The end of an era is approaching.
There will be no games remaining on the 2014 White Sox schedule a week from now. That also means there will be no games left to play in the remarkable career of Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, who will retire at the end of the week after 18 seasons -- 16 of them on the South Side of Chicago.
When Opening Day 2015 rolls around, Konerko isn't going to be at U.S. Cellular Field for the first time since 1998. Isn't that going to be a weird feeling for us all?
Konerko knows the time is right to walk away. Time, age and injuries have taken their toll. He's not an everyday player anymore. He's not the hitter he used to be, as his .216 batting average this season shows. He hasn't been able to play much the past three weeks after breaking a bone in his hand the first week of September.
Everyone associated with the White Sox would like to see a storybook ending for Konerko, but there's a very real possibility he has hit his last home run in a Chicago uniform. Heck, there's a possibility he's gotten his last base hit in a Sox uniform, too, but even if that's the case, it's OK. We should not spend too much time lamenting the struggles Konerko has had in his final season. Rather, we should celebrate the player Konerko was, and the exemplary career he has had.
Konerko's name is high on a lot of lists in White Sox franchise history. That's no small thing. The Sox are one of the charter franchises in the American League. A lot of players have come through the South Side over the past 113 years, and Konerko has been one of the best. The numbers speak for themselves, but we'll recite them anyway.
Konerko is the all-time franchise leader in total bases with 4,009. He ranks second in home runs (432), RBIs (1,383) and games played (2,264). He is third in hits (2,291), doubles (406), plate appearances (9,244) and at-bats (8,155). He ranks fourth in runs scored with 1,141.
If you look at the franchise's leaders in these categories, the names ahead of Konerko are players such as Luke Appling, Nellie Fox and Frank Thomas. Those are Hall of Famers.
If you've paid any attention to the Chicago media lately, there's been a lot of discussion of some of the great moments in Konerko's career. His grand slam in Game 2 of the 2005 World Series was his finest hour. It was arguably the biggest hit in White Sox history. Earlier that postseason, there were big home runs in Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS, a series in which Konerko earned MVP.
These are moments that are fondly remembered, and rightfully so. However, an outstanding career in baseball is about more than handful of big hits on the postseason stage. There are plenty of players who have had their 15 minutes of fame after one good game or one big moment in a championship series. Konerko is not one of those guys. That grand slam in the World Series will live forever, but his career with the Sox has been so much more than that.
I've been privileged to see Konerko play in person about 200 times over the past 16 years. I've watched most of his 9,244 plate appearances with the Sox either at the ballpark or on television. When I reflect back on all those games, there are two memories that stand out that I'd like to share. It may surprise you that neither of them involve postseason play.
April 16, 2005: White Sox 2, Mariners 1
I'll bet a lot of Sox fans remember this game, but not because of Konerko. This game is famous because it lasted only one hour, 39 minutes. It is far and away the shortest White Sox game I have ever attended. At the time, former Sox ace Mark Buehrle had not yet throw his 2007 no-hitter against the Texas Rangers, or his 2009 perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays. This game was perhaps the signature moment of Buehrle's career to that point. He struck out 12. He only gave up three hits. He worked quick. He made the Mariners look foolish.
But guess what? Buehrle doesn't get the win without Konerko's performance that day. This was a game where the two teams combined for only seven hits. You could count the number of hard-hit balls the entire afternoon on one hand. Two of those hard-hit balls came off Konerko's bat. Both of them landed in the left-field seats. Those were the only two runs the Sox scored. That was the margin Buehrle needed.
Without those two homers, one hour and 39 minutes never happens. Maybe the game goes extra innings and ends up lasting three hours. Who knows? Buehrle got most of the headlines and most of the credit that day. He deserved it. However, you might say the final score was Konerko 2, Mariners 1.
This was an April game with 20,000-some people in the stands. The bright lights weren't shining. It wasn't considered a monumental win in the big picture, but I'll never forget Konerko's performance that day.
August 8, 2006: White Sox 6, Yankees 5 (11 innings)
In this game, the Sox trailed 5-4 in the ninth inning when Konerko stepped to the plate to face New York closer Mariano Rivera, who was the best closer of his generation and a future Hall of Famer.
Rivera is known for having just one pitch - a cutter than moves in on the hands of left-handed batters and away from right-handed batters such as Konerko. During the at-bat, I vividly remember Konerko swinging and missing badly as he attempted to pull an outside cutter from Rivera.
From my seat in the stands, I yelled at the top of my lungs, "C'mon, Paulie, you know it's going to be a cutter away! Go with the pitch and hit the damn ball to right-center field!"
Not that Konerko could hear me, but the next pitch was a cutter away, and Konerko swatted it just over the wall in right-center field for a game-tying home run. The fans seated near me looked at me like, "How did you know?"
The Sox went on to win in 11 innings on a walk-off single by Jermaine Dye, but Konerko's homer was easily the biggest hit of the game. Part of Konerko's genius was his ability to made adjustments from pitch to pitch, even against a tremendous pitcher such as Rivera. That home run that night was perhaps the best example of that I've seen.
There are probably some Sox fans out there who have little or no recollection of these two games, but I'll bet every Sox fan has a couple of Konerko performances they recall vividly like the ones I just described. There has been too many of them to mention.
Maybe your favorite Konerko moment was in the World Series, or maybe it was on a quiet April afternoon in front of a sparse crowd. A great career in baseball is made up of dozens of moments, and Konerko consistently provided them for the White Sox -- in games both big and small -- for the past 16 years. Players like that only come around every so often, and for that reason, we should celebrate Konerko's accomplishments as the book closes on his time as a player.
After Sunday's game against the Kansas City Royals ends, no Sox player is ever going to wear No. 14 again. You can count on that -- just as the Sox have counted on Paul Konerko for big hits every year since 1999.