ANAHEIM, Calif. – We’d spent long enough celebrating – then stomaching – the inevitable.
We’d spent years accepting the unavoidable, and then tolerating the regret.
Baseball had its decade-long, light-of-morning, undignified stumble to the curb.
The big, round numbers came and went, ground up and expelled by men who lacked conscience. Their corner-bought aptitude was exceeded only by their gifts for self-absorption and deceit. Appropriately, their legacies became baseball’s, too.
We applauded, and then we retched.
Not that they’d care about something so tactilely wispy. They’d worry about that tomorrow.
Well, tomorrow came and looked like this:
Tomorrow came over six weeks in the summer of 2011, the game healing itself on their reputations.
I don’t know that the game is cleaner. Or any of those guys are.
But doesn’t it feel cleaner? Don’t they?
Doesn’t it feel closer to the truth?
On a night in an Anaheim hotel room last week, Konerko’s cell phone blipped.
“Congrats,” it read. “I’m so proud of you, as always.”
Two thoughts came.
How kind it was of his high school coach – 68-year-old Jerry Dawson – to think of him.
And, dang, his high school coach knows how to text.
“Yeah, I get a lot of those smart-aleck comments,” Dawson said. “I can run a computer, too, you know.”
Dawson retired from Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Ariz., after 37 years coaching varsity baseball. The local paper had asked him what he hoped to have imparted to the hundreds of young men who went through his program.
“Hopefully, work ethic,” he’d said. “Hopefully, honesty.”
A year later, he said, he’d add, “Accountability.”
Baseball has some issues with those values. Hell, everybody seems to. So it was nice to spend a summer refreshed by them. It was good to believe in the celebrations, the waves to the crowd, the teary families in the private suites, and the words that followed.
It was good to have that back, to stand in a corner of the clubhouse – not 5 feet from where Michael Young had stood a few days before – and hear Konerko’s side of 2,000 hits, where they came from and what they meant.
“You just do it right,” he said, “and sometimes you get them and sometimes they get you. If it doesn’t go your way, you do it again.”
There’s a damned respectable career somewhere in those words. Something about putting in the work, accepting the results, and then putting in the work again. Something about honesty.
“It’s nice,” he said of reaching a milestone, “but it’s a far cry from what other people have done in the game. I have no ego about it. Whether I got to 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000, I’d like to think I did it right every day.”
As Young had said, “I showed up and played.”
Pure as that.
“You just want to be able to say there was no difference in the way you went about your business for tomorrow’s game,” Konerko said. “I wish there was a stat for that. You’re the only one who knows on that. You have to hold court with yourself every day.
“I’m not talented enough to have gone through the motions and make it up somewhere else. Maybe I could have, but I’m unwilling to find out.”
This was the guy who at 15 kept a notebook on opposing pitchers he’d likely never see again.
And the guy who at 16 sacrificed “ego rounds” of batting practice in front of professional scouts to work on his bunting and opposite-field swings.
And the guy who was notified he’d no longer be a catcher when a Dodgers minor-league coach dropped a first baseman’s mitt in his lap, and that afternoon was breaking it in on a high school diamond.
“How do you teach any of that?” Dawson said. “He just got it. He got it from Day 1. He always made good decisions. His mom and dad did a great job. They instilled the right values. His older brother was the same way. They were good kids raised by good people.”
From July 9, the afternoon Jeter homered into the left-field seats, to Aug. 23, the night Konerko battled through seven pitches to serve a run-scoring single into right field, baseball got a little of its dignity back.
So Jeter pushed past 3,000, and Young and Konerko past 2,000, and Thome past 600 home runs. They do it on weary legs, against the pulls of time and punishment.
It looks the way it’s supposed to look, the way young men grow older and begin to measure what’s left and what it might look like tomorrow.
Probably, it’ll look a lot like it did today, and be just as dignified.
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