Frustration 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."
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."