Scott Miller's Starting 9: Derek Jeter Not Only Star Saying Farewell This Week

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistSeptember 23, 2014

David Banks/USA Today

1. Farewell to The Captain…The Other Captain

And now, the end is near, Frank Sinatra is cued up and the Captain will face his final curtain.   

No, not Derek Jeter.   

Well, him, too, which is why when that final curtain falls this Sunday in Chicago, Paul Konerko will be over there in the shadows while all eyes are on Jeter's finale in Boston.

There will be no lump-in-the-throat Gatorade commercial bringing Konerko home, no national spotlight. But the least we can do is pause long enough to send a tip of the cap to the Derek Jeter of the White Sox, a graceful player who will have his No. 14 retired this weekend as Chicago emotionally celebrates its own retiring legend.

"They're both smart, classy, talented guys," says Braves hitting coach Greg Walker, Konerko's hitting coach with the White Sox from 2003-11. "I think how Paulie represented baseball shined a light for other players on how to do it the right way.

"If your best player does it the right way, then your young players will do it the right way, too."

Mark Duncan/Associated Press
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For 16 seasons, Konerko has done everything the right way in Chicago. His Game 2 grand slam against the Astros in '05 helped the Sox win their first World Series in 88 years. His five homers and 15 RBI during that '05 postseason will be remembered vividly even when Ozzie Guillen's great-great grandson is playing shortstop on the South Side a few decades from now.

Konerko's 432 homers and 1,383 RBI trail only Hall of Famer Frank Thomas in White Sox history, and only Hall of Famer Luke Appling played in more games for Chicago. Only Nellie Fox and Appling had more hits for the White Sox, and Konerko is the club's all-time leader in total bases.

Paul Konerko Year-By-Year
YearTeamGHHRRBIOPS
1997LAD6100.393
1998LAD4931416.578
1998CIN2616313.668
1999CWS1421512481.862
2000CWS1431562197.844
2001CWS1561643299.856
2002CWS15117327104.857
2003CWS1371041865.704
2004CWS15515641117.894
2005CWS15816340100.909
2006CWS15217735113.932
2007CWS1511423190.841
2008CWS1221052262.783
2009CWS1521512888.842
2010CWS14917139111.977
2011CWS14916331105.906
2012CWS1441592675.857
2013CWS1261141254.669
2014CWS7641522.601
Baseball-Reference.com

"I'll tell you this," says former White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy. "When I played with him and he was right, he was the best fastball hitter I've ever played with. He didn't miss a fastball."

Says Walker: "One of the best fastball hitters, if not the best, of his generation."

For years, wherever Walker has traveled, hitters throughout the land have wanted to know the secrets to Konerko's approach, mechanics and work ethic.

"Really a brilliant guy," Walker says. "Early on when we worked together, we made an agreement: If I wanted to make any changes, it would have to be scientific." Meaning, Konerko knew at all times exactly where his hands were during an at-bat, where his feet were placed and the general parameters of his swing path. And he was more obsessive-compulsive about all of it than an old couple insisting on an uncluttered house.

If anything—anything—was to be changed, Konerko wanted specific reasons.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

But because he was so in tune with all of this, and because he was so analytical, Konerko was the master of making adjustments on the fly. And as such, he became the Man of a Million Swings.

"I used to joke with him, 'What swing are you going to use today?' " Walker says. "And he'd say, 'Number 72.' Or, 'Number 38.'

"I've seen him step out of the box, make an adjustment during the at-bat, step back in and hit a home run."

Adds Walker: "I think that's why he's been such a big-game player. World Series, All-Star Games, he can make adjustments most people can't. Or, instead of looking at it like, 'This is the way I've always done it,' he'll say 'Let's come up with something else. I'm not going to keep making the same mistake over and over.'"

A lot of people are going to miss Konerko throughout the game, and it goes far beyond the White Sox simply being without one of the best middle-of-the-lineup players they've ever had.

"There's not a whole lot of talk about him," Peavy says. "Listen, Derek Jeter deserves every bit of credit. But Paul Konerko has had a wonderful career, and he's done it the right way in a big city as well.

"It was an honor to play with such a great player and call him a friend."

2. Atlanta Follows Brave New Path

Dave Tulis/Associated Press

Even more impressive than the Braves' streak of 14 consecutive titles was their run of stability: Not since 1990 had they fired a general manager or manager.

That is, until Monday, the day after they were eliminated from the postseason, when they tomahawk-chopped GM Frank Wren.

The Braves' second massive collapse in four seasons doomed Wren, who constructed a flawed roster with too many high-strikeout, low-on-base guys who failed to click. The Braves also fired Bruce Manno, director of player development.

At a press conference Monday, club president John Schuerholz spoke of "putting in place the finest baseball operations [staff] ever seen in Major League Baseball" to take the club to "higher and greater ground."

Three early names to watch:

• John Coppolella, 35, the Braves' assistant general manager, is very highly thought of and respected throughout the game.

• Kansas City GM Dayton Moore, who worked in Atlanta's organization from 1994 to 2006 before leaving for the Royals. Schuerholz repeatedly referenced the "Braves Way" Monday, and Moore certainly knows the blueprint there. He's worked hard to install a similar plan in Kansas City, where he has two years left on his contract.

• Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry, who built a winner for a time in Chicago and currently is Yankees GM Brian Cashman's assistant. Hendry has a very good relationship with Schuerholz and Co., knows talent and would seem to fit in well in the Braves' collegial atmosphere.

Beyond that, longtime baseball man John Hart, named as the Braves' interim GM by his good pal Schuerholz, is said to be enjoying his television work at MLB Network and the flexibility that affords him too much to want to go back to being a GM full time.

However, he also would not definitively rule out the idea of him becoming Atlanta's full-time GM. As Schuerholz quipped, "It is not a completely closed or open door, is what he meant to say."

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Several of Wren's high-profile free-agent signings became unmitigated disasters, most notably outfielder B.J. Upton (five years, $75.25 million), Dan Uggla (five years, $62 million) and Derek Lowe (four years, $60 million). Add some internal discord—among other things, Cox and Wren clashed, something that went very public when Cox failed to mention the GM during his Hall of Fame induction speech this summer—and the door to Wren's exit was opened wide.

As for the biggest on-field reasons, Upton and Uggla, in particular, were representative of the club's streaky, high-strikeout lineups in recent years.

As one longtime executive told Bleacher Report, "Two contracts like that set your organization back for years."

Added a longtime scout: "They've got to split up the Upton brothers." Justin, acquired by Wren in a trade, has outperformed his brother.

Schuerholz says the new GM will have the ultimate decision on manager Fredi Gonzalez, who survived Monday's bloodletting, and there is a high probability that when the Braves convene next spring in Florida, Gonzalez will remain as manager.

Asked whether he would endorse Gonzalez to the new GM, Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox said, "Yes, absolutely."

Cox was fierce in his support.

"Fredi's done a remarkable job since he's taken over," Cox said. "For me, since 2011, I think he's been outstanding. Last year, he had a difficult time winning 96 games with the things that were taking place."

3. Let's Get a Move On

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Anybody who's been to a baseball game lately knows that...zzzzzz.

Sorry, dozed off there. Allow me to start again:

Anybody who's watched a baseball game on television lately knows that...zzzzzz.

OK, let me put this another way: The top priority of incoming commissioner Rob Manfred must be to reconnect with the younger generation. That covers a lot of ground, and one key tenet is tackling the (snail's) pace of game.

Baseball announced Monday that Bud Selig recently conducted a conference call with a new pace-of-game committee, which will be chaired by Braves president Schuerholz and also includes Manfred, Mets GM Sandy Alderson, Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner and team partner Michael Gordon, players' union boss Tony Clark and MLB executive VP Joe Torre.

The average MLB game this year is running a whopping three hours and 13 minutes. Here are a few things the committee should be discussing:

• Enforce a rule already on the books, that pitchers have a maximum of 12 seconds to throw the ball after they receive it. Not to pick on one guy in particular, because many are guilty, but Giants reliever Jean Machi on Sunday took 41 seconds to deliver one pitch in San Diego, and 35 seconds to deliver another.

 Once hitters step into the batter's box, they should stay there. No stepping out after every pitch to adjust batting gloves, helmets or to look for ma in the stands.

 Kill walkup songs. Just do away with them. Look, I'm into music as much as anybody, but all the walkup songs do is cause the batter to move more slowly into the box. Get in there and get to work.

 Streamline the new instant replay system. This one is obvious. Managers sloooowly walking out to an umpire while waiting to get word from a coach as to whether they should challenge a call is wasting more time than your Aunt Hattie on the telephone. This one has got to be seriously tweaked.

 Plate umpires need to call the entire strike zone, both north to south and east to west. Small strike zones drag things out. Call a big zone, it moves the game along and it encourages hitters to swing, rather than pick over every pitch as if sorting through peaches looking for the ripest.

4. Matt Kemp Rising

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

Maybe we were all wrong about Matt Kemp. Perhaps all he needed following major shoulder and ankle surgeries was, duh, time, sweet time to work off the rust and recalibrate his timing.

Following his four-hit, four-RBI day Sunday, Kemp entered this week leading all NL regulars after the All-Star break in slugging percentage (.594), was second in home runs (15) and fourth in OPS (.964). He ranked second to teammate Adrian Gonzalez (52) with 49 RBI. The talk of how to squeeze four outfielders into three spots has dissipated. Kemp not only has earned the right to play every day—the Dodgers need him. Especially with Hanley Ramirez in and out of the lineup and Yasiel Puig's inconsistency this year.

And don't underestimate the fact that since getting yanked out of center field because he was becoming a liability, Kemp has found a comfort level in right field that he did not in left. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly initially moved him to left before settling on right, the position Kemp grew up playing. Through Monday, Kemp had played 44 games in left this season for the Dodgers, 41 games in center and 54 in right.

5. Big Week for Pirates

As the Pirates and Giants jockey for NL wild-card position—so long, Brewers—logic tells you that home-field advantage in next week's Wild Card Game will be invaluable to the Pirates.

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 22: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates signs an autograph before the game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on September 22, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Their 51-30 home record is tied with St. Louis for the NL's best. And baseball fever is fully back at PNC Park, where the Pirates set a record this season with more than 2.4 million in attendance.

Now for the twist: Oddly, a Giants-Pirates Wild Card Game in Pittsburgh might also be best for...San Francisco?

The Giants have not played particularly well at home this year. They are 42-35 at AT&T Park only because they've won 12 of their past 15 games there. Until a 6-1 homestand last month against Colorado and Milwaukee, the Giants were stumbling badly at home in one of many odd turns to their year.

Overall, coming into this week, the Giants ranked eighth among NL teams in runs scored at home (303), eighth in home batting average (.257) and 11th in slugging percentage at home (.381).

6. Nationals Treasure: Should He or Shouldn't He?

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 30:  Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pitches during MLB baseball action against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on August 30, 2014 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)
Rich Lam/Getty Images

The biggest question as Stephen Strasburg prepares to participate in the first postseason of his career is whether he should start Game 1 next week for the Nationals.

During a wide-ranging discussion on MLB Network Radio last week, I said I'd go with Jordan Zimmermann. A very well-reasoned caller made a case for Doug Fister.

Now, indications are that manager Matt Williams may choose Strasburg. So, please allow me to do what managers who are preparing for the postseason all over are doing: re-evaluate and study daily. And the more I do, the more I'm thinking Strasburg.

For one thing, the man who would be the Nats' ace has pitched as if he is in his most recent outings. Over his past five starts, Strasburg has produced a 1.35 ERA with 33 strikeouts and just two walks. For another, the Nats will open the Division Series at home, and Strasburg, for whatever reason, has been much more comfortable there this season.

In 17 home games at Nationals Park, Strasburg is 8-3 with a 2.70 ERA and a 1.055 WHIP.

In 16 road games, the right-hander is 5-8 with a 3.82 ERA and a 1.232 WHIP.

If the Nationals are going to go as far as they hope, Strasburg is going to have to win on the road in October. But given his current run and his home credentials, as well as the fact that the Nationals have treated him as an ace all along, he's earned Game 1.

7. Jerome Williams, Athletics Killer

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

If Oakland misses the playoffs by a game, you can blame veteran right-hander Jerome Williams, who over the weekend became the first pitcher in history to beat a team three times in a season while pitching for three different clubs.

Working for the Phillies, Williams beat the A's on Saturday.

Working for the Rangers, Williams beat the A's on July 25.

Working for the Astros, Williams beat the A's on April 26.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one pitcher since 1900 has even had a chance to beat the same club three times in a season for three different teams: Willis Hudlin, who beat the Philadelphia Athletics (yes, the A's again) pitching for Cleveland and the Washington Senators in 1940. He faced them again later that season while pitching for the St. Louis Browns, but, alas, the Browns lost.

8. Award-Winning Short

Have you seen Gatorade's spot on Derek Jeter's farewell? If you haven't, you absolutely should. It is terrific:

9. This Guy Once Ate Vicks VapoRub

Bumped into the inimitable, legendary Kevin Mitchell at the park the other day. Mitch always was a favorite. He was fun to watch, always had a smile and often some crazy story that made you wonder if he really was a native of, say, Pluto. Like the Vicks story. He used to say when he had a cold he would eat a bit of the stuff.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Anyway, Mitch looks pretty good. No heavier than when he was playing. Still rocking the gold front tooth. But he's due for right hip replacement surgery within the next couple of weeks, which will temporarily sideline him from his work as a hitting instructor for kids from seven or eight years old all the way up through college age at the Brick Yard in San Diego.

He asked whether I thought the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton or the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw would win the NL MVP award. You can guess who he's rooting for.

"I'm a hitter," said Mitchell, who added that he doesn't attend many MLB games anymore, but he made it a point to come to Petco Park earlier this season to see Stanton.

"Unbelievable," Mitchell said. "Love him. I've never seen the kid play. Only on TV. I wanted to see how big he is. He makes the game seem easy."

And?

"These kids are unbelievably big."

About that time, Padres broadcaster Mark Grant, who once was traded for Mitchell, came over to say hello and asked Mitchell if he remembered the time he came to the park all depressed because he had lost his snake.

"Yes," Mitchell said. "He was gone for two-and-a-half months."

Two-and-a-half months? Turned out, the snake was hiding in Mitchell's house all that time. Then one day, just as quickly as the snake disappeared, he reappeared.

"Came out hungry," Mitchell said.

9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week

Frank Micelotta/Associated Press

Ah, you slumping Athletics, Brewers and Braves...

"Now you're lookin' at a man that's gettin' kinda mad

"I had a lot of luck but it's all been bad

"No matter how I struggle and strive

"I'll never get out of this world a-live

"My fishin' pole's broke, the creek is full of sand

"My woman run away with another man

"No matter how I struggle and strive

"I'll never get out of this world alive

"Ev'rything's agin' me and it's got me down

"If I jumped in the river I would prob'ly drown

"No matter how I struggle and strive

"I'll never get out of this world alive

—Steve Earle, "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive"

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.

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