Two years ago there was talk in the Chicago media that Chicago White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko would have an outside chance for induction into the Hall of Fame. People were meticulously counting how many homers Paulie could clobber per year in order for him to join the 500 home run club.
In the midst of a 2012 in which Konerko made his sixth All-Star game and was racking up homers, people believed that the veteran could play at a high level into his early 40s if he continued to show significant production at the plate. However, with one pitch, the outlook of the career of the most underrated player of the 21st century would change.
For the rest of the 2012 season, Konerko was not the same hitter. Pitchers would pound the ball inside because they knew Konerko would not be able to turn on it. He was forced to play through pain, which he had done countless times in the past, but not to this extent.
Whether it be a hit by pitch that got him in the eye or a tweaked hamstring, Konerko has been able to recover from an injury and return to his old consistent self. This was different. For the first time in Paulie’s career, he would not be able to fully recover from a setback.
Konerko finished the 2012 season with 26 homers, 75 runs batted in, an average of .298 and an OBP of .371. These numbers were not telling of Paulie’s decline due to his blazing start to the year. He hit .231 and .252 in August and September respectively. There was concern starting to mount in the Sox fan base as the slugger disappeared down the stretch during the team’s playoff push. His nine homers and 19 runs batted in in the last two months of the season were not offputting, but his lack of production in key moments were.
Real concern did not begin to mount until 2013. Konerko has had seasons in the past that were less-than-stellar. In 2003 and 2008, Konerko disappeared for the greater part of the last two months of the season. In both years, following those two dismal campaigns, Konerko was able to regain his All-Star caliber form. With his age, and the effects of the wrist injury still bothering him, the 2013 season did not have the same result.
Konerko struggled in the limited action he saw last season. In 126 games, the second fewest during his White Sox tenure, the Captain hit .244 with an OBP of .313. His 12 homers and 54 RBIs were the lowest he has ever accumulated in Chicago. Talks of Konerko possibly being an outside candidate to make it to the Hall subsided. Thoughts that Paulie would be an ageless wonder became nonexistent.
This year was the beginning of the accelerated rebuilding effort the White Sox organization have chosen to undertake. With the signing of highly touted Cuban slugger Jose Abreu, Konerko had the option of retiring or coming back for one last year. In typical Konerko fashion, he did what was best for the team. The 38-year-old signed a $2.5 million dollar contract to come back as essentially a player-coach.
With Abreu putting on a clinic into his second month in the majors and Adam Dunn doing surprisingly well, there is no need to give Konerko more at-bats than planned. A mainstay in the Sox lineup for over a decade, Konerko struggled in his first month as a bench player. After finding his groove in May, he is batting .25o and appears more comfortable at the plate. Paulie even launched his first home run of the season this weekend against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In baseball, one pitch could completely change the direction of a player’s career. Just ask Rick Ankiel. In the matter of two years, Paulie has turned from a potent middle-of-the-order hitter, to a reserve. Even in his new role, Konerko still brings the same under the radar attitude and drive to succeed that he has carried to the ballpark since the beginning. While the past two seasons have not done much to improve Konerko’s Hall of Fame chances, they have reiterated why Chicago has fallen in love with their Captain: when the game knocks him down, he still keeps on going.