Humble Konerko delivers MVP-worthy season
Slugger's case goes beyond stats with durability, leadership
CHICAGO -- If Paul Konerko were a different person, maybe one with a slightly self-absorbed nature, he might personally promote his cause for the 2010 American League Most Valuable Player Award.
Maybe he would quietly ask the White Sox political machine to resurrect their "Pauliewood" campaign, used earlier this season to mobilize support for Konerko in the AL All-Star Final Vote.
But anyone who knows Konerko understands how there's a better chance of Ozzie Guillen being docile and politically correct in his daily commentary than the White Sox captain ever pushing for personal recognition. So, others familiar with Konerko's body of excellence will have to make that case.
This present campaign won't end as the White Sox had hoped. Then again, precious little went according to their plan set back in Arizona during Spring Training.
A team with not just a goal of reaching the playoffs but also surviving deep into the postseason sat at 24-33 and 9 1/2 games out of first in the American League Central on June 8. And it was captain Konerko who served as the soul and the conscience of a 28-8 run to move the White Sox back atop the division in a little over one month's time.
"Everybody is talking about the MVP vote, but if people knew ... " said White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker of Konerko, pausing before reorganizing his thoughts and resuming his case.
"I know people in contention are good clubhouse guys and great players," Walker continued. "But if voters knew what [Konerko] did in our clubhouse, considering the year we have had, how he has gone out of his way to grab people and talk to them and spend time with them, while monitoring his own game in a contract year?"
Walker believes part of Konerko's ultimate leadership, where he tries to help others more than himself, has come from evolving as a player to where he knows his game better than ever before.
"This is his best season, his most consistent," said Walker of Konerko. "He's one of the huge reasons we made a comeback. Managers and coaches can only do so much. It takes players and leadership. That word is thrown around some, but in his case, it's very well deserved.
"He has been the most unselfish player I've ever been around. Maybe the game paid him back for doing it the right way. But if the MVP voters had been here to see what our staff and manager has seen him do, he'd win it hands down."
Joining Konerko in this MVP group would be an elite cluster of about five or six. The Yankees' Robinson Cano, Minnesota's Delmon Young, Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and the Rangers' Josh Hamilton are definitely on that list, with Boston's Adrian Beltre also worthy of consideration.
Each one of those players has carried his respective team for long stretches, delivered big hits to win games and filled gaps in the face of slumps or injuries. Young, for example, has driven in more than 100 runs with perennial MVP candidate Justin Morneau having not played a game since July 7 due to after-effects from a concussion.
In surveying the full body of work, going beyond the statistics into durability and leadership, Konerko could be No. 1 among these stars. He ranks second in the AL with 37 home runs, fifth with 105 RBIs and sixth with a .318 average.
Albert Belle was the last White Sox player to rank in the top five in the AL in the Triple Crown categories back in 1998. Konerko sits second in at-bats per home run at 13.92, fourth in OPS at .994, fourth in slugging percentage at .594 and fourth in on-base percentage at .400. He has a .396 average and 24 RBIs in his last 26 games.
Then, there's the timing of his hits. Fifteen of Konerko's 37 home runs have come in the seventh inning or later, and 12 have either tied the game or given the White Sox the lead. That total includes Konerko's game-winning homers against Atlanta's Takashi Saito on June 24, against the Cubs' Andrew Cashner on June 26 and his three-run blast off of Justin Germano on Sept. 1 to keep the White Sox alive.
"It's not a big surprise to me. He's been doing it his whole career," said Twins starting pitcher Carl Pavano of Konerko, who has put together his fourth season of at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. "He fills in the gap. He could fill in the gap in a lot of places with those numbers. He has done incredible and plays every day, too."
"When he gets hot, watch out. He can carry their team for weeks, even a month," Detroit designated hitter Johnny Damon said. "His defense is a lot better than what he gets credit for. But he's been in the heart of that lineup ever since he's been there, and they've been competitive. He's been pretty consistent over all that time."
This stellar effort certainly isn't unusual for Konerko. In his 12 years with the White Sox, he has had just three seasons when he hit below .275, four seasons where he has hit less than 25 home runs and four seasons with less than 90 RBIs.
Even his most dominant years from 2004-06 come up a little short in comparison to 2010.
"There's not enough that you can say about what he has done this year," Walker said. "It has been fun for me as his hitting coach but more so as a friend."
Over the course of an MVP season, one at-bat or play usually stands out as a defining moment. For Konerko, it was a hit-by-pitch in the first inning of Thursday's 8-5 loss to Minnesota.
Pavano hit Konerko with a glancing blow to the face, just above the upper lip and below his nose. Not only did Konerko stay in the game, pulling away from attempts by White Sox head athletic trainer Herm Schneider and Guillen to take him out, but he also homered on the next pitch from Pavano with two outs in the third.
"You could have a concussion and a lot of stuff that can happen when you get hit in the face," said White Sox starting pitcher Mark Buehrle of Konerko's fortitude. "He pushed them back and said he wanted to stay in the game."
"Hopefully players, not just the White Sox but in general, look at themselves in the mirror and see what this guy did," Guillen said. "He has a chance to be the MVP, with great numbers and a great career, and he stepped it up like a man and played the game."
Upon playing his final game ever, if Konerko doesn't become a Major League manager, broadcaster or even team owner, he might want to open a business advising free agents-to-be.
Back in 2005, Konerko's last walk-away year, he hit .283 with 40 home runs and 100 RBIs during Chicago's World Series championship run. He agreed to a five-year, $60 million deal after that season, which runs out after the 2010 season.
Having a player with unknown contract status on his mind could cause some organizational concern, but not with Konerko.
"We had meetings in Spring Training, and it came up," Walker said. "And I said, 'You don't have to worry about Konerko in a contract year.' He handled it before, and I've never seen anyone handle it as well as he did last time. He'll do it this time, too."
"I would be ignorant not to be at least mindful of that because you see it happen," said White Sox general manager Ken Williams of Konerko's impending free agency. "But with Paulie, he has been a pro from day one."
Will Konerko return to the White Sox in 2011 and beyond? Teammates such as Gordon Beckham, Alex Rios and Buehrle, as well as Guillen, have publicly pushed for the captain to stay put.
Williams told MLB.com how he wants Konerko to retire as a member of the White Sox, but there are "many variables at play there," and he would rather wait to deal with them at the appropriate time. As for Konerko, his discussion on the matter certainly won't come until the season is over.
Baseball still is left to be played for the MVP, whose superlative season heavily contributed to a memorable one of the team.
"You play for your teammates' and your staff's respect," Konerko said. "I definitely care about the guys inside this clubhouse, what they think. Not too much beyond that. It's nice, I guess, if people have that, but at the same time I think I know who's important to me and hopefully I gain those people. If not, you work to get that."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.