After the 1998 season, the White Sox swapped Mike Cameron to the Reds for Paul Konerko. At the time, Konerko had fewer than 250 plate appearances and a batting average barely above the Mendoza Line, and Cameron had spent four nondescript seasons with the White Sox. It appeared to be an exchange of underwhelming players, and yet both went on to have very productive careers.
Almost from the start of his White Sox tenure, Konerko was an offensive force. He's among the franchise leaders in plate appearances, hits, home runs, and RBIs and will receive a well-deserved hero's send-off when he plays his last game next Sunday. It's a very safe argument that, after Frank Thomas, he's the second-best Sox offensive player in the past fifty years or so, and a career like this deserves some kind of retrospective.
This is the list of his most important hits in his White Sox career, using Win Probability Added (WPA) as my benchmark. In his career, Konerko had 314 go-ahead hits, 116 that tied the game and eight walk-off hits -- WPA can help determine which of these hits packed the most punch. Almost by definition these hits will be home runs, but not exclusively, and the entire list can be seen in this Google Docs spreadsheet.
#10 -- October 7th, 2005 at Boston, ALDS Game 3
As the 2005 season wound down, a dominant Sox team didn't slide as much as get chased by an extremely hot Indians team. They were able to fend them off in the last week of the season, but the Sox of recent vintage had done little to instill great confidence for postseason glory. This game was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 7th when Konerko homered off Tim Wakefield, and the Sox would go on to win the game 5-3 to sweep the series, their first playoff series win since 1917.
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#9 -- April 29th, 2001 vs. Seattle
The Sox made the 2000 playoffs and were swept by the Mariners in the ALDS. They were off to a slow start, entering this game 8-14 and facing a Mariners team that was off to a 20-4 start and featuring the player who would win both the Rookie of the Year and MVP, Ichiro Suzuki. The game went into extra innings, and Konerko hit a single in the bottom of the 14th off Ryan Franklin to drive in Magglio Ordonez for the game-winning run.
#8 -- April 25th, 2001 vs. Oakland
A mere four days earlier the White Sox faced the A's in another extra-inning game. In this case Konerko hit a walk-off solo home run off Chad Bradford in the bottom of the 11th inning. This means he had two walk-off extra-inning hits in the space of five games -- two of the eight he would have in his career.
#7 -- September 6th, 2007 at Detroit
Chicago's 670 The Score carries the White Sox radio broadcasts, and afternoon co-host Dan Bernstein once said the poor performance of the 2007 Sox killed his family's dog. By this point in the season, the Sox were 59-80 and wallowing in last place in the AL Central and only one game ahead of the Rays for the worst record in baseball. In the top of the 8th Konerko doubled off Fernando Rodney to drive in Alex Cintron and Danny Richar to go up 2-1. It didn't last, as Bobby Jenks gave up the game-winning single to Placido Polanco in the bottom of the 9th, exemplifying everything the 2007 Sox were.
#6 -- September 23rd, 2006 vs. Seattle
The White Sox entered this game with an 85-69 record, but it was good for only third in the AL Central. In the bottom of the 8th with the Sox down 7-6, Konerko hit a two-run homer to drive in Jerry Owens. Two insurance runs were added for an eventual 11-7 victory, but in the end the Sox just couldn't win enough games to get back into the playoffs.
#5 -- April 26th, 2011 at NY Yankees
The Sox had already stumbled out of the gate by this point, entering the game with a 9-14 record. In the top of the 8th Konerko hit a two-run homer to drive in Brent Lillibridge (these names are really beginning to depress me) to move ahead of the Yankees 3-2 and run their record to . . . 10-14. It wasn't destined to be a good Sox year.
#4 -- May 21st, 2005 at Chicago Cubs
The Sox were hot out of the gate in 2005, entering this game 30-12 against a Cubs team that was treading water at 18-21. The Sox were down 1-0 entering the 8th, and Konerko hit a single to drive in Scott Podsednik and Aaron Rowand to put the Sox ahead for good.
#3 -- July 21st, 1999 at Minnesota
This was Konerko's first full season in Chicago, and he had a very solid first half-season with 12 homers, a .282 average, and an OPS over .800 back in the days when OPS was rarely, if ever, discussed. The Twins were bringing up the rear in the AL Central, and with the game tied 3-3 in the 10th Konerko homered off Mike Trombley. The Sox held on to win 6-3 to stay relevant in the wild card standings.
#2 -- September 1st, 2010 at Cleveland
The Sox were four games back in the AL Central standings and had little hope of securing a wild card spot, so every September game was crucial. In the 8th inning down 4-2 Konerko homered to drive in Juan Pierre and Alex Rios and put the Sox ahead. Alexei Ramirez would drive in an insurance run in the 9th to cement the 6-4 victory.
The #1 game will come to the surprise of absolutely no one who is even remotely a White Sox fan:
#1 -- October 23rd, 2005 vs. Houston, World Series Game 2
Konerko came to the plate in the bottom of the 7th and the Sox down 4-2. The Astros had just brought in Chad Qualls, and this is what Konerko did with the first pitch he saw:
Konerko drove in Juan Uribe, Tadahito Iguchi and Jermaine Dye with a grand slam home run. The game ended on a walk-off home run by Scott Podsednik (this is not a typo), but that wouldn't have been possible without Konerko's homer (and Bobby Jenks giving up two runs in the 9th), and the Sox went on to sweep the Astros and become the World Champions.
In 2012, Konerko appeared to be defying time, batting .367 with an OPS over 1.000 when he was hit by a pitch on May 18th in a game against the Cubs. He's batted only .250 since then, and when it was announced he was being re-signed for 2014 it was viewed as curious, especially with Jose Abreu joining the team and effectively relegating Konerko to pinch-hitting duties. But that didn't make him any less beloved by White Sox fans as he showed dignity and class in this final season.
Does Konerko belong in the Hall of Fame? I doubt it, since his achievements are largely one-dimensional. This shows FanGraphs WAR values for first basemen, and while he fares well in home runs, he slips somewhat in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which best puts his career in context. He was a below-average fielder (to the extent that matters at first) and only received serious MVP consideration twice, in 2005 and 2010. The White Sox will erect a well-deserved statue outside of US Cellular Park and probably retire his number, but Hall of Fame enshrinement seems to be an unrealistic expectation. This in no way diminishes what he accomplished with the White Sox, and on behalf of Sox fans everywhere:
Paul Konerko, thanks for the memories.
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All data from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs
Cubs fan Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA and has nothing but respect and admiration for what Paul Konerko accomplished. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.