He’s a good player, at times even a great player, but has there ever been a more complicated fan-player relationship than that of the Sox faithful and Captain Paul Konerko?
By complicated I don’t mean “difficult,” as the tumultuous fan-Frank pairing so often was, nor do I mean “antagonistic,” like we did with Albert Belle, Jaime Navarro et al, but rather one so difficult to maintain as either folk hero worship or eternal cursing. We think of all those timely bombs and remark out loud how good it is to have a bat as reliable as his; then we watch him ground into yet another double play at short and count the days left on his contract. The problem isn’t that we don’t know who he is; the problem is we know exactly who he is, and we always have, and with him hurt again we are reminded once more. Consider then, the Decade of Paulie:
Early 1999, overheard in a bar on the far Southwest Side: “Oh great, another slow, lumbering guy to alternate between first and designated hitter. We already have one of those, Paulie, and you ain’t him! YOU SUCK KONERKO!”
Summer 2000, written on a White Sox message board: “Twenty-one home runs says he’s a power hitter with no home runs. But at least he’s keeping Frank alive and hey, 97 driven in isn’t bad. Still. . . you suck, Konerko.”
Fall 2001, uttered a Tuesday night in late September: “Valentin, Paulie, Ray Ray, Carlos Lee, Magglio – what went wrong? Hurt got Hurt and #14 couldn’t pick up the slack. Not a bad season for him but still, you suck Konerko.”
Mid-2002 at Jimbo’s: “Paulie’s got 20 bombs and he’s hitting .328! Awesome!”
Post-2002 at Puffers: “Seven home runs since the All-Star Game. You suck, Konerko.”
October 2003 over lunch downtown: “You see this? Konerko hit into more double plays than anyone else in the league. A .234 average? You suck, Konerko.”
October 2004, a man on the Blue Line curses yet another second-place finish: “This team is flawed from top to bottom, too slow, too problematic. Trade ’em all, burn the whole thing down. You’ve got a first baseman who can’t play a second half and a whole rest of the team that can’t play a second half, either. If I see one more flailing swing at a two-strike breaking ball low and away, I swear to God I am done with this team. You suck, Konerko.”
September 6, 2005, Section 518, Row 9, Seat 6: “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
September 9, 2005, young woman watching the Sox-Indians game after work at Wabash Tap: “Nice popout to lose the game. You suck, Konerko!”
October 4 through 26, 2005, echoing throughout Soxland: “Paul-ie! Paul-ie! Paul-ie! Paul-ie!”
April 2006: “Thome, Konerko, Dye, Pierzynski and Crede. Friends, this will unquestionably be the best Sox team we see in our lifetime.”
April 2007 through October 2008: “Anybody seen my first baseman/designated hitter? Can we trade this guy already? He’s hitting what? Unbelievable we gave him that much money. You suck, Konerko.”
June 10, 2009 in an e-mail: “Konerko’s hurt? We’re dead. Dead, I tell you!”
Of course this grossly oversimplifies things, what with all the intangible grindyness and overturned icing calls and whatnot. Truth be told, there are few first basemen out there who deliver more than our own #14 has – Albert Pujols and Mark Teixiera come to mind, and Kevin Youkillis will probably have a fine career in his own right – but, if you think about it, Konerko’s lumber and the molasses foot race aren’t just the work of a player but the work of White Sox baseball itself.
For all but one of the last ten years, the Sox have been defined by players like Konerko, yet look what happens when he goes down. The Sox, the team we fans for so long have mocked for relying on such a model of ballplayer, suddenly find themselves immediately helpless and eventually facing the prospect of Jermaine Dye having to carry the whole team through interleague play. Those of us still watching, ironically, cringe at the prospect of impending doom without Paulie on board.
You suck, Konerko. Get well soon.