O Captain! My Captain! I mean… Paulie! Paulie!
The Chicago White Sox of the new millennium are a team led by two men to whom the chaos of Disco Demolition Night might be nothing more than an average Tuesday evening. General Manager Kenny Williams is a football player in every sense of the word — a man who probably gets his rocks off watching Braveheart in his war room. Club Manager Ozzie Guillen drops expletives and mushroom clouds like he’s got holes in his pockets. So where do Sox players turn when they need a little level-headedness? Paul Konerko.
Paulie came to the Sox in ’98 via a trade with the Cincinnati Reds that cost Chicago steady-yet-unspectacular outfielder Mike Cameron. His first full season on the South Side saw him jack 24 home runs, a taste of things to come. The following year Konerko helped form an intimidating middle of the lineup that also included sluggers Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordoñez and Carlos Lee. That team finished with a 95-67 record, garnering the Sox their first post-season appearance since 1993. Konerko ended the season hitting .298 with 21 homers and 97 RBI, numbers that look great on their own but were overshadowed by The Big Hurt’s monstrous .328/43/143 mark.
In 2003 Konerko was slowed due to an injury (137 games- .234/18/65), but to say he bounced back the following year is an understatement. Paul was named the 2004 American League Comeback Player of the Year after hitting .277 while blasting 41 homers and driving in 117 runs.
2005 is the big year, as any Sox fan will be quick to recall. Team Captain Paul Konerko helped Ozzie guide the Sox to a historic season in which they never spent a day out of first place. With Thomas all but lost to injury, Konerko and teammate Jermaine Dye provided almost all the pop on a team who was now defined by pitching and defense. Paulie hit 40 home runs and tallied an even 100 RBI as the White Sox stormed into the playoffs. Chicago swept Boston in the ALDS, leading to an AL Championship Series bout with the Angels. The Captain was named ALCS MVP, accumulating six hits, two home runs and seven RBI in the five game series. True to nature, the humble Konerko suggested the award ought to have been “split four ways,” referring to the four consecutive complete games tossed by Chicago’s dominant starting pitchers.
Paulie continued his impressive handling of the lumber in the World Series, hitting a clutch grand slam in Game 2 to put the Sox ahead 6-4. Not only was it the first postseason grand slam in White Sox history, it was also the first grand slam in MLB postseason history to give a team the lead when trailing in the seventh inning or later. Gotta love those ultra-conditional records that only seem to pop up in baseball.
If you’re wondering what makes Paulie “captain material” — besides knocking the hell out of a baseball — look no further than the stories behind those final-out balls. Rather than keeping them for his own trophy room, Konerko gave the game balls from the ALDS and ALCS to the game’s winning pitchers. The World Series game ball, always a source of off-season drama, seemed to quietly disappear. Paulie kept the ball in the breast pocket of his jacket for the few days between Game 4 of the World Series and the White Sox victory parade. During the rally, in front of thousands of screaming Sox fans, Konerko presented the ball to White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. Afterward Paulie explained that in his mind “that’s who it should have gone to. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t for anybody on the team. Maybe I could have thrown it to the fans and let them have at it, but I thought it belonged to the guy who runs the show.” Reinsdorf was visibly moved by the demonstration, calling it the most emotional moment of his life.
Again proving himself to be the epitome of a team player during the off-season, Konerko signed a five-year deal to stay in Chicago, turning down more lucrative offers from L.A. and Baltimore. Paulie continued to flex his muscle at the plate, hitting 30+ home runs in 2006 and 2007. He added another unique stat to the back of his baseball card in 2008 when, on September 18th, he became the last opposing player to hit a home run at Old Yankee Stadium. His next milestone occurred in 2009, when Konerko and Jermaine Dye both hit their 300th career home runs in the same game, back to back.
The 4-time All-Star now ranks second on the All-Time White Sox home run list with 358, just 90 behind Frank Thomas. On December 8, 2010 Paulie signed a 3-year deal to remain with the White Sox, again giving the team a hometown discount. Can Paulie knock 30 out of the park each year for the remainder of that contract? I’m looking forward to finding out.
When his career finally winds down, The Captain will no doubt have his number 14 retired. It’ll be right where it belongs: next to Thomas, Fisk, Apparicio, Baines, Fox, Appling, Minoso, Lyons and Pierce. Paulie will probably add one more weird stat to his incredible career marks: most level-headed guy to have his own statue. True to form, a bronzed Konerko is immortalized outside of Comiskey Park, part of the 2005 World Series Champions statue, with his teammates.