After the 1995 season the Twins tried to sign Knoblauch to a long-term deal, first offering him a four-year contract worth $16 million, but he wanted $17.8 million. As Minnesota increased its offer, Knoblauch's figure also rose, and the negotiations broke down. On the baseball field, in contract negotiations and with everything else in life, Knoblauch is a maniacal competitor who has a fierce drive to win. If the other top second basemen in the major leagues—the Orioles' Roberto Alomar and the Astros' Craig Biggio—are making $5.5 million a year, then Knoblauch believes he shouldn't get a cent less. His desire to be recognized as one of the game's best players also brings with it an arrogance that hasn't made Knoblauch the most popular guy in the Twins' clubhouse. Earlier this year Knoblauch got called out on strikes, was ejected for arguing, then screamed at the umpire, "I've got the best eye in the league!"
In the next few months, if he succeeds in winning his first batting title and becomes the premier free agent on the open market, he may find himself in the best spot in all of baseball.
The A's Have It
The 1996 season opener was two weeks away, and first-year A's manager Art Howe didn't know who would be replacing first baseman Mark McGwire, who was on the disabled list; he didn't know who would take over for closer Dennis Eckersley and staff ace Todd Stottlemyre, who had been traded to the Cardinals; he didn't have a lead-off hitter because Oakland hadn't re-signed free-agent leftfielder Rickey Henderson; and he wasn't sure who was going to play where in his outfield. "Expectations were not high," says catcher Terry Steinbach. "The media said it would be a good year for us if we didn't lose 100 games."
Four months later the A's are the surprise story of the American League. Going into Sunday's action, they had three more wins than the Orioles (with a payroll of $19 million compared with Baltimore's $49 million), were only 5½ games out of first place in the American League West and had only two fewer wins than the White Sox and the Mariners in the wild-card race. The biggest reason for this performance is an offense that is on a record home run pace, but credit should also go to Howe, who has done a masterly job. "We've snuck up on some people the first half," Steinbach says. "I think teams saw us coming and said, 'It's the A's, they're rebuilding, they're no good.' "
They are now, at least at the plate. Through Sunday the A's had hit 176 homers, which projects to 269 for the season—or 29 more than the major league record set by the 1961 Yankees. That's not the only home run mark the A's are chasing. McGwire (38 homers through last weekend), DH Geronimo Berroa (26), Steinbach (24), infielder-outfielder Jason Giambi (20) and third baseman Scott Brosius (16, despite missing 47 games because of a fractured left forearm) give Oakland a chance to become the first team to have five 30-homer players. Only the '77 Dodgers and the '95 Rockies have had as many as four. "We'd have more homers if they'd stop pitching around [second baseman Rafael] Bournigal," says Howe facetiously. Bournigal, a 165-pound second baseman, is the only Oakland batter who has yet to go deep.
McGwire, who was on a pace to challenge Roger Maris's record for home runs in a season (61), has been the leader of this Bash Brigade, but of late Steinbach has been almost as hot. In his last 34 games through Sunday, Steinbach had 15 homers. He is threatening the American League record for homers by a catcher (33), set by Carlton Fisk of the White Sox in 1985. "I've never had a streak like this on the major league level," says Steinbach.
This spring it looked like a given that once Oakland fell out of the race, Steinbach would be traded to a contender. A deal that would have put him in an Angels uniform for the stretch run seemed like an intriguing possibility, but as July was coming to a close, the As had a better record than California.
Howe was hired in November to replace Tony La Russa, who had resigned to become manager of the Cardinals. Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson said at the time that he thought Howe would be better than La Russa for the A's because he had had so much experience working with young players when he managed the Astros from 1989 to '93. Alderson was right. Howe is a better manager for this team than La Russa, who may be too intense for a young team that is bound to make a lot of mistakes.
Oakland is winning despite a starting staff of no-name pitchers, who had a 5.88 ERA through Sunday. Last week Howe smiled and said of his five starters (John Wasdin, Don Wengert, Doug Johns, Dave Telgheder and Willie Adams), "I bet most of the people in Oakland don't know who's in our rotation." The bullpen is equally anonymous, but it had won more games in relief (24) than any bullpen in the league, and the committee of Jim Corsi, Buddy Groom, Mike Mohler and Billy Taylor was 19-2 with 23 saves and only seven blown saves.