It was a development as unexpected as it was delightful. The White Sox, picked by some pundits to finish dead last this season, were at presstime sitting atop the American League Central. Naturally, fans have begun to ask all kinds of crucial questions. Is Adam Dunn’s swing back for real? Is it too early to buy World Series tickets? And perhaps the most debate-worthy of all: Will Paul Konerko make it into the Hall of Fame?
Konerko has a hell of a lot going for him. At 36, he’s still slugging like it matters. The team’s captain since 2006, he has played for the Sox for 14 seasons, and during that time he has been a model of consistency. He’s remained loyal to the city, and he and his wife, Jennifer, are active in the community, working closely with Children’s Home + Aid, which assists foster kids. And, of course, Paulie’s a World Series hero.
But does all that add up to a plaque in Cooperstown? I decided to confront the man himself, even though I figured he’d rather eat a can of pine tar than tackle the topic. Still, I asked him anyway: Do you think you’re on pace to reach the Hall of Fame? “I don’t think [the question] is even relevant,” he replied.
So I went to the people who actually make the call on who’s headed to the Hall: the sportswriters—more precisely, the 700-plus members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. I checked in with two longtime voters: Buster Olney, a senior writer with ESPN magazine, and Ken Rosenthal, the main baseball writer and reporter for Fox. Although he doesn’t have a vote, I also talked with John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, to get a long-range perspective.
When making his choices, Rosenthal said, he needs to see a ten-year dominance. “To a degree,” he noted, “Konerko’s had that.” Both he and Olney thought Konerko would benefit from the fact that he’s never been associated with performance- enhancing drugs (unlike Houston’s Jeff Bagwell, a former first baseman who has better numbers than Konerko but has yet to get into the Hall, perhaps because his name has been tied to steroids). What’s more, Konerko’s character, integrity, and sportsmanship, which are ostensibly taken into consideration, should also carry some weight.
But Olney wants to see numbers: 500 home runs, 2,500 hits, and 1,500 RBIs. Reaching those would require Konerko to continue playing after his contract expires in 2013. Olney thought Konerko’s personality and sterling reputation could allow him to remain with the team, even as a part-time designated hitter, without becoming a toxic presence, which has happened with players who stay past their prime.
Thorn, on the other hand, didn’t think those numerical milestones should be an automatic indicator of who belongs. He said he would encourage the sportswriters to exercise “considered judgment,” rather than relying only on career stats, and added that seasonal peak performance—such as a batting title—should trump cumulative achievements as Cooperstown criteria. Thorn pointed out that Konerko has topped only one category his entire career: double plays grounded into (though at presstime, his .342 batting average led the American League). “Where’s his peak performance?” Thorn asked. “I’m not seeing it. But if you look at his records, say from 2004 to current day, that’s pretty good. Does it get you in the Hall? I don’t know.” Sorry, that’s a no.
Let’s give the last word to Konerko, who realizes it’s counterproductive to even think of this stuff. “I don’t ever, ever do that,” he bluntly declared before an afternoon game at the Cell. “I can guarantee that’s a 100 percent way to get the bat jammed up your ass today at one o’clock.”
* * *
SWINGING FOR THE HALL
How four first basemen compare
PAUL KONERKO *
409 HOME RUNS
Hall of Fame?
* Stats as of 6/24/12
521 HOME RUNS
IN Hall of Fame
493 HOME RUNS
NOT IN Hall of Fame
449 HOME RUNS
NOT IN Hall of Fame
500 HOME RUNS
*Reaching these milestones might help Konerko’s Hall of Fame chances.
Photograph: Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune