When Paul Konerko hit his 400th home run this season, not many beyond Chicago took much notice. In the national media, Konerko is a forgotten man—one of the best first basemen of his generation and yet one of the most widely overlooked.
Even in Chicago at times this season, Bryan LaHair of the Cubs garnered more attention. Hell, for much of the spring even LaHair’s heir apparent, Anthony Rizzo, generated more buzz.
But in late May, Konerko got absurdly hot—like Josh Hamilton hot—raising his batting average up around .400, and the White Sox made a stunning run at first place. Finally, people noticed.
Konerko is no greenhorn. He’s working on his 16th season in the majors and has five All-Star selections and a World Series trophy. It takes more than a good month to get him excited. But as we near the mid-way point in a year of lost causes for the Cubs, Hawks, and Bulls, with only the White Sox still worthy of our cheers, we can—and should—marvel at what Konerko’s doing.
As most sluggers break down with age, Konerko, at 36, is enjoying his finest run in the big leagues. He not only makes it look easy, he makes it sound easy, too.
“Every hitter’s just looking for a fastball to hit,” he said, before a recent game, reluctant to over-analyze what would be a 14-game hitting streak. “I don’t think that changes from Little League to now.”
I asked Konerko if he ever swings at bad pitches anymore, because his discipline at the plate has been so good (his on-base percentage is a Major League-best .476 this year). He seemed embarrassed at the question.
“You kind of focus on areas,” he said. “If you see a ball in that area, it gives you the best chance to hit it hard.” It wasn’t always so simple.
In 2002, Konerko seemingly entered his prime at age 26, hitting .304 with 27 homers. The next season, he regressed, his batting average dropping by 70 points and his homers by nine. He improved each of the next three seasons, twice making the All-Star team, but in 2007 his numbers began to deteriorate. And in 2008, when he hit just .240 with only 22 homers and 42 extra-base hits, there was good reason to believe that the decline would be permanent—that, at age 32, Konerko was in the twilight of his career.
Then came 2010, when Konerko exploded for his best season (.312, 39), made the All-Star team after a three-season absence and finished fifth in voting for the MVP Award. In 2011, he had another banner year (.300, 31). He’s on pace for 37 more homers this year.
“When you’re younger you don’t really treat your body well,” Konerko said, trying to explain his odd career arc. “You just come in, stretch and go play….The older you get…you have to be a little more strategic how you go about your work. You have know your body better”
A decade ago, performing so well at Konerko’s age was commonplace, but that was during a golden-age of offense. With pitchers dominating once again—in 2010 and 2011, league OBP dipped below .330 for the first time since 1992 and the current mark of .319 would be the lowest since 1972—Konerko’s resurgence at the plate is all the more remarkable. Konerko credits watching another player who thrived well past his presumptive prime, Jim Thome, who played for the Sox for three-and-a-half seasons before being traded in 2009.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anybody come in at one in the afternoon and take that whole day to prepare for a game better than he did,” Konerko said. “Just the dedication, no matter what was going on, he got his work in. There are a lot of distractions in the big leagues, but nothing gets in Jim’s way.”
So, does that mean we can look forward to watching Konerko for another five years–or more?
“No,” Konerko said without hesitation. “God, no.”
He’s on record saying that he might make 2013—the last on his contract—his final season.
Konerko has worked long and hard to get to the point in his career where he’s this comfortable at the plate and this confident of his abilities. The man is clearly enjoying himself. If he’s still hitting the ball well next year, it’s difficult to imagine him walking off into the sunset.
And should he somehow continue to produce at this clip for another three or four years, one of the least appreciated greats of his time might just find himself the recipient of baseball’s ultimate recognition: a bronze plaque in Cooperstown.
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SAHADEV SHARMA is a regular contributor to ESPN Chicago covering the Cubs and White Sox. If he’s not spending his free time with his wife and one-year old son, you’ll likely find him appreciating Starlin Castro’s ability to hit, defending Adam Dunn and watching YouTube clips of the Illini’s 2005 tourney comeback against Arizona. Follow him on Twitter @sahadevsharma.