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Second Wind

Having grown increasingly miserable with the Twins, Chuck Knoblauch joins the Yankees with the hope that he's finally lost that losing feeling

 

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by Franz Lidz

Issue date: March 9, 1998

Sports IllustratedFrustration had turned Chuck into a zombie." Lisa Knoblauch is describing her husband's Season of the Living Dead with the 1997 Minnesota Twins. As defeat followed defeat with numbing regularity, the All-Star second baseman was overcome by a melancholy he could never quite shake. After each home loss, he would shuffle through the living room, slump onto the sofa, bury his face in his hands and then stare. And stare. And stare. "Sometimes Chuck would sit in silence for hours," says Lisa. "He was sad, desolate, miserable. He felt stuck in a five-year contract with a team that was sure to get worse. Requesting a trade seemed the only way out."

  Chuck Knoblauch and wife Lisa
After Lisa encouraged Chuck to ask for a trade, he began to relax and, says Lisa, "He had hope again."    (Bill Frakes)
Fortunately for Knoblauch, frustration had turned George Steinbrenner into a Knobloather. "For crissake, the guy hit .400 off us last season!" says the New York Yankees owner. "Whenever we played the Twins, our entire focus was on how to get him out. He'd ignite every one of their rallies. As Knoblauch went, so went our chances." Which is why Steinbrenner traded for him last month.

In Minnesota, Knoblauch's departure has unleashed a vicious backlash. He has been painted as a sort of Evil Twin: sullen, surly, self-inflated. Even some who knew of Knoblauch's ongoing struggle to come to terms with his father's Alzheimer's disease found his petulance hard to forgive. According to a reporter who covers the team, "Knoblauch whined and whined about wanting a long-term deal. So the team finally commits to him for five years at $30 million, and his commitment to the team lasts barely a year." One member of the club's front office says, "During the seven years Knoblauch was in Minnesota, he evolved into a bratty tyrant who ran roughshod over the people around him. Hardly anyone--from his teammates to the clubhouse kids to the valets who park the players' cars—was unhappy to see him leave."

Knoblauch has a history of helmet-tossing tantrums, but last season he became openly confrontational with teammates and coaches. After a game at the Metrodome, a bunch of sportswriters and coaches huddled around the clubhouse TV to watch the NBA Finals. Suddenly, Knoblauch burst out of the weight room, screaming, "Why the f--- are you f------ reporters hanging around our f------ clubhouse watching our f------ set?"

Nobody seemed to have a f------ clue. So Knoblauch returned to the weight room. "That's our team leader!" muttered a Twins coach. "Six million dollars a year, and that's what we get."

Knoblauch looks slightly pained when discussing the incident. "It was a joke!" he protests. "If Kirby Puckett had done that, everyone would have laughed. But I didn't have a smile on my face. Because I'm perceived as such an intense guy, when I do kid around, people think I'm serious."

Knoblauch is an enigma composed of moody shyness, nervy athleticism, ferocious drive and a delicate sadness. There's sleeping power in the slump of his shoulders, and a hard, yearning shine in his eyes. Those eyes—which dart here and there with a fanatical alertness—are pale green, the nose strong, the mouth immobile. On the field he's a demon pro who never hesitates. Off it, he frets over personal decisions. "It really upset Chuck to ask to leave Minnesota," says Lisa. "The Twins may feel like a team scorned, but they didn't have to get rid of him. He wouldn't have boycotted spring training. He'd say, 'I'm still a Twin. If I get traded, hallelujah! If not, I'll survive.' But he probably would have been miserable again."

He doesn't have to worry about that now. The 5'9" Knoblauch fits the Bronx Bombers like a wad in the cheek. He answers their need for a durable, every-day second baseman (he won his first Gold Glove in '97), a leadoff hitter (he has averaged 121 runs the past three seasons) and a base stealer (his 62 thefts last year were a Twins record). Knoblauch not only swiped more bases than the Yankees' four top base stealers combined but also swiped them more dependably (86.1%) than any other player in the league with at least 30 attempts. "Chuck is such a major distraction on base that he drives you crazy," says New York ace righthander David Cone. "But he's even more maddening at the plate."

Yankees catcher Joe Girardi calls Knoblauch the toughest out in the American League. "Pitchers have to work harder with Chuck than anyone else," he says. "You can't outthink him—you just have to make quality pitches. But it's hard to keep making them when he fouls off seven in a row."

Only one other hitter in the league—Derek Jeter of the Yankees—saw more pitches than Knoblauch did last season. That's partly because Knoblauch laid off the first pitch 85.7% of the time. "If you see all a pitcher's pitches your first time up," he reasons, "he'll have nothing to surprise you with your next time up." Cone had trouble surprising Knoblauch—who hit .625 against him last year—at all. "I just couldn't get Chuck out," he says. "I'd vary the angles, change the speeds, even invent pitches. Nothing worked."

"Few batters are willing to go as deep in the count as Chuck," says Twins veteran Paul Molitor. "I'd watch him lay off a fastball down the middle and think, Man, how could he do that? Eight pitches later he'd be on base."

Knoblauch is not just a disciplined hitter, he's also a disciplined eater. To stay trim during the 1994 baseball strike, he hired a personal trainer who prescribed weight training and a diet that limited his daily fat intake to 21 grams. "I could drink anything I wanted," he says, "as long as it was water." When he showed up at spring training the following year, the formerly chunky Knoblauch was 20 pounds lighter and so brawny that his muscles seemed ready to tear through his uniform. "Even Chuck's facial features looked different," recalls first base coach Ron Gardenhire. "He used to be this chubby-cheeked kid, and now his face was chiseled rock."

The reconditioned Knoblauch had his best year yet in '95, batting .333 with 34 doubles, eight triples, 11 homers and 63 RBIs in only 136 games. He has been faithful to the diet regimen ever since, subsisting largely on weekly CARE packages FedExed by his trainer-nutritionist from Houston. Knoblauch may be the only active big leaguer who doesn't order room service. "That's not exactly true," he says. "In hotels I sometimes call down for oatmeal."

The roots of this asceticism can be traced to Houston, where Knoblauch grew up the youngest of six kids. He learned to hit on a Johnny Bench Batter-Up, a rubber-and-fiberglass contraption his father had assembled in the backyard. Ray Knoblauch was the baseball coach at Bellaire High, and his teams won four state titles, the last with Chuck, the star shortstop, watching from the bench. In the third game of his senior season, he had broken his left leg trying to stretch a passed-ball strikeout into a double. Still, the Philadelphia Phillies selected him in the 18th round of the June 1986 draft. Ray thought his son needed more seasoning—and what Ray thought meant a lot to his son—so Chuck signed with Texas A&M.

The Twins made Knoblauch the 25th pick of the '89 draft, after which he needed just 187 minor league games to reach the majors. He was American League Rookie of the Year in 1991, when Minnesota won the World Series. "I may have been spoiled," he says. "So much success, so soon." Though the Twins missed the '92 playoffs, they won 90 games. Then came '93, and the free fall began. "I'd never been on a losing ball club before," Knoblauch says of a team that lost 91 games. "We'd fall behind 9-0, and I'd lose my concentration. I'd keep telling myself not to let the score dictate my at bat."

Still, he flourished in '94, though the Twins floundered. Knoblauch had another big season in '95; the Twins, another bad one, tying the Toronto Blue Jays for the worst record in baseball. Lisa had no idea why he was so unhappy. "I didn't comprehend the whole under-.500 thing," she says. "He became withdrawn, snappish, crabby. I'd say, 'Is the problem baseball?' He'd say, 'I don't want to talk about it.' There was nothing I could do or say to make it better."

It got a whole lot worse that June on a road trip in Seattle. Knoblauch was walking toward the team hotel when a 15-year-old boy asked him for an autograph. Knoblauch ignored him. Just as Knoblauch reached the door, the kid yelled, "Knoblauch, you suck!"

Knoblauch spun around, backed the kid against a wall and cursed him out. The cops were called. The kid said Knoblauch had torn his shirt and scratched his neck. Knoblauch said he hadn't laid a hand on the kid. No charges were pressed. Two days later the boy apologized to Knoblauch, and Knoblauch more or less apologized to the boy. "I made a mistake, an unfortunate mistake," Knoblauch says. "I still see that kid in the stands every time I play in the Kingdome. I wouldn't say we're friends, but we talk."

Despite losing Kirby Puckett to glaucoma in '96, the Twins were a respectable 78-84. So, in August, Knoblauch passed up free agency by agreeing to a five-year contract extension. "He signed so I could be around my friends and family during the season," says Lisa, a Minnesota native. "And because he thought the Twins would get better. They didn't. They took a step back."

The relapse—the Twins won just 68 games last year—disgusted Knoblauch. "The front office wouldn't go out and get the players we needed," he says. "When we backslid, the future became intolerable to think about." Knoblauch sank into a funk and suffered a drop-off in every major batting category from the year before, including a 50-point plunge in average, to .291. In the past he had always been the first to the ballpark and the last to leave. Last year he began arriving later and later, and leaving earlier and earlier. One night last July, Lisa said, "What would happen if you asked to be traded?"

Chuck gazed up from the sofa. "I can't," he said. Lisa left it at that.

A few nights later she asked again. This time Chuck said, "I don't want you to have to move away from your folks."

"I don't want to see you miserable," she said. "It makes me miserable. We can't be this way for four more years."

So Knoblauch phoned his agent, Alan Hendricks, and Hendricks requested a trade. "From then on, Chuck was much more relaxed," Lisa says. "He had hope again."

Sadly, Chuck's optimism did not extend to his father. A little more than a year ago Ray's Alzheimer's was diagnosed. Watching his once-vibrant dad succumb by agonizing degrees turned Knoblauch inside out, left him raw. "My father's problems definitely played on my mind," he says. "Alzheimer's is very confusing and frustrating. My dad has been reduced to worse than a baby. A mother who wants to sleep can put her infant in a crib. But my mom can't take a shower without worrying about my father tearing out of the house."

Knoblauch looks glum for a moment, then suddenly rallies. "I'm trying to talk him into coming to spring training," he says. "Baseball is one of the few things that still interests him, and he'd be thrilled to see the Yankees." Just thinking about his new team revs Knoblauch up. "I look at this as a new beginning," he says, and you believe him. "I'm balling up all the bad stuff that happened in Minnesota and throwing it away."

His sense of humor—good humor, too—is apparent in the locker room. He jokes easily with his new teammates, trading jibe for jibe, anecdote for anecdote. "I haven't seen Chuck this excited since I met him," says Lisa. "After his first day in training camp, he acted like a 12-year-old who had just been invited into the Yankees locker room. He couldn't stop talking. He told me, 'Mr. Steinbrenner liked my haircut!'"

The 'do is not the only thing Steinbrenner likes about Knoblauch. "The guy's a gamer," says the Boss. "I hear he's a tough s.o.b. in the clubhouse, but if he's a tough loser, I'm going to love him."

"Chuck was a bratty tyrant who ran roughshod over the people around him."

"I'm balling up all the bad stuff that happened in Minnesota and throwing it away."

Top photo by Bill Frakes

 More flashbacks:
Casey Stengel | Maris and Mantle | Joe DiMaggio
Thurman Munson | Reggie Jackson | Babe Ruth
Mickey Mantle | Lou Gehrig | Chuck Knoblauch
1998 Yankees | David Wells | El Duque



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