This is how well they know one another.
In Detroit last week, Mark Buehrle was asked about his start for the Toronto Blue Jays against the Chicago White Sox on Monday, the first of his career against the team he’ll always be identified with.
“It’s going to definitely be weird, trying to keep a straight face with those guys in the batter’s box,” Buehrle said.
Sunday in Cleveland, his former teammate, White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, was asked about facing Buehrle as an opponent for the first time.
“If I know Mark, it’ll be tough to keep a straight face for a pitch or two,” Konerko said. “I’m sure he’ll make it humorous. You’ve got to be ready. He might throw an eefus pitch or something like that.”
Beloved in Chicago by teammates and fans alike, Buehrle, a 38th-round draft choice, won 161 games for the White Sox, threw two no-hitters including a perfect game, won two postseason games, logged 200 innings every season, made nine opening-day starts, won three [of his now four] consecutive Gold Gloves, came into the 14-inning Game 3 of the 2005 World Series to record a save.
“And he hit a home run,” said relief pitcher Matt Thornton, with the White Sox since 2006. “That is probably his greatest achievement, in his eyes.”
Buehrle was shipped to the Blue Jays from Miami in November with Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio. Through two games each, the earned run averages of Buehrle and Johnson are more than 10. Reyes, with a history of leg injuries, is out of action up to three months with an ankle sprain, and Bonifacio has struggled offensively and defensively.
Thornton describes Buehrle as a “legend” in Chicago, no matter his departure for Miami in 2012 as a free agent.
“No. 1, he did the job,” Konerko said Sunday, before the finale of a three-game series against the Indians. “There’s no substitute for doing the job.”
Beyond performance, Buehrle connected with Chicago fans on an emotional level by “the way he went about his business,” former Blue Jay Alex Rios says.
“For most players, looking back on [your time in baseball], you enjoyed it, but as you’re doing it, it’s a grind,” Konerko said. “For Mark it’s not like that. He truly has a lot of fun while he’s doing it. Fans can see that, and they can relate to that because it looks like he’s playing Wiffle Ball out in the backyard. That’s how he’s always been, from Day 1, and that’s always struck a chord with fans.”
Only Cy Young, with 13 in a streak that ended in 1907, recorded more than Buehrle’s current run of 12 consecutive seasons combining at least 200 innings with fewer than 61 walks.
“You knew no matter how sore he was, no matter how beat up he was, no matter what was wrong, he would take the ball every five days,” Thornton said. “The track record of 12 seasons, 200 innings, is something you just don’t see. He always has quick games, gets the ball, doesn’t shake off the catcher. Truly, I think he shook off [catcher] A.J. Pierzynski twice. Trust the situation, trust the pitch, make the pitch.”
Before signing his four-year, $58-million (U.S.) contract in Miami, Buehrle met with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf – who declined to be interviewed for this story – a few weeks before the 2011 season.
“He said,” Buehrle recalled, “‘I don’t know what route we’re going or what we can do in free agency, and I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for this organization and the way you’ve gone about your business.’ When the Marlin thing happened, my agent called [the White Sox] back and said, ‘This is what the deal is, just to give you guys a last chance.’ They said, ‘We can’t come close to that, so have at it.’”
Buehrle is one of the few in the Toronto clubhouse with experience on a contending team. Following Reyes’s ankle injury, Buehrle’s clubhouse presence may become more valuable.
“Some starting pitchers are not totally involved with the team the whole time, it’s just the nature of that job,” Konerko said. “With Mark, he was like one of the position players, there every day on the bench and off the field, constantly setting up dinners and outings, a really good clubhouse guy. I’ve never seen him panic or get too tight. He’s a fun guy, likes to joke, gets along well with all his teammates and is one of those guys who can turn it on when he needs to.”
The ribbing by text went on throughout the weekend. Monday, they compete.
“I’m sure it’s going to be weird,” Buehrle said, “but once the game gets going, they’re going to try to hit the crap out of me and I’ll be trying to get them out.”
Said Konerko: “All the stuff we’re talking about, you’ve just got to block it out because it’s irrelevant to the game. It’s a little different just because we played together so long, but at the end of the day, it’s baseball, universal. He’s going to try to get me out and I’m going to try and hit it. That’s it.”
Chicago White Sox (5-7) vs. Toronto Blue Jays (5-7)
RH Gavin Floyd (0-2, 5.56) vs. LH Mark Buehrle (0-0, 10.24)
RH Dylan Alexrod (0-1, 5.79) vs. RH Josh Johnson (0-1, 11.05)
LH Jose Quintana (0-0, 4.09) vs. LH J.A. Happ (2-0, 3.48)
LH Chris Sale (1-1, 5.21) vs. RH R.A. Dickey (1-2, 5.82)
Notes: The White Sox had losing records against the Blue Jays from 2006 through 2011, but broke the spell last season (3-0). … Former Blue Jay Alex Rios is off to a hot start. Before Sunday’s games he ranked fourth in the American League in home runs (four), fifth in slugging percentage (.721), ninth in batting average (.372). … Sale, Chicago’s starter on Thursday, was the most famous athlete to come out of Florida Gulf Coast University, at least until America fell for Sherwood Brown and the basketball team that reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.<QL> Tom Maloney