The Royals didn’t win the AL Central Division, had few players with postseason experience and had to survive a crazy Wild Card Game. Who knew they’d wind up in the World Series?
“I did,” said Paul Konerko. “Let me quantify that. I thought whoever won the Wild Card Game was going to the World Series.”
Konerko, the retiring White Sox star who was named co-recipient with the Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins of the Roberto Clemente Award on Friday, saw plenty of the Royals throughout the season and had the final look at the team in the regular season. The Royals clinched a playoff spot at U.S. Cellular Field on Sept. 26, around a weekend series devoted to Konerko’s retirement.
He liked what he saw then, and throughout the season from a talent standpoint.
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“The only thing I thought could have brought them down was that it was a bunch of guys who hadn’t been through this,” Konerko said. “When they won the first game of the ALDS, I thought, ‘They have it.’ There was no mental thing going on with them.
“You saw at-bats like normal every-day season at-bats, nobody was pressing. So then it comes down to talent sorting itself out. They had more talent. It’s just that simple to me. They have the team.”
Konerko has seen a run like this before, one where he was the centerpiece. In 2005, the White Sox reached the postseason for the first time since 2000.
That team’s biggest challenge was to stem a late season collapse. The White Sox saw a 15-game lead shrink to 1 1/2 in less than two months. But they held on.
The Royals’ scary experience came in the Wild Card Game, trailing 7-3 in the eighth before rallying for a 9-8 victory in 12 innings.
“We were on the verge of having a historic collapse, and then we made it in,” Konerko said. “That’s when we said, ‘Let’s go.’ You could just feel it. You knew it.”
There wasn’t a one-game Wild Card Game then, but the White Sox had to advance through two layers to reach the World Series. They swept the Red Sox in three and beat the Angels in the ALCS 4-1 as Konerko was named the series MVP.
In the World Series, the White Sox rolled, sweeping the Astros for the franchise’s first championship since 1917.
“Once we got started, it felt like we couldn’t lose,” Konerko said.
Friday, Konerko and Rollins, were big winners. The Clemente Award goes to the player who best exemplifies baseball, sportsmanship and community involvement. Konerko and former teammate Jim Thome founded the Bring Me Home Foundation to raise awareness and support for foster children and their families.
Rollins and his wife Johari created the The Johari & Jimmy Rollins Center for Animal Rehabilitation as well as The Rollins Family Foundation. Rollins also raises money for the Arthritis Foundation.
Every team nominates a player for the award. Eric Hosmer was the Royals’ nominee.