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Hardly anyone noticed last week as Paul Konerko caught and then passed Babe Ruth.
For starters, people stopped watching the White Sox long ago. Loyalty has its limits. So when Detroit reliever Jose Veras struck out Konerko in the bottom of the eighth inning last Wednesday in the Tigers' 1-0 victory at the Cell, the game wasn't stopped to commemorate Konerko's 1,330th career strikeout, the same number as George Herman Ruth.
Paulie broke the tie with the Babe on Saturday, taking a called third strike from Cleveland's Ubaldo Jimenez to lead off the ninth inning in yet another 8-1 embarrassment for our staggering bunch of so-called professionals.
Since 103 players have more career strikeouts than Konerko, this recent development failed to register on the seismic scale. However, what is interesting is that when Ruth was rung up for the final time, on May 29, 1935 - he played his last game the next day as a member of the Boston Braves - his total of 1,330 was the most in history up until that time.
In the first 80-plus years of major league baseball, players simply didn't strike out nearly as often as they do today.
Konerko has whiffed an average of 96 times a season over 17 years, hardly an alarming number for a guy with 433 lifetime homers who usually has batted in the middle of the order. His teammate Adam Dunn ranks near the top in career strikeouts. More about him later.
Ruth was noted for any number of feats - both on the field and extracurricularly - not the least of which was taking a big hack and missing. Yet in 22 seasons he never struck out more than 93 times. It's no wonder his lifetime batting average was .342. He also ranks second to Barry Bonds - who had almost 4,000 more at-bats than Ruth - in RBI with 2,213. How can you argue that the Babe wasn't the greatest ever?
Therefore, being mentioned in the same breath with Babe Ruth is quite an accomplishment for Konerko - even if we're talking strikeouts.
To get an idea of the role of the strikeout in the early days of the game, consider that the 1927 Yankees - a ballclub always mentioned as among the best ever - fanned a total of 610 times, just about four per game. That was the year Ruth set the bar for home runs with 60, and teammate Lou Gehrig slugged 47. As a team the Yankees accounted for 158 round-trippers in '27. The A's were next, lagging far behind with 56.
So far this season, the Kansas City Royals have the fewest strikeouts in MLB with 949. Meanwhile, the Astros lead with 1,400, which means that approximately one-third of Houston's outs have come via the strikeout. And to think the White Sox dropped four of seven this year against those bums!
When we were kids, our fathers and Little League coaches instructed us to "keep your eye on the ball," a reasonable request. The idea of hitting seemed to be to make contact. After all, how could one reach base by swinging and missing?
That mantra apparently made an impression with ballplayers in Ruth's era. Even after Babe retired, a guy like Joe DiMaggio averaged just 34 strikeouts a season. Ted Williams never struck out more than 64 times, and that was his rookie year. The Sox Hall-of-Fame second baseman Nellie Fox fanned 18 times in 1953, his most ever in 19 seasons. Even the .220 hitters made contact. If they didn't, they wound up in Triple-A.
Striking out is a little bit like leaving a putt short in golf. Not one of those ever has gone into the cup. Aside from dropped third strikes of which there are few, I'm aware of no one reaching base via a strikeout. An icon like Ruth more than compensated for the 1,330 times he went down on strikes by achieving extraordinary success when he made contact.
Which brings us to the current whiff champion, Adam Dunn. In the 137 years since the beginning of major league baseball, only three players - Reggie Jackson, Jim Thome and Sammy Sosa - have struck out more than the White Sox's $56 million mistake. He makes Babe Ruth look like Nellie Fox.
Dunn's lifetime total is 2,208, and next season he will pass Sosa and move into the number three spot.
It's no surprise that the leaders in striking out also have been prodigious home runs hitters. When Dunn was hitting as high as .260 - Babe Ruth would be guffawing - and driving in more than 100 runs in the National League, his whiff rate may have been palatable. However, since arriving on the South Side three years ago, Dunn has struck out almost exactly once every three plate appearances. (He's also walked about 15 percent of the time, meaning that about half the time with the Sox he's either struck out or walked.)
Dunn's 83 home runs and 220 RBI since he arrived in Chicago simply don't make up for the massive failures. He's hitting .196 in a Sox uniform. What else is there to say?
Pinning all the blame on Dunn for this forgettable season would be so neat and tidy. However, the current seven-game losing streak - making it 16 losses in the last 18 games - have been highlighted by pitchers who can't find the plate, defense which would put even a high school team to shame, and a lack of any formidable offense. Dunn merely clogs up the middle of the lineup, and, after all, he bats just four times a game.
Nevertheless, how can Rick Hahn, Kenny Williams and Chairman Jerry expect us to stomach another season of Adam Dunn striking out? He has become a symbol of the ineptitude of this team.
Last year we could forgive the Sox brass because the club picked up the ball, knocked out some clutch hits, and boasted effective pitching. They were competitive, and as in previous seasons, Konerko was the face of the franchise.
Now that face has become a struggling slugger traipsing back to the dugout after yet another strikeout.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox. He welcomes your comments.
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