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Konerko Ready to Become a Hit When It Counts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although the Paul Konerko bandwagon is quickly gaining momentum, at least one Dodger is urging caution about the touted rookie.

His name is Paul Konerko.

“Everything has been a little bit crazy, especially in the last few days,” he said. “I appreciate all the things that people are saying about me, and all the stuff in the newspapers, but I haven’t even played in a game that counts. It’s not like I’ve done anything yet.”

That has seldom slowed hype machines.

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Konerko will start at first base today in the Dodgers’ season opener against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. The rookie is the center of attention as the Dodgers begin their 41st season in Los Angeles, and how he fares may well help determine where they finish in the improved National League West.

Konerko is on the spot. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve been waiting for the chance to prove myself on this team for four years,” said Konerko, the Dodgers’ first-round draft choice in 1994.

“This is what you think about when you’re down in the minors, about being a starter on a major league ballclub on opening day. I’m sure I’m going to be a little bit nervous, when I’m standing out there for the first time, but I also know I’ll be excited. I just want to get into a real game, because none of [spring training] really matters.”

But that hasn’t tempered the excitement. Smooth-swinging Konerko was a show-stopper from the start of spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., impressing teammates with his style and approach.

“He definitely showed us something,” said second baseman Eric Young. “He’s a young guy, but he acts like he’s been around.

“He put up numbers, and now we need him to keep it going in the season. He’s filling in for one of the guys in the middle of our lineup, so he has to get it done.”

Veteran first baseman Eric Karros is expected to be sidelined for at least six weeks while he rehabilitates from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, so Konerko will play first--his best position--in Karros’ absence after having worked in left field for much of spring training.

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Karros has hit at least 30 home runs and driven in 100 runs in each of the last three seasons, and Konerko, the consensus minor league player of the year last season at triple-A Albuquerque, realizes he has big shoes to fill.

“I’m getting this chance because the Dodgers believe I can contribute, so I have to do my job,” he said.

“But I also can’t get wrapped up in trying to do too much, trying to play like somebody else. I can only do what I can do.”

That should be more than enough if Konerko does what he did in the exhibition season. In 29 games, he batted .338 with five home runs and 23 runs batted in. His play was a big factor in the Dodgers going 18-10-1.

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“Anyone who has seen him knows that he’s not your typical rookie,” Manager Bill Russell said. “We knew going into spring training that he was already a major league hitter, so we weren’t surprised by anything he did.”

Konerko had supporters before the Freeway Series began, and he stirred more excitement during the three games against the Angels.

He hit solo and three-run homers against Angel left-hander Chuck Finley in the opener, and singled. In the second game, Konerko hit a grand slam against starter Ken Hill.

His hot exhibition season has prompted unfair comparisons between Karros and Wally Pipp, the New York Yankee first baseman who sat out a day and was replaced by Lou Gehrig, who then played in 2,130 consecutive games. Pipp supposedly had a headache. Karros was playing in pain because of torn cartilage in his knee.

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The Dodgers stress that there are no similarities.

“Eric Karros has been, is and will continue to be a big part of this team,” said Fred Claire, executive vice president. “The best lineup for the Dodgers has both Eric Karros and Paul Konerko in it, and we’re looking forward to Eric’s return.

“We’re fortunate to have Paul, and we’re very confident about having him in the lineup right now. Everything he has done to this point has only increased that confidence.”

But the Dodgers have been wrong about other can’t-miss prospects, many of whom missed big. Outfielder Billy Ashley, who became a free agent on Monday after refusing a demotion to the minor leagues, is the latest in a long line of power hitters who terrorized pitchers at Albuquerque, but had minimal success in the majors.

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“He looks like he’s got it, but you usually go through something as a rookie,” Young said. “That’s when the older guys in the clubhouse have to help him . . . pick him up and keep his head focused. We need him.”

Team officials are trying to temper the expectations. They have avoided mentioning Konerko’s name in connection with the rookie-of-the-year award, at least publicly.

They were disappointed when the organization’s five-year stranglehold on the award ended last season. And many nervous front-office types are hoping that Konerko will provide another trophy to offer as tribute to their new Fox Group superiors.

Konerko has been impressive, but who knows?

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“The young guy definitely has a nice swing,” said all-star catcher Mike Piazza, the 1993 rookie of the year. “We’ve heard a lot about him over the past couple of years, but this was really the first time he’s had a chance to show what he can do.

“But it could be a little tough on him, because he already has stuff to deal with. The pressure, the expectations and the hype. That can be hard.”

Exactly how hard, Konerko will soon know.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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DODGERS OPENING-DAY LINEUP

2B Eric Young

SS Jose Vizcaino

C Mike Piazza

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3B Todd Zeile

RF Raul Mondesi

1B Paul Konerko

LF Todd Hollandsworth

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CF Trenidad Hubbard

P Ramon Martinez

Today’s Game

Dodgers at St. Louis

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* Time: 1 p.m. PST

* TV: Ch. 5

* Radio: AM 1150


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