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

March 09, 1998

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."

"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."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES [Chuck Knoblauch] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON GOLD IN THE MIDDLE Knoblauch and Jeter have the makings of the best double-play combination in the game. [Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES SWEET FREEDOM After Lisa encouraged Chuck to ask for a trade, he began to relax and, says Lisa, "He had hope again." [Lisa Knoblauch and Chuck Knoblauch]

"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."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)