South Side Salute to Konerko

CHICAGO — From a distance it is a blue speck in a sea of forest green at U.S. Cellular Field. Up close, near the left-field bullpen, the fourth seat in the seventh row of Section 159 is not much to see. It is an original model from this park, its color faded, its armrests lower than those of its neighbors. It sits a little more upright, too, and its back has no cup holder.

But that seat is special here, at the home of the Chicago White Sox, a team with a rich and complicated history that stretches to the very beginning of the American League. This is the spot where Paul Konerko’s grand slam landed in the 2005 World Series.

You might not remember that home run, though it was the last grand slam to be hit in the World Series, or much about that White Sox championship. It came a year after the Boston Red Sox broke Babe Ruth’s curse, upending the lordly Yankees along the way and inspiring works of literature and cinema.

But the White Sox’ triumph was their first in 88 years, since before the infamous Black Sox scandal, and Konerko was their central figure.

A fan waiting for autographs before Monday’s White Sox game. Credit Nathan Weber for The New York Times

He is retiring now, after 16 years here, and said the muted national reaction to his team’s greatest moment was somehow fitting.

If you work for the White Sox or root for the team, he said, you don’t really care what others think.

“Here, you pretty much know, when you do well as a team, you’ll get what comes along with that, and if you don’t, you won’t,” Konerko said this week. “There’s some places that, even when you don’t, you do — it’s just kind of the thing to do, or it’s a social event. It’s not like that here. You’ve got to earn your keep.”

In other words, the White Sox are not an ivy-covered afternoon party, the way it is at Wrigley Field for the hapless Chicago Cubs. The White Sox work harder for the hearts of fans, and they never doubt the sincerity of those who support them.

Konerko, a serious slugger who never left the South Side, has been their perfect representative. The farewell of the Yankees’ captain, Derek Jeter, has been a backdrop to the entire major league season. Konerko, the White Sox’ captain, has been honored at just two ballparks outside the American League Central — Wrigley Field, where he was given his No. 14 from the scoreboard, and Yankee Stadium, where Jeter gave him an autographed base.

Konerko celebrating his grand slam in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series. Credit M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

“He doesn’t do anything flashy,” said Tyler Flowers, the White Sox catcher. “He’s not the most vocal guy. He’s got zero flair and style. I give him a hard time about that; he’ll wear mismatched gray batting gloves at home. He’s more old-school — he comes in here, he’s ready, he gets his work done and competes. Just goes about his business.”

The White Sox are honoring Konerko’s career all month with nightly giveaways ranging from T-shirts and lapel pins to towels and posters. His No. 14 is bound to be retired before long; the White Sox have an open space between Luis Aparicio’s 11 and Ted Lyons’s 16 in their row of retired numbers above the home-plate suites. Konerko, a bench player now, broke a bone in his left hand on Sept. 2, but has vowed to return before the end of the season.

In some ways, Konerko compares more closely to Bernie Williams than he does to Jeter, a certain Hall of Famer. Konerko, like Williams, may fall short of Cooperstown, but he is similarly cerebral, a thoughtful interview subject with a guitar in his corner locker. Also like Williams, Konerko was heavily pursued by the Baltimore Orioles in his prime.

“I called his agent, Craig Landis, every day, from the moment you could until the moment he signed,” said Jim Duquette, the former Orioles executive, who tried to lure Konerko in free agency after the 2005 season. “We knew it was going to have to be something unique to get him to leave.”

A fan wearing a Konerko T-shirt that was handed out at Monday’s game. Credit Nathan Weber for The New York Times

Konerko stayed, of course, for five years and $60 million, or $5 million less than the Orioles’ best offer. Landis’s final counteroffer was for $90 million, Duquette said, a figure so high that it signaled Konerko’s desire to stay.

“I would have been curious to see, if we had been willing to do it, would he have actually been willing to go?” Duquette said. “The funny thing is, in hindsight, it would have been a good deal for us.”

One reason Konerko stayed, he said, was his strong relationship with the hitting coaches Greg Walker and Mike Gellinger, who indulged Konerko’s wish to learn everything he possibly could about his swing. Walker, who now coaches for Atlanta, once said he spent more time breaking down mechanics with Konerko than he did with all his other hitters combined.

Mike Aviles, the veteran Cleveland infielder, said he always marveled at Konerko for the way he changed his swing and stance, seemingly using a different one every series. To Aviles, it was a sign that Konerko understood the difficulty of hitting and never tired of working at it.

That is true, Konerko said, but deep knowledge can be as much curse as blessing. A hitter less aware of mechanics might be confused during a slump. But a hitter who knows what is wrong yet cannot fix it endures a different kind of torture.

“Some people don’t want to delve into it, because it’s probably more of a mental grind,” Konerko said. “But this was something we talked about back then: If you want to play late in your career, before your body goes and all that, technique and mechanics were going to hold up as you got older. That was going to be the last line of defense.”

Konerko enjoyed his best season at age 34, in 2010, when he hit .312 with 39 homers and placed fifth — his highest finish — in the voting for the A.L. Most Valuable Player award. Konerko went to high school in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he still lives, and the Diamondbacks chased him in free agency after that season. But again, Konerko stayed.

But given a choice, Konerko always remained. The easier path, he is convinced, would have been to spend a few years here and a few years there, never having to be the frontman for an organization. He is proud of the championship banner, which hangs not far from his grand slam seat, but even more of his unbroken string of seasons in black.

“When I got to those crossroads here, pretty much everything on paper, whether it was money or family, anything that had to do with my life, it would have been easier to leave,” Konerko said. “But I stayed because I just felt an attachment, because I wanted to achieve that first goal from the very get-go. I didn’t want to let that go by.”

Konerko, a first baseman, always found his way back, and at the big moments, the ball always found him. In the 2005 title run, he caught the final putout to clinch each postseason series. Mark Buehrle’s first no-hitter, in 2007, and Philip Humber’s perfect game, in 2012, also ended in Konerko’s glove.

The White Sox think so highly of Konerko that Kenny Williams, their executive vice president, briefly considered him as a candidate for manager after the 2011 season. Konerko, who is married with three children, has no immediate plans to stay in the game.

Robin Ventura, the White Sox manager and their former third baseman, said Konerko would enjoy retirement at first. But soon, Ventura said, he would miss his quest to unlock the secrets of hitting, his daily challenge of trying to master an act rooted in failure.

That effort, and the decision to always pursue it with the White Sox, is part of what defined Konerko here, and made him a local icon.

“We were having a conversation by the cage, oh, I guess this was a couple of months ago, and he was talking me through what he was working on at the time,” Williams said. “I said: ‘You know what’s going to happen to you? About two years after you retire, you’re going to call me. You’re going be walking in your house and feel something and you’re going to call me and say, “I got it! I got it! Now I got it figured out!” ’ ”

Williams laughed. What, he was asked, did Konerko say?

“He said, ‘You’re probably right.’ ”

Pedro Martinez Still Wants To Bean Babe Ruth in the Ass (Or Maybe the Ribs)


Photo: Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Greg Maddux was great, but he was brainy and reserved and kept his dry wit mostly to himself. Roger Clemens was great, but he was a cheater, a mercenary and an asshole. Pedro Martinez—now here was an all-time great pitcher and an all-time great personality. Funny, fiery, endlessly quotable, unforgettably peculiar. In New York, he is perhaps best known for two things: (1) dumping then-septuagerian Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer head first on the grass, matador-style, during a benches-clearing brawl with his Boston Red Sox, and (2) professing his love of gardening in a goofy New York Times profile during his career-capping tenure with the Mets. (Pedro, to one of his tulips: “What about you, beauty? Aren’t you going to grow up to be so pretty?) Next week, Martinez will join TBS as a studio analyst during the network’s playoff coverage. GQ spoke with Petey about why he never played for the Yankees, how he maintained those famous hair curls, and which team’s hat he’ll be wearing into the Hall of Fame.


You played for the Mets, so Mets fans love you. You beat the Yankees, so Yankees fans hate you. What’s the reaction like whenever you come to New York?
When you play for Boston, it’s difficult to be loved by the Yankee fans, but they certainly respect me, and I appreciate that. I don’t need them to feel like they have to hug me, but I do respect that they love their Yankees. I was a Boston Red Sock, and I totally understand not liking me as a Red Sock. But if I happened to come and play for the Yankees, I’m pretty sure they would have been crazy about it. Which I almost did.

How close were you?

I was as close as probably one decision by [Yankees GM Brian] Cashman. In ‘09, I almost came over, but Cashman offered me to go to the minor leagues before I left the Dominican Republic, and I just said, “No, I’m not a minor league player.” So I refused to go to the minor leagues. I said I’d do rehab things, but no minor leagues.

When you played, were you concerned with the way you looked on the field?
As a player, there’s a day you want to feel comfortable. Some days, you wear your normal pants, but some other days, let’s say a hot day, you don’t want to be all that tight, you want to be, like, loose. So you out on a little wider pair of pants or stuff like that. I would stay pretty much normal most of the time. But there are days in the middle of the summer when you want to be loose.

But your hair was always awesome.
[laughs uproariously] That was the Pedro Martinez style!

Did your hair require a lot of maintenance?
Yes, yes it did. It takes a lot because you have to rinse it out every day, or else you go bald. I had a stylist who would come over and take care of it.

Did you have to change hats often?

I had two gamers, and if it got a little dirty I’d switch to the other one. Or the one you wore in the dugout, that was the next one to be used when the other one gets done.

Who has your favorite hair now in baseball?
Quite a few…[thinks for a while] I would have to say, Don Julio: Jason Werth.

You famously said you would drill the ghost of Babe Ruth in the ass. Is the ass the best place to drill somebody if you have to hit a batter?
You know, what I said about Babe Ruth was more to get the media off me about the curse [of the Bambino], and it’s too bad nobody ever gets the other part. I said that I didn’t believe in curses, that the Bambino was a good man and I don’t believe he left curses for anybody, that he did a lot of good things for the community. I just knew this way I could get the media away from me and not have to talk about the curse any more. I said that about him, but I have all the respect in the world. He’s the symbol of baseball, and I don’t want to disrespect the Bambino, ever.

OK, but is that still the best place to hit a batter?
[immediately] Yeah. There and the ribs.

Ooh, the ribs seems like they would really hurt.

Yes. Yes, it would hurt, but that’s the area as long as you make sure you don’t go up at the head.

When you played for the Mets you did an interview where you talked about how much you loved gardening. Is that still something you enjoy?
Oh yes, I still do gardening; I still enjoy my roses, my flowers. My Mom taught me when I was a kid, that it would be a way for me to relax. Let’s say my older brothers would pick on me or something, and I was mad, my Mom would take me to the garden and start clipping flowers and stuff like that. So I became hooked.

So when you played did you pay special attention to the groundskeeping. Like, were you interested in how they grew the grass and stuff like that?

Yes, yes. It was so beautiful. I always wanted to lay down in centerfield and look up.

Who were the most fun teammates you ever played with?
So many! But I would have to say between [Red Sox teammates Kevin] Millar, Manny [Ramirez, believe it or not, Curtis Leskanic…so many of them that make you laugh all day

Papi’s funny, but not like Manny. You look at Manny doing his thing, and you just laugh.

I think most fans, we never really heard from him, so we don’t understand him the way you guys did.
Well, Manny is different. Manny does so many crazy things that you can’t stop laughing.

Manny being Manny?

Manny being Manny. If you look back at everything that many did…[laughing] How can you catch a throw from Johnny Damon, and even dive for it? [Martinez is referring to this moment, when Ramirez inexplicably dove to cut off a relay throw from another Sox outfielder] That’s just crazy!

Last question: You’re eligible for the Hall of Fame next year. Have you thought about what team’s hat you’d want to wear on your plaque?
Boston. Without a doubt, Boston.

Your team is your everything, you go through everything with them, you win with your team and you loose with your team, you support them no matter what. 
Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is someones favorite team.
On September 7th 2011 everything changed for the fans of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

Your team is your everything, you go through everything with them, you win with your team and you loose with your team, you support them no matter what.

Lokomotiv Yaroslavl is someones favorite team.

On September 7th 2011 everything changed for the fans of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.

Reblogged from fenway-andthe-garden