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Konerko's 400 is still a magical number

CHICAGO -- Boston Red Sox veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd can remember a time not so long where 400 career home runs represented a monumental achievement.

From the time Byrd was born in 1977 to when Byrd entered high school, a total of nine players entered the 400-home run club. When Andre Dawson hit his 400th homer on April 15, 1993, he was only the 25th player ever to reach the mark. At that time, there had been just 15 players with 500 home runs.

Dawson remained the only new member of the 400 club for more than five years. On April 5, 1998, Mark McGwire became the 26th player to join.

McGwire was just the start. From McGwire to the end of the 2010 season, 23 players hit their 400th career home run, and 15 players entered the 500 club.

With the home run boom, 400 didn’t seem like such a historical number any longer. When the 2012 season began, there were 47 players who had achieved it.

“Probably 10-15 years ago if you hit 400 home runs, it was an automatic to Cooperstown,” Byrd said. “The steroid era has changed that, changed that number to 500.”

So when the Chicago White Sox’s Paul Konerko rounded the bases Thursday against the Oakland Athletics after hitting his 400th home run, he didn’t receive the fanfare that was once given to the achievement. White Sox fans treated him to a standing ovation before his first at-bat Friday, but that was it.

Among his peers, though, what Konerko has done is something they would never shortchange. To them, 400 is still, well, 400.

“It’s such a big accomplishment,” said Konerko’s teammate Adam Dunn, who has 369 career home runs. “I don’t understand why people aren’t celebrating it more.

“I don’t care how people go about it. Four-hundred home runs, if you don’t think that’s a big number, print them out. Print them out and look at them and see how many that is. That’s a lot. I don’t think it should be diminished at all.”

On top of that, Dunn believes Konerko should earn additional respect for how he’s gotten to 400.

“He’s one of those guys, he’s just a great hitter who hits home runs,” Dunn said. “You got home run hitters, and you got great hitters who hit home runs. He’s in that kind of rare category of great hitters that just happen to hit home runs.”

Robin Ventura, who hit 294 career home runs, admired Konerko from afar up until he was named the White Sox’s manager prior to this season. Now that he’s observed Konerko up close on a day-to-day basis, he’s grown to have a deeper respect for him.

“Anything he does now, he’s up in an area that’s pretty impressive,” Ventura said. “For me, it’s very impressive. I think I look at it and, seeing his body of work of what he’s got, it’s very impressive. It’s always been that way for me. To see what he’s doing this season, not just the numbers he’s adding, but just the way he goes about his approach and what’s he’s doing this year, we’re very happy with him.”

Konerko has a mixed feeling about the number himself. On the one hand, he’s proud of it. But on the other, he doesn’t want his home run total to define who he is as a player.

“I think I’ve always tried to pay attention to what really matters inside the game,” Konerko said. “There’s definitely a need for a guy to hit homers and drive in runs and that type of guy.

“But there’s so many other things in the game, and so many pieces that make up a valuable player. I’m always conscious to make sure those get as much as weight as they should. Unfortunately, the outside world doesn’t give it as much as weight.”

Despite that view, Konerko still appreciates the act of hitting a home run. When asked if he remembered his first career home run, which came with the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 6, 1998, he recalled the opponent (Seattle Mariners), pitch count (3-2), type of pitch (fastball) and where it went (center field).

Konerko loved experiencing that home run, and he’s loved everyone since.

“The feeling is always the same,” Konerko said. “That’s what’s good about it. A home run is one of those things. I don’t know if there’s a better feeling just because you stop the game. You hit it out and you get to run around the bases.

“The hard part is not chasing that feeling and going up there and trying to do it. You know that’s the ultimate thing you would like to do, but you can’t go up there and try to do it. I think you have to understand the home runs and all that are a real by-product of just a real dedicated approach to something that has nothing to do with home runs. It’s just a result of what happens.”

And for Konerko, it’s now been a result 400 times.

“In my opinion, he’s a Hall of Famer,” Byrd said of Konerko. “You got to remember he’s not done.”