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Paulie, Juan And The Ghost Of Nellie Fox

Let's assume, for a moment, that Paul Konerko leads a long and healthy life. Imagine also that he reaches a ripe old age when his reflexes and awareness aren't what they used to be. His adult children begin to worry about his driving skills.

This is not an uncommon experience for folks whose parents get to a point where operating a motor vehicle poses a risk to themselves and other motorists. At least in the eyes of the Baby Boomer "kids."

In Paulie's case, he might confront this situation with something like, "Hey, I'm not going to drive at night. If I take the highway, I'll stay in the right lane. I never exceed the speed limit. And you would never catch me texting or talking on the phone when I'm behind the wheel."

The point of this is that Konerko knows how to adjust and adapt. He's a wonderful fastball hitter, who can pull the ball into the left field seats or line a double into the left field corner with regularity.

However, given the situation - say, two strikes and a breaking pitch on the outside corner - Konerko is content to make contact and put the ball in play.

Twelve days ago in that dismal game against the Twins when Peavy was touched for six first-inning runs, Paulie came to bat in the bottom of the ninth.

The Sox had made up ground and trailed 7-4 with runners on second and third and two outs. A long one by Paulie, and the game's tied. But Joe Nathan got two strikes on Konerko, and he certainly wasn't about to offer one that the Sox slugger could pull. So Konerko adjusted. If Nathan erred and threw something middle-in, a long ball was a distinct possibility.

But Nathan is no pushover, and he caught the outside corner. Konerko looked to make contact, and his short pop-up fell behind first base, driving in two runs.

In contrast, Nathan froze the next hitter, Alex Rios, who took a called third strike to end the game.

August was a difficult period health-wise for Konerko. He was hit in the calf by a pitch the last day of July and sat out three games. He came back as the DH, being able to swing the bat but little else. Konerko's power was more or less non-existent in August. He hit just three home runs. But he still hit .370 for the month. Apparently he adjusted to what his body was able to do.

Or how about 2008 when he was hitting .213 at the end of July? A hand injury didn't help. Some fans wondered whether he was washed up at 32. He rebounded to hit almost .300 the rest of the season and has been the Sox' best hitter ever since.

You have to wonder whether guys like Adam Dunn, Gordon Beckham, Rios and others are watching. I may be missing something, but most of those guys make the same swing regardless of the count or the situation. Occasionally Beckham hits the ball to the right side to move along a runner, but wouldn't it nice to see him choke up an inch or two when he's down in the count just to make contact?

I was raised on a steady diet of Nellie Fox, the Sox' second baseman in the '50s. Fox was a little guy - he weighed 160 - and not a great athlete. He wasn't fast, nor did he have an exceptional arm. He hit from the left side and used what was known as a bottle bat - the handle was almost as thick as the barrel.

But that bat may as well have been a magic wand. Fox choked up a good two inches, and the opposition knew not to play deep. But that's all they knew. No one had a clue where the ball was going. He was as likely to get a soft base hit to left field as a line drive to right. The Sox' head groundskeeper Gene Bossard, Roger's dad, doctored the third base line so that Fox's bunts tended to stay fair; the little guy was the best bunter in baseball.

Of course, Nellie Fox hit just 35 home runs in 19 seasons, but he also amassed more than 2,600 singles, doubles, and triples. Furthermore, he was almost impossible to strike out. He averaged 11 whiffs a season!

Fox batted second in the order behind Luis Aparicio, and he made adjustments every time he came to the plate. If Looey was going to run, Nellie would take some pitches or intentionally swing and miss to make it tough on the catcher. The result? Aparicio led the American League in steals nine consecutive seasons.

If Looey already was on second, Fox could bunt, hit to the right side, or line one up the middle. He was a master at sizing up a situation and deciding what he wanted to do.Juan Pierre is the only player on the present club who even remotely mimics Fox's style.

Please understand that Pierre is no Nellie Fox, but Juan uses the entire field, he can bunt, and he's a tough guy to strike out.

Pierre got off to a slow start, accentuated by dropped fly balls and failed attempts at stealing bases. However, since June 1, he's hit a tick under.300, tracked down most balls to left field, stolen a few bases, and knocked in 46 runs from the leadoff position. After Konerko, Pierre is the team's best clutch hitter, which on this club isn't saying much.

In the case of Nellie Fox, he returned to his usual spot on the South Side, being a fixture at second base from 1950 until 1963. The singles, bunts, solid defense, and intelligence took him all the way to Cooperstown.

In the present-day environment, Juan Pierre's abilities will no doubt get him nothing more than a pink slip. He's making $8 million this season and will be a free agent in a few weeks. With the hefty contracts of Dunn, Rios, and others, chances are they won't spend millions on Pierre.

Too bad it's not the other way around.


Comments welcome.

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021