CHICAGO – White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, at 36 years old, shouldn’t find his name among the major league leaders in multiple offensive categories.
Yet Konerko defies Father Time every time he has stepped on the field this season. He boasts the best batting average in the majors at .396 after a 4 for 4 performance Friday against the Cleveland Indians, and among first basemen the 16-year veteran is atop every major offensive category except RBIs – where he ranks third.
Chicago baseball fans have been spoiled the past 20 years watching Mark Grace, Frank Thomas and Derrek Lee man first base and put up some of the best offensive numbers at their position. The always underrated Konerko and the Cubs’ once career minor leaguer, Bryan LaHair, are continuing the Windy City tradition at first base by defying age expectations.
“It is amazing with the career that [Konerko’s] already had – to be doing what he's doing now is pretty special,” Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “He's one you kind of, like a wine, just leave it alone and watch it.”
Right now, LaHair is not much more than a feel-good story: a 29-year-old who is taking advantage of finally getting his shot in the majors after spending nine years in the minor leagues. While LaHair is battling his first extended slump of the season – hitting .069 in his last 10 games – the lefty slugger’s 10 homers ties him with Konerko for most by a first baseman, and his .304 batting average puts him in the top 5.
LaHair realizes there are plenty of skeptics who don’t care he hit 63 home runs and drove in 109 runs in two seasons at Triple-A Iowa. All he cares about is consistency at the plate, which ultimately will prove his doubters wrong. But don’t ask LaHair about his age affecting his production.
“I’ve always been a little confused by the age thing,” LaHair said. “I’m 29 years old. Guys play until they’re 40. I say it every year so I’m not afraid to say it: I’ve never had a major injury taking years off of my career. I work hard and keep my body in shape. I’m hoping I can play until my late 30s and be just like Konerko.”
LaHair could do worse than modeling himself after Konerko, a career .284 hitter with 406 career home runs. However, as recently as three years ago, Konerko appeared to be approaching the downturn of his career.
Konerko might be the only person not surprised by his success the past three seasons, as there were plenty of reasons to doubt an offensive resurgence. From 2007 to 2009 Konerko was a shell of himself at the plate. During that stretch Konerko posted his fewest home runs (22) in five years and the second-worst batting average (.240) of his career. Konerko also did not drive in more than 90 runs in any of those three seasons.
“You have to do a lot more work and you just have to pay attention to almost everything that you do when it comes to your body as far as weight training, eating, drinking, sleeping,” Konerko said. “You just have to have way more focus on that stuff because your body leaves you more and more each year. It’s not fun but if you want to continue to play you’ve got to do it.”
While some attributed Konerko’s declining production to age – he was 32 at the start of the 2008 season – the struggles only pushed him to refine his approach at the plate. The dedication has paid off, as Konerko is in line to make his third All-Star Game in three seasons, equaling his All-Star appearances in his first 13 years in the league.
If the Sox manage to win the AL Central or sneak into the playoffs via the wild card, Konerko could become the oldest AL MVP since 37-year-old Dennis Eckersley won the award in 1992.
“I wish it was simpler; I wish it was easier,” Konerko said. “There are guys out there that are more physically and naturally gifted that they probably don’t need to do as much preparation, so I’m definitely jealous of those guys. But I know what makes me tick to some extent, and so I just try to focus on the things I can control.”