Relishing a new start: One season removed from his release by the White Sox, Keon found record-breaking success with the American Association’s Chicago Dogs. (Chicago Dogs)
What does a person do when things don’t go according to plan? Like Lenny and George, the protagonists in John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, every one of us has had a dream or a plan to achieve a desired goal. Some are small, like setting the garbage out on the curb the night before pickup. Some are huge, like hoping to play major league baseball. Some succeed. Some get close. And some don’t even get off the ground. Almost all of them do not travel in straight lines, ending up in wildly different places than intended.
In the category of different places, consider Chicago White Sox 2012 first round pick Keon Barnum. Fans may remember him as the second of the team’s two first-round picks from that year’s draft class (high school outfielder Courtney Hawkins was drafted No. 13). Keon was drafted at pick #48 as compensation for the free agent departure of a little-known, soft tossing southpaw named Mark Buehrle.
A 19-year old, 6´5´´, 225-pound power-hitting first baseman, Keon was selected right out of C. Leon King H.S. in Tampa, He could have conceivably been considered an heir apparent to former World Series champion and future White Sox retired number Paul Konerko.
But, like most plans and journeys that have been launched since our ancestors left their caves many millennia ago, Keon’s dream of playing baseball in Chicago didn’t quite end the way he hoped.
After seven seasons, four minor league levels, promotions and demotions, highlights and injuries, Barnum was released from the White Sox organization after the 2018 season.
But life sometimes throws us a curve, and we end up achieving our intended goals … just not how we envisioned them. Which is why cosmic forces seemingly intervened, and Keon’s 2019 season was played in Chicago. Not at Guaranteed Rate, however, but at Impact Field, home of the American Association’s Independent League team, the Chicago Dogs. Normally, this story wouldn’t really move the needle in this sports mecca we call home, but Keon took his new opportunity and ran with it, to record-setting heights. The result? This season, Keon set the AAs single-season home run record with 31 longballs.
Speaking from his hometown of Tampa, Barnum talked about his drafting and career with the White Sox, transition to life with the Dogs, the pursuit of the home run record, and whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich.
How are you feeling, now that your first season with the Chicago Dogs is over?
2019 was actually a pretty good season for me — actually, it was the best season I’ve ever had. Like all seasons, it’s always a grind, with some aches and pains, and a mental grind coming out to the field every day trying to play to the best of my abilities. There’s never a time to slack off and stop. But the best thing of all is just having fun every day. And it was such a fun time being with this team and my coaches.
The Dogs finished third in their [North] division, missing out on the playoffs, but with a record better than every team in the other [South] division.
Yeah, most teams did not want to play us! Our last opponents, St. Paul [Saints] told us they were glad to not see us in the playoffs. [The top two teams in each division advanced to a five-game series to determine who advances to the championship series] St. Paul had just swept Fargo [-Moohead Redhawks] in the series before, so we were already eliminated. And one or two series before that, we needed to take at least two games in a four-game series with St. Paul, and we only got one win, unfortunately. So that pushed us to the brink, and basically this last series didn’t matter for us making the playoffs.
Despite falling short of the playoffs, the Dogs had a successful season. What was the chemistry like on this team, and how did you and your teammates come together to play as well as you did?
Everybody on the team was just so mature and focused. There were no players who were only thinking about themselves. Honestly, everybody was there for each other and focused on being a team player. It really started to feel like a family. Always picking each other up and having our backs. But with this being my first year in Independent League ball, I really didn’t know what to expect coming in. But once I started to play every day, everything started to get better and better. I said to myself, “Wow, I kinda like this, this is not what I thought [Indy Ball] would be like.” A couple days into the season, I realized I was already knew I felt cool with this group of guys. So that helped me a lot.
Let’s talk about the new single-season record 31 homers, breaking the American Association’s previous record of 30 set in 2013. When did you find out you had a real chance of meeting and possibly claiming the top spot?
Sam [Brief], the commentator and postgame interviewer for the Dogs, told me when I was at 26 or 28 home runs that I had a chance. But I had no clue what the record was at that time. Honestly, I didn’t want to hear that, because I didn’t want to start pressing and thinking I had to break this record. I just kept playing my game, and if I broke the record that’d be amazing. When I hit the 30th home run I was really excited about that, puffing my chest a bit when I was running around the bases, [especially] since it put us up by one run [in the 10th inning].
Tying the record with a tie-breaking, 10th-inning homer should definitely put a bit of air in your chest! But it ended up taking until September 2 (14 days later) for you to hit the record 31st homer, in the penultimate game of the season. How did you handle the pressure of trying to set an individual record while your team was pursuing a playoff spot?
Of course I wouldn’t mind hitting a home run! But over the last couple of weeks, I kinda didn’t get pitched to as much, so it was tough. I didn’t get as many at-bats, getting walked a lot. I had to be super patient with pitchers nibbling at me, so I sort of had to change my game, because I love hitting first pitches. And now that I became more patient, I would start taking those first-pitch strikes! And that might have been the only pitch I’d get all game. It kinda got me out of my rhythm. Then with everyone saying “Oh, you only need one more [home run],” it just started leaking into my brain, but I tried not to think about it since we were trying to get into the playoffs.
What did it feel like to finally hit your 31st home run? What is it like to just hit a home run in general? Are you in sort of a “zen-like” state?
Hitting a home run is the best thing in baseball, and it’s just a different kind of feeling that you can’t really describe. It’s like a relief, and kind of excitement at the same time. I feel like it’s kind of being in a daze. You don’t even feel it coming off the bat. It’s definitely a fun thing to do!
With the 31st home run, when I hit it, I watched it thinking “Wow, this really is the [record] 31st home run!” I was trying to embrace it while running the bases and it happened so quick. Then my teammates came out and congratulated me, and they made the announcement in the stadium about breaking the record. I really just focused on embracing the moment, and it was truly overwhelming and happy experience for me.
How would you compare the level of competition between Indy Ball and the leagues you played in for the White Sox?
To be honest, playing Indy Ball was a lot less pressure for me. It helped being by myself, I didn’t have to worry about so many people watching, even though I understand that’s part of the game. It was a good time to help me find myself again, and just play again and have fun. The competition is similar, it’s not a huge difference. People who have played in the big leagues are here, so the velocity and experience is similar to affiliated [minor league baseball]. But there’s pitchers and hitters in this league, most of them played in affiliated ball, so it’s not just kids off the street.
Former Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano was one of your teammates this season. What was it like playing with him?
Carlos was a really good dude and leader. I loved having him in the clubhouse, and his presence kinda gave me a bit of a spark to motivate me to keep going.
What was it like to play at Impact Field? Did it match or exceed the quality of some of the parks you played on in the minors?
It’s actually better than a lot of the parks I played in the minors. It’s been open two years now, and I loved that stadium. I didn’t expect it to be that nice going in.
Was it a good hitters park for you?
Oh yes, it was definitely a great hitters park for me. Way better than playing at Birmingham’s stadium, the ball is just dead there!
So now that your season’s over, what are your immediate plans for your future?
Of course, I want to get back into affiliate ball, that’s the goal. I’m probably going to look into playing winter ball as well, maybe in Mexico. Hopefully Ill end up somewhere in [MLB] spring training, but if not I’ll most likely be back with the Dogs.
And when your time with the Sox ended, was the fact that the Dogs played in Chicago a factor in you ultimately signing there? It seems almost karmic to end up in Chicago eventually.
Actually, it was kind of weird I ended up in Chicago. It was more coincidence, though, since my agent looked around for me and reached out to [Chicago Dogs manager] Butch Hobson and talked to him about me playing there, and it just worked out. I had no clue I was going to end up playing there.
How did you first get into baseball as a kid?
I really wasn’t into baseball as much growing up at first. I played basketball in grade school, then I got into baseball later with some travel ball leagues. I didn’t really watch any baseball teams in particular, I just like playing the game. I loved watching football and basketball, but never really watched baseball to be honest. I did follow some players like Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr, left-handed players like me, who were really, really good! I didn’t have any die-hard teams that I watched, and to this day I really have a hard time watching baseball, like a die-hard fan. But my mom really loves watching the [Tampa Bay] Rays!
You were a 19-year-old Tampa kid drafted in the first Round. What did you know about the White Sox before the draft? Did they heavily scout you?
There was a local scout that was always watching me, and my agent set me up for a workout in front of the Sox scouts. I took some ground balls and made some throws from the outfield. They must have liked what they saw since they ended up drafting me!
What was it like on draft day? What were your expectations on where you got drafted?
Well, my friends and family had a get-together to watch the draft at a local restaurant. I had no clue when I’d get picked, but I had a feeling it might happen in the third or fourth round. So we were sitting there waiting, watching the picks come in, and some of my friends and family started leaving! I started wondering and overthinking if I was even going to be picked today! But about an hour later, the White Sox came up and with the 48th pick said my name and I couldn’t even stand up. That was one of the greatest moments of my life. It felt exciting, overwhelming, like the air was taken right out of me. I mean I just played baseball, I wasn’t into watching drafts and that stuff, so when they called my name it didn’t even feel real. Everyone there went crazy, I was so glad I got to experience that moment with them.
Did you meet Kenny Williams during or after the draft? What was your relationship with him like?
Yeah, I was definitely excited to meet [Kenny], he was a cool guy.
Do you feel the expectations of being a first round pick put any extra pressure on you?
Because I was young, I didn’t really think about being a first-rounder. I was always a humble person. I considered myself just another player, like anyone else. I actually don’t like that attention that comes with it. I’m just like you. But the older I got, I did start to think “OK, I am a first rounder,” and I started thinking about others’ expectations the older I got. Along with injuries and trying to bounce back with those was a lot to deal with, which would put me out of rhythm. Not to use them as excuses, just how things went, really. It’s life. Going through all that ultimately made me a better person, though. I don’t have any regrets on what I’ve gone through in my life. All I can do is keep moving forward.
What was that day or moment like when you found out your time with the White Sox had come to an end?
I actually didn’t find out until after the season. My last year in Birmingham, I just kind of figured that after I started off slowly, they weren’t playing me at all. Soon I started playing better, I was doing really good, and showing them something. One day I would hit two home runs in a game, but I’d be sitting the next day. So I thought ‘OK.’ That was when I realized they were probably going to release me.
After the season, my agent reached out to [the White Sox] and they said they were moving forward without me and letting me take my talents somewhere else. I actually felt I was playing really good, my teammates were saying, “Man, you need to be playing,” which gave me some encouragement and made me know that I did have the talent to play with someone. Especially after this season [with the Dogs], even though it’s Independent Ball, it’s still a good league. I compare it to playing in High-A or Double-A.
So what kind of advice would Keon Barnum of today give to 19-year old Keon to better prepare him for his journey with the White Sox?
What I would tell him is to just always be yourself, always do what’s comfortable for you, while still being coachable. It’s OK to tell someone, “You know, that’s not for me,” because it’s really about a feeling within you personally. Never let anyone change you. You are a first-rounder for a reason.
I kind of lost who I was, my natural self.
That’s what I tell my little brother now. Its not about acting like you know better than someone coaching you. Nobody can feel what you feel when you are in the [batter’s] box or on the field or running the bases. Also, I would tell Keon to pay more attention to the game, and learn more about the pitchers. It only became more obvious as time passed, so learning that lesson early matters.
What is your opinion on Tim Anderson’s success and swag, and are you on Team Bat Flip?
Yeah, me and Tim are cool, he’s my Boy. We have the same agent, and I talk to him from time to time.
With the bat flips, yeah, they are kind of crazy, but I kind of like that. It’s not like he’s trying to fight somebody, he’s just showing his emotions. Pitchers yell and go crazy all the time, too! I just think it brings excitement to baseball, which can be boring at times.
No showing emotions, just everything straightforward. But you look at football and basketball, they get to show off their excitement, and that’s what makes the sports more fun. And that’s just Tim being himself. He’s having a heck of a season, with his batting average as high as it is.
What are your thoughts on African-American participation levels in baseball today?
I definitely think as African Americans, we have to do a little more than the average player. We definitely have to bring a lot more to the table. But I do think there should be more blacks in the game, and I would love to push for that.
You just played for the Chicago Dogs, whose logo is a Hot Dog. So what do you like to put on your hot dogs?
I usually put like ketchup and barbecue sauce on it, but when I want to be all fancy about it I’ll add pickles, onions, relish, mayo … I’ll put it all on there.
I’m going to be honest, Keon, the ketchup part is going to turn off a lot of your Chicago fans. But you grew up in Tampa, so I’m going to give you a pass! But a true Chicago Style Hot Dog has mustard, relish, onions, pickle, sport peppers, tomatoes, and celery salt on a poppyseed bun. It’s basically a salad on a bun with meat inside!
So, is a hot dog a sandwich?
I think it can be considered as a sandwich, yes.
Do you have a dog in your life?
I never really have many memories with dogs that I can think of, I mean, they are another responsibility! But I’m all for ’em in general.