9:50 PM PDT, April 26, 2012
Signs of respect are spotted easily.
For instance, Red Sox rookie Felix Doubront was working carefully to Adam Dunn in the first inning Thursday night at frosty U.S. Cellular Field. He had him in a 1-2 count but then repeatedly missed trying to pound him inside, a mistake pitchers wouldn't have made a year ago when Dunn was an automatic out.
But the real tribute came when the 3-2 pitch was called ball four. Dunn tossed his bat toward the White Sox dugout. Before it touched the ground, the bundled-up crowd of 20,266 was on its feet, cheering the next hitter. Paul Konerko, who had been going through his familiar set of contortions in the on-deck circle, walked to the plate.
And just like that, in the 30 seconds it took for him to use his right foot to scratch out the back of the batter's box and his left foot to kick some dirt toward Doubront, Konerko had been welcomed to the 400-homer club.
There was no tip of the cap, let alone something as silly as a wave, and No. 14 was free to get back to his business, which in this case meant driving a 3-2 changeup from Doubront just beyond the reach of Red Sox center fielder Marlon Byrd.
A Kevin Costner movie moment? No, more of an aw-shucks moment.
I believe Konerko dug his cleats into the batter's box extra deep in the ninth inning Wednesday in Oakland, and not only because the White Sox were trailing the Athletics 2-1. He knew it was his last chance to avoid a fuss over his 400th career home run, and he wasn't about to let it go.
He has spent 14 years in Chicago epitomizing substance over style, and why would anybody think he would want attention now?
On Thursday afternoon, with reporters milling around the clubhouse as the White Sox returned home from 4-2 trip to the West Coast, Konerko sat alone at his locker for a long time, happily yielding the spotlight once he had gotten a quick group interview out of the way.
When he was cornered, Konerko spoke like a rank-and-file guy, not a 36-year-old who almost certainly will see the Sox retire his number and who could make a strong Hall of Fame case if he maintains his production a few more years.
"It really doesn't matter how many home runs I hit,'' Konerko said. "In my mind, I'm not a better hitter, a better home run guy, than (the players I've passed on the all-time list).''
This was vintage Konerko. He always will be the team captain who was too self conscious to let the White Sox put a "C'' on his jersey, a la Davey Concepcion and Jason Varitek.
If Konerko had played 20 years earlier, his feat would have been hugely celebrated. That was certainly the case when Cal Ripken Jr. reached 400 in September 1999.
He was the 27th guy to reach 400, and that was a real big deal. Even 300 seemed to matter, said White Sox coach Harold Baines, who finished with 384. But less than 13 seasons after Ripken, Konerko is the 48th to reach 400. That means 21 players have trampled on the legacy of Al Kaline (399 career home runs) in the steroid era.
There might have been more, except that Konerko and other players who were tired of baseball being the Wild West of professional sports did something to reduce the flow of synthetically engineered testosterone significantly in the bodies of their peers.
Konerko, according to some former teammates, was among the most powerful voices in the clubhouse in the spring of 2003, when White Sox players attempted to break away from union leadership to establish testing for performance-enhancing drugs.
The union had agreed to an anonymous round of "survey'' testing to determine the size of the problem. If more than 5 percent tested positive, a testing system with discipline would be put in place.
Sixteen of 37 players on the White Sox's roster refused to submit urine samples when the friendly folks from Quest Diagnostics came calling. They knew players who didn't turn in samples would be counted as positives and wanted as many of those as possible, in the hope of triggering full-scale testing.
After a flurry of phone calls between the union's New York office and Tucson, Ariz., the White Sox players were persuaded to cooperate with the collection procedure. But working behind the scenes, in a typically respectful manner, Konerko had delivered a strong message. Maybe one day he even will talk about it. Nah, probably not.
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