Tigers' Torii Hunter pays tribute to peer Paul Konerko

Chris McCoskyThe Detroit News

Detroit — Before the game on Monday, rookie outfielder Tyler Collins was trying to rile up Torii Hunter, who was answering reporters' questions about how well he's playing at age 39.

"There aren't too many people my age who have my athletic ability," Hunter said.

To which Collins said, "What about (Jason) Giambi?"

"Giambi?" Hunter said, incredulously. "You can't even put me in the same category as Giambi; he's a big first baseman. I am an athlete."

Collins: "Paul Konerko."

"Konerko ain't even close to me," Hunter said, waving Collins out of the conversation.

Truth is, though, Hunter and Konerko go back a long way. They used to compete together back in the early 1990s at a prospect showcase known as the Arizona Area Code games.

And, more memorably, they competed against each other for years in the AL Central — Hunter with the Twins and now the Tigers, Konerko with the White Sox.

Hunter and Konerko probably played their last game against each other Tuesday. Konerko, who announced he will be retiring after this season, most likely won't be in the lineup for the day game Wednesday.

"I can't believe he's winding down," Hunter said. "I've played against him forever. I've known him since we were 16, 17 years old. To see it come to an end, it just lets me know we're getting older."

Both Hunter and Konerko broke into the Major Leagues in 1997 and from 1999 through 2007 they were two of the elite players in the Central Division. The White Sox finished second to the Twins in 2002, 2003 and 2004 before the White Sox finally broke through in 2005 —clinching the division title at Comerica Park.

"That was a big day," said Konerko, standing in the same visitor's clubhouse that was champagne soaked back on that September day in 2005. "It was a big relief to us to finally get into the playoffs. That's my biggest memory of Detroit, the celebration we had in here."

What he remembers less, and what Tigers, Twins and Royals fans certainly remember more, is all the damage he did against them throughout his brilliant career. The 50 home runs he's hit against the Twins is the most he's hit against any team, followed by the Indians (48), Tigers and Royals (45 each).

"We play a lot of games against your own division, so obviously you have a lot of chances to do good and to do bad — I've done a lot of both," he said.

In 244 games against the Tigers, he's hit .288, with a .366 on-base percentage and an .850 OPS (on base plus slugging). Besides the 45 homers, he's hit 40 doubles and knocked in 152 runs.

"A lot of that damage was probably done in the early 2000s when Detroit wasn't as good," Konerko said. "The last few years they've been really good and it's been tougher to do those things."

The Tigers planned to honor Konerko's 18-year career before the game on Tuesday.

"Konerko has done a great job," Hunter said. "He's a first baseman and he kept up his hitting. If you don't hit, how can you even play? But this guy kept up his hitting. He got smart and he got better as he progressed in his career.

"Now it's time for him to go home and be with his family, be with his kids and watch them grow up – and probably talk about us on TV."

The White Sox will honor Konerko Saturday, a ceremony that will include the retiring of his No. 14. Only Luke Appling played more games for the White Sox than Konerko. Only Frank Thomas hit more home runs and RBIs. Nobody in White Sox history had more total bases than Konerko.

But if he's getting at all wistful as the end nears, he's not letting on.

"I get people coming up asking me about it all the time so it's tough to get away from it," he said. "But it is what it is. The end will come. I'm just trying to enjoy it. It's part of it, no matter if you retired two years ago or three years from now — you are always going to get to that last week. You are always going to get to that last few games.

"I have been lucky to get to play for a long time. I've checked off a lot of boxes, so I am fine with it. I just want to get through it the best I can and have some fun with it."

That his farewell tour has been played in the shadows of Derek Jeter's this season, as you can guess, has not bothered him in the least.

"It's been what I wanted," he said. "No more, no less."

Wouldn't we all love to be able to say that at the end of our career.

Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky