and the louts and the Bud Lights.

I don’t want to glorify the old days because they weren’t that good, either, but when you went to see the Sox, at least it was a ballgame.

The Cubs are an experience and a brand as much as they are a baseball team. Even under Theo Epstein's general management, they’ll still be the Cubs, and games will still be yuppie bacchanalia, draped in a tradition of mild hedonism, day games, and lots of losing. Under the ownership of the Ricketts family, the Cubs have taken steps to maximize profits and take advantage of branding opportunities on everything from the Wrigley Field bleachers to video game marketing ("The Cubs won the Series! The Cubs won the Series!"). With Cubs fans cheering on the North Side's lovable losers from sea to shining sea, the Sox will forever be runners up in their own city. Recently, a nine-game Sox winning streak took a backseat in the news to a handful of Cubs fans who walked a goat from Mesa, Arizona to Wrigley Field in order to break the supposed curse bestowed upon the team by an angry goat-owning tavern boss in 1945.

The White Sox aren't cursed, but the lack of attention the baseball world pays them may be due in large part to a decision the team made in 1990. That's when Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf brought back Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, who had been the club's television play-by-play announcer from 1982-85 and a disastrous general manager in 1986, to again call games on TV. Reinsdorf runs the Sox like a family, and his loyalty to Harrelson certainly stands as an example of that. Reviled by baseball watchers everywhere (even in Chicago) for his hokey homerism and banal catchphrases, the Hawk drives casual fans away from Sox broadcasts while driving many of the Sox faithful batty. 

Hawk likes to say the only thing he's figured out about baseball during his "all or parts of seven decades in the game" is, you can't figure it out. This year, his favorite word seems to be "contagion," because so many Sox batters have gotten hot in May. During one recent broadcast he informed "the youngsters out there who may not know what the word means,” that “it's an attitude or an emotional state shared among a number of young people, that's communicated among each other." Like a disease, which is what most people think of when someone says “contagion.”

There's more to Hawk than just being occasionally esoteric and irritating. You can't spend all or parts of seven decades in baseball without picking up some knowledge along the way. He wasn't a great hitter, batting over .300 just once in a nine-year career.That shortcoming is probably why he's obsessed with the science of hitting. Balance is one key, he likes to say. Another Hawk key is approach. For years, he's said that Paul Konerko has the best approach of any hitter in baseball, that “watching Paulie hit has been one of the absolute joys" of his time in the game. It’s rare to agree with Hawk, but I don't know how anyone who has watched Paul Konerko for thirteen years could feel differently.

Some players make baseball look fun, Konerko makes it look rewarding. He belongs on the South Side because, like other Sox stalwarts before him—Carlton, Fisk, Harold Baines, and Robin Ventura come to mind—the work is apparent in his play. When Paulie steps into the batter’s box, gloved hand palming his helmet, I imagine he’s reviewing his plan, calibrating adjustments. He kicks at the dirt and taps the plate. Back to work.

“All you can control is that approach,” Konerko said in a 2009 interview. “At the plate, in the field, on the bases, between games. All you can control is how you go about it.” It’s an approach that doesn’t attract the glare of the national media very often, but it’s one White Sox fans have applauded for thirteen seasons. 

Hot streaks end. The national media have already shifted focus to other clubs and other ballplayers, but Paul Konerko keeps plugging away, controlling his approach whether you’re watching or not, because that’s what it means to be a South Sider in a world of North Siders.

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Good stuff and that painting is awesome. Konerko is fun to watch and the Chicago fans that pay attention are lucky to have him.

That said, I won't watch if it means having to listen to the Sox broadcast. Just baffling how bad Hawk is.