Baseball is so exciting when you’re in the race for pennant, even if it’s not one of the big flags you hang. They don’t give out flags for winning the Wild Card Playoff play in, do they? Either way, Cleveland Indians are on the edge of the Wild Card race and with the swoons of the Detroit Tigers and the likely falling to earth of the division leading Kansas City Royals there’s still a shot to get to the ALDS straightaway with a division title. That earns a pennant. Even if it’s a long shot, I’d rather this silliness than the horrifying slog toward the end that wrapped the 2011 and ’12 seasons. It’s on then, to the South Side once again to face the Chicago White Sox.
This is the last time the Tribe will head to Chicago this year and after that they only get one more series against the Sox, a weekend three gamer in early September. It’s shaken out poorly for Chicago this year after a decent start. So many games lost to a dreadful bullpen, injuries, inconsistency and age along with some holdovers from the days of Kenny Williams, all proving too much for the likes of Chris Sale, the Jose’s Quintana and Abreu along with the evergreen Alexei Ramirez to overcome. At this rate they’re likely to win 73-ish games. Not good, but at least better than they were a year ago at 63-99. Amid this slog toward October, and overshadowed by the retirement tour of that shortstop in New York, Paul Konerko has quietly made his final lap in a solid, distinguished career.
Really, this whole season for Konerko has been a microcosm of his entire career. Since he broke on the scene in 1999 with the White Sox and posted a 116 OPS+ in 142 games he’s just been quietly going about his business. He’s been a fixture at first for the Sox for a long, long time, never really getting a ton of credit or pub outside the city and even in his finest moments with the Southsiders, that dream 2005 run to the title, he won MVP in the ALCS, not the World Series. It’s not quite as flashy, not as well regarded or praised, but it means just as much as Jermain Dye’s World Series MVP does for where the Sox ended up that year.. He was 6-for-21 with a double, two homers and seven RBI’s in the Championship Series, and “only” popped an .868 OPS in the World Series. Oh, and he also did this in game two. Pretty, pretty good.
He’s never been the best at his position but if he played in a park with a higher media profile, back east in the Bronx or even just north on the Red Line, he’d have commercials dedicated to him, presents at every park, and eventually a monument in center field. He’s the type of player you want your team to get. His career stats are solid for a first baseman – 119 OPS+ for the career with a 162 game average at 30 dingers and a .280/.355/.488 slash line. Not spectacular, but nice middle of the order work. About the only knock on Konerko is that he’d try to play through immense pain, try to gut it out. It’s stupid, no doubt about it, but admirable at least. It led to a couple big holes in his numbers in what should have been his prime. In 2003, as a 27 year old he got hurt and logged an 80 OPS+ in 137 games. In 2012 he had a .932 OPS in the first half and was leading in the batting title race for a while, then he wrenched his back and tanked to .771 after the All Star break. An adorable Bleacher Report article was published that year detailing how he could win MVP that year, including Adam Dunn hitting the most homers and a couple other dominoes falling to take it from the then-assumed winner in Josh Hamilton, before the back problems robbed Paulie of power. It was really his modus operandi – bash the hell out of the ball one half, get hurt the other half. The guy just wanted to be out there playing baseball and sacrificing for the team.
Paulie, along with Alexei Ramirez, is that guy who’s given me fits for years. I’ve mentioned it before, but it just seems like late in games when it’s all on the line, man on second with two outs in a tie game, eighth inning, he’s at the plate and promptly gets a base knock to give the Sox the lead. In those days they had what’s known as a competent bullpen while the Tribe was punchless at best, and he’d sealed the deal with that hit, breaking the hearts of Indians fans for the thousandth time. Sometimes I’ve wondered, does he have any regard for the fans of the other team, for the children whose days he ruined and hopes crushed? Or did he only do it for the Sox faithful? Surely there aren’t many of them in relation to the available audience, and even after a world championship they lagged far behind the lovable losers up north, but White Sox fans are hardcore, and I think Paulie recognized that, and it helped shape his play. When it’s time to strap it on and get to work, he’s like a machine. He stood the same way when he was in the hole, took the same exact huge uppercut practice swings like he’s getting ready to golf, and when he stood in the box even now he’s still, calm, just awaiting the pitcher’s mistake. At his best, the ball flew into the stands, few have made that scoreboard expode so meaningfully as him. He’s a hero to many, and a champion to the city.
His personality is just so, I dunno, Chicago. He’s at the same time intense and serene. Early in his career he was like so many youths of the city – full of piss and vinegar, ready to burn the world down and beating every thing up, from clubhouse lockers to himself when things went bad. His maturity, along with his offensive output, has been a wonder to watch. His transition to elder statesman for the team brought a newfound respect from me at least, for whatever that’s worth. He’s the kind of guy I just have to marvel at. Even if he’s never approeached or even winked at Bonds-ian levels of offense, even if he never philosophized like Satchel Paige or Phil Neikro or that old Stoic Connie Mack, he’s been that special kind of under the radar, get the best out of what you were given kind of a guy. And a damn nice guy, too. When you think of someone as a face of a franchise, you think of either the loudest voice or someone who is media friendly. Paulie has never been either of those. Friendly, sure, and honest and forthright with the media when they’re not baiting him, but never one to put himself out there. The ballpark is a place to go to work. Describing a guy as a lunch pail, blue collar type of guy is cliched these days, but it fits for him. Like generations before him he went to the corner of 35th and Wells to do his job, just down the street from the bungalows of the Chicago working class that built that city. Like them, he was the backbone of greatness, a centerpiece of a crew of knockaround guys that ended up kings of the world. Nobody expected much from Konerko, Dye, Buehrle, Garland, all those guys, but nobody expected much from Dick Daley and Anton Cermak and Daniel Burnham and even Oprah Winfrey. All these people did was help shape a city and the country. Chicago is a place where grit, determination and a will to do what it takes can do as much as raw ability. Konerko is just that player.
This is an important series for the Indians – every single one from here on out is. They have to play their best and do as the old saying put it – win as many as possible. The Sox are ripe for the plucking but they’ve never been pushovers and with it being Konerko’s penultimate chance to ruin Cleveland’s dreams we might see at least one shot from him. He isn’t what he was, but the old horse can ride one more time. Now’s not the time to let up, but just for a minute I hope we all step back and regard a man who deserves praise and admiration, even if all he ever wanted was respect and to play some baseball.