He has thoroughly punished the Cubs for 14 seasons, but Paul Konerko’s favorite Crosstown Cup highlight doesn’t include any of his groan-inducing base hits in front of the Wrigley Field faithful.
He didn’t offer any game-altering home runs at U.S. Cellular Field, either.
Konerko’s best memory doesn’t include himself at all.
The honor instead belongs to Mike Caruso, a light-hitting shortstop who played two seasons with the White Sox, in a game in which Konerko only appeared as a pinch-hitter.
Back in 1999, Konerko’s first season on the South Side, the White Sox were a young team in the midst of a rebuild. The Cubs, on the other hand, were a veteran bunch whom a season earlier rode Sammy Sosa’s legendary home run race against Mark McGwire to a postseason appearance. The Cubs were expected to clean up when the teams met for the first time at Wrigley in mid-June.
Two days and two victories later, Caruso broke a 4-all tie in the top of the eighth inning with a two-run homer off veteran reliever Rick Aguilera, and the White Sox held on for a 6-4 victory and a series sweep.
As he heads into potentially his final Crosstown Cup, Konerko said the shock value delivered by Caruso -- who hit seven career homers -- far outweighs all of his great moments. The White Sox and Cubs play four games this week starting Monday at U.S. Cellular Field. The series moves to Wrigley Field on Wednesday.
“That’s one of our few sweeps,” Konerko said. “There was a big long rain delay and Mike Caruso came out and hit a (two-run homer) to put us ahead and win the game. There’s been a lot of good ones, but I remember that being probably the most fun just because we weren’t supposed to sweep them in Wrigley with the team they had and the team we had.”
While the series sweeps may be few and far between, Konerko has created plenty of memories against the Cubs.
Because the 1999 series began at Wrigley, Konerko’s first Crosstown Cup start wasn’t until July 9 because Frank Thomas manned first base. But Konerko established the tone for 14 seasons of torture quickly. In his first at-bat, Konerko gave the White Sox a 1-0 lead with a second-inning RBI double off Cubs starter Kevin Tapani. He went 2-for-4 that day and hasn’t stopped his personal assault of Cubs pitchers since.
In 68 Crosstown Cup games, Konerko has a .293/.352/.595 slash line against the Cubs with 20 homers and 53 RBIs in 276 plate appearances. It’s as if the man Sox fans lovingly refer to as “Paulie” has held a deep hatred for the Cubs for the better part of 15 years. Cubs pitchers have to be holding out hope that Konerko, a free agent after this season, isn’t around to torment them any more in 2014.
“They’re not alone in that regard,” general manager Rick Hahn said with a laugh. “I’m sure there’s a lot of teams in our division who are waiting for the same thing. (Crosstown) games are not as important as the division games, but at the same time they have such a heightened emotion and heightened tension and this quasi-playoff atmosphere. Guys rise to that occasion and enjoy playing in them.”
There’s an electric feel at the ballpark whenever the Cubs and White Sox meet, one in which Konerko revels. Both he and veteran reliever Matt Thornton liken the Crosstown crowds at Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field to the ones that greet them at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.
Konerko noted it doesn’t matter what the team’s records are, the crowds are always amped up for the series.
“The Cubs series is always different from other series,” Konerko said. “It’s a good pick-me-up during the season. … You go to New York, you go to Boston, places have that buzz and definitely feels different. The Cubs is similar to an Opening Day feel and some years it has been like a playoff feel. No doubt there’s an extra energy at both places when you’re playing.”
Thornton thoroughly enjoys when the White Sox hit the field for batting practice at Wrigley Field. He loves the famed ballpark’s Bleacher Creatures and how even though the fans are right on top of the action they’re not too hostile. After all, for every Cubs fan or two to hurl an insult, a White Sox fan is nearby to counter them because of the massive bragging rights on the line.
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And then there’s the first pitch.
“There’s something special about, a certain buzz is in that stadium when the game starts that you don’t get in a lot of ballparks,” Thornton said.
Konerko’s play against the Cubs suggests he thrives off the crowd’s energy.
His .947 OPS against the Cubs with the White Sox (he played them three times in 1998 while with the Dodgers) ranks third among all teams he has played at least 60 games against.
A teammate for four seasons, Carlos Quentin said Konerko has set himself apart with the way he handles energized atmospheres.
“Throughout his career, the bigger the games he has always performed,” Quentin said. “He knows how to keep his cool. That makes him special.”
If projected out over a full season, Konerko would hit 48 home runs and drive in 126 RBIs against the Cubs.
He attributes some of that success to not only the energy provided by the crowds but also to the close nature of the games between the rivals. Since Konerko joined them in 1999, the White Sox are 47-37 against the Cubs even though the South Siders have only scored 39 runs more runs.
“The games usually are crazy,” Konerko said. “Regardless of where the teams are in the standings, it doesn’t matter. Those games are pretty good games. … I’m sure it’ll be no different this time around.”
Hahn didn’t hesitate when asked for his favorite Konerko-owns-the-Cubs memory.
“It was a game at our place, we were down 8-0, and I want to say Paulie homered twice and he got hit in the head by (Kerry) Wood,” Konerko said. “That one jumps out.”
That particular contest took place on June 28, 2002.
After he was hit in the head by a Wood curveball in the bottom of the fourth inning, Konerko scored on a Carlos Lee single to cut the deficit to 8-1.
An inning later, Konerko’s two-run homer off Wood made it an 8-4 game. The inning after that, Konerko broke an 8-all tie with a two-run homer off Cubs reliever Joe Borowski and the White Sox went on to win 13-9.
“It’s not too often in any game you’re down 8-0 where you expect to comeback,” Hahn said. “But that one was so wrought with emotion and fight that was probably a top-5 Paul Konerko game in my mind.”
The slugger has crushed the hopes of Cubs fans many other times in the series.
On June 26, 2010, he ripped a 100-mph fastball from Andrew Cashner into the left field bleachers at U.S. Cellular Field in the bottom of the eighth inning for a go-ahead solo homer in a 3-2 victory.
Two weeks earlier, Konerko went 3-for-4 with two RBIs in a 2-1 victory that ended Carlos Silva’s eight-game winning streak to start the season.
Six years to the day before he homered off Cashner, Konerko broke a scoreless tie when he took Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano deep for a three-run shot in a 6-2 White Sox victory.
He had three RBIs in all three games at U.S. Cellular that weekend and the homer was the first of five Konerko hit off Zambrano in 32 career at-bats, the second-most he has hit off any pitcher.
Then there was the game-tying solo homer he hit off Cubs reliever Scott Eyre on July 1, 2006 in a contest the White Sox went on to win 8-6.
And of course there was his bases-loaded double off Hall of Famer-to-be Greg Maddux to break a 1-all tie on May 19, 2006, a game the White Sox won 6-1.
But none of those moments of pure dominance can match Caruso or the close nature of the entire series, Konerko said.
“I do remember (the Wood game),” Konerko said. “There’s been so many moments over the years good and bad for both sides. That’s the thing that sticks out the most to me with Cubs-Sox is regardless of where teams are in their standings, the majority of games, 90 percent of them, have been good games, close games. That’s the number one thing that stands out.”