About halfway through the 2008 season, when his batting average couldn't even reach .200, Paul Konerko(notes) pledged to stop beating himself up. Were his internal self-flagellation visible, there would've been enough damage to warrant an assault charge, and he feared it was going to kill his career.
Baseball players deal with strife in odd – and terrifying – ways. One potential Hall of Famer told me recently that when he's in a slump, he dreams of himself swinging a bat underwater and flailing about until he drowns. Though Konerko's mental anguish never reached that extreme, his nadir two years ago forced him to confront the reality so many never can: He's going to fail 70 percent of the time, and he'd better figure out a constructive way to do it.
"There's so much failure in this game," Konerko said. "Getting too high isn't a problem for most guys. Getting too low can be. It was for me. It's been an ongoing battle. For a good couple years, I've been more rational how I view the negatives, the failures, and that's only helped me get better. You kind of get tired of beating yourself up.
"I had plenty of good years. But I had the wrong approach. At some point, you reach a point where you've got to do it the right way or you'll blow up, crash and burn."
Before his Hindenburg, Konerko rescued himself, and he is enjoying the best season of his career as the Chicago White Sox try to claw back into the American League Central division race. Konerko is hitting .311, getting on base nearly 39 percent of the time and slugging .584, all among the top 10 in the league. Although his OPS is third, behind Miguel Cabrera(notes) and Josh Hamilton(notes), the favorites for the MVP award, Konerko kept the White Sox's afloat during their dark early season days and remains the only on-base threat in a lineup as impatient as a 3-year-old.
Konerko's second-half surge in 2008, strong 2009 and particularly his resurgence this year leaves him in a unique position: an in-demand free-agent-to-be in his mid-30s. When next season starts, Konerko will be 35, and even if his first-base defense has turned ugly, the bat plays. How Konerko regained his mid-2000s mojo half a decade later is one of the edifying stories of 2010.
"It's his diligence," White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham(notes) said. "His whole day is regimented. A lot of the best players in history had a routine, and he sticks to his. Except it's more than that. He grew because of it."
To chalk it up to maturation seems so simplistic, but Konerko, ever measured in his thoughts, does just that. His ability to haunt himself, he said, manifested itself in awful ways. Doubt. Loathing. Fear. One more good year and Konerko will have 400 home runs, and even deep into such a career, he never had figured out how to properly deal with the one certainty in baseball: You don't more than you do.
"Sometimes you don't do the job, you fail, and you can never, ever think about it again," Konerko said. "You crumple it up, throw it out and bury it. It's not easy. To be successful, you need a short memory on some things and a long one on others. For some people that comes easy.
For four seasons, he played with Jim Thome(notes), the epitome of easygoing, and Konerko always envied Thome's ability to shake off a golden sombrero with a smile. Konerko was wired differently, his experiences so disparate. He was Baseball America's No. 2 prospect before the 1998 season. Twice that year he was traded, first from the Los Angeles Dodgers to Cincinnati after a rough 144-at-bat Dodger career, then from the Reds to the White Sox following 73 undistinguished Reds at-bats. Two teams, based on a wholly insignificant number amount of plate appearances, gave up on Konerko.
No wonder the scars took more than a decade to fade. Konerko slugged .511 in his first full season in Chicago and helped build the White Sox into a contender. He hit one of the most famous home runs in franchise history in 2005, a grand slam off a first-pitch fastball from Chad Qualls(notes) in Game 2 of the World Series to push the White Sox ahead. Manager Ozzie Guillen named him captain the next year, and he's one of only three in baseball, with fellow pending free agents Derek Jeter(notes) of the New York Yankees and Jason Varitek(notes) of the Boston Red Sox.
While Varitek's decline is apparent and Jeter is having the worst season of his career, Konerko's ability to hit the fastball – among the first thing that goes in older players – is better than ever. According to FanGraphs, Konerko has produced 10 runs more off fastballs than anyone in baseball this season.
"There's time when your swing's efficient," Konerko said. "It's not the actual bat speed. There are a million guys with more bat speed than me. That's the equivalent of saying if you throw really hard, you're the best pitcher in the league. I go for efficiency.
"I've had good years. I've had bad years. Even the good years grind on you. I feel like I can do the job, but it seems like as soon as you start to think you're in a good place, you get knocked down."
Like at 11:30 p.m. CT on Saturday, when the White Sox were in the second game of a grueling 24-hour period in Kansas City where they'd play an evening doubleheader followed by an afternoon chaser. Konerko worked a 2-0 count. He saw a dead-red fastball. He popped it up to center field.
And before he ran down the first-base line, he flung his bat in disgust. Never mind that the White Sox would win in extra innings and crawl within four games of Minnesota. As much as Paul Konerko tries to temper the beast, he can't help that baseball is the best game in the world for a perfectionist – and the worst, too.
- Paul Konerko
- White Sox