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Where Have You Gone, Chuck Knoblauch?
2008-02-02 04:13
by Emma Span
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to bronxbanterblog.com.


It's one of the stranger stories of this offseason, but it's hardly been investigated: the federal government’s apparent inability, for the better part of a week, to find and subpoena Chuck Knoblauch. The former second baseman finally agreed to a meeting with the House committee lawyers, held yesterday, and will apparently testify on February 13th; but no one seems to know where he went, why he couldn’t be tracked down, or why he hid, if indeed he was hiding at all. Perhaps the media is respecting his privacy, but since that would be a first, I suspect he’s just not famous enough for people to care.

I keep wondering about it, though. In fact, over the years I’ve thought about Chuck Knoblauch much more often than I’d have expected to think about Chuck Knoblauch. His is one of the most bizarre stories of my baseball-watching life, and it has that haunting quality of all the best cautionary tales, only without any sort of moral. Partly, I suspect, my brain worries at the subject because I never really figured out what to make of his career: cosmic joke, or tragedy?

Knoblauch always seemed private, a bit awkward, not especially at ease with the media; despite being the kind of small, fast player fans often embrace at a disproportionate rate – textbook “gritty” – I don't think he was ever particularly a favorite. Still, I was surprised by his quotes in the Times a few weeks ago, when a reporter finally tracked him down to comment on the steroid mess:

He described the Mitchell report as “crazy” and “interesting,” and added that what actually bothered him about being mentioned in the report is that “I’ve got nothing to do with any of that, I mean, any baseball.”
“And I don’t want anything to do with baseball,” he added…

… On Thursday, he did not voice any regrets. “I love baseball,” he said, “but I’m not trying to get a job in baseball. I don’t have any friends from baseball. Baseball doesn’t control my life anymore.”

Ten years in a job and no friends? Even Barry Bonds has friends in baseball; I’m not sure about Randy Johnson, but next to him Knoblauch is Oprah Winfrey. He sounds awfully relieved to be not only out of the game, but as far away from it as possible.

Knoblauch seemed destined to be the source of much amusement after the 1998 playoffs, when he argued passionately with the first base umpire for what felt like an eternity -- while the live ball lay in the grass a few feet away, and the opposing runner (Enrique Wilson of all people) ran home. Knoblauch, deeply outraged by a call, was completely oblivious to the increasingly desperate screams of his teammates, 55,000 fans, and, almost certainly audible in the Bronx from a TV room fifteen miles away, my father. Since the Yankees eventually recovered to win that series, and the next, it was soon forgiven, just a memorably funny moment on the way to a happy ending.

The very next year he started to have trouble -- throwing problems, a mental block, the yips, whatever you want to call it. Those were pretty funny, too, at first. Who can forget the time his throw sailed a dozen feet over first base, into the stands, and hit Keith Olbermann’s mom in the head? (Cartainly not Olbermann, who on his MSNBC show last week commented on Knoblauch’s failure to respond to Congress: “My theory is that Mr. Knoblauch got their invitation, wrote a letter back, tried to throw it into a nearby mailbox and instead hit my mother.”)

The Yankees were still winning, but the errors began escalating. No one had any explanation, and no amount of practice or training or, eventually, sports psychology seemed to have any effect whatsoever. Knoblauch was regarded, with varying degrees of sympathy, as a headcase. I remember one day he pointedly changed his at-bat song to Eminem’s “The Way I Am”: I am whatever you say I am, if I wasn’t then why would you say I am, in the paper, the news every day I am…

For me, it stopped being amusing abruptly, in the sixth inning of a game in June. I hadn't remembered who the Yankees were playing, but the Times archives tell me it was the White Sox, a 12-3 loss. What I do vividly recall is that Knoblauch made three of his inexplicable, egregious errors in just the first six innings of the game, one worse than the other. When Joe Torre came out to remove the pitcher (presumably a tad out of sorts by that point), the infielders all met on the mound as usual -- except Knoblauch, who stood by himself at second base, staring down, unable to even look at his teammates, who in turn didn't look at him. It may not sound particularly dramatic, but it was absolutely agonizing to watch; he looked like he was trying to will himself to disappear.

It's that image of Knoblauch, alone behind the mound, that I've never been able to get out of my head. When the inning finally, mercifully ended, Torre sent him home to spare him the media crush; and though he stuck it out in New York for another season and a half, that moment was really the end. I’m not sure what my equivalent of Knoblauch's yips would be (a sudden inability to conjugate verbs?), but it must have been a nightmare.

Sure, Knoblauch is rich and apparently healthy and there are many, many people in the world worse off than him; I know it’s hard for most of us to drum up much pity for professional athletes. But there's something about the randomness of the whole thing that really gets to me. Is it possible I'll wake up tomorrow morning suddenly, say, unable to read? And what sort of lesson are you supposed to take from something like that? You live your dream, you play Major League ball, you get traded to a contender, you win the World Series, you make millions. But life still finds a way to screw you, and in exactly the way you'd least expect.

I still can't figure out whether Knoblauch's story is an elaborate punchline or a sob-story, but it seems like the sort of thing the Greek gods would have gotten a real kick out of.

Comments
2008-02-02 07:22:00
1.   RZG
Why do you think what's glamorous to you was ever the same to him, how do you know playing major league baseball was his lifelong dream?

From what I remember his father was a prominent amateur baseball coach, perhaps he was pushed into baseball. I also think his "yips" started near the time his father's Alzheimers became prominent. Different people handle stress in different ways.

There's lots of people with extraordinary talents that choose not to embrace them and don't mind a bit when they're no longer required by outsiders to perform at their behest.

I appreciate you didn't take any cheap shots at him. I hope he's content now.

2008-02-02 07:23:19
2.   monkeypants
Interesting article. So, is the series of duplicate paragraphs a clever Groundhog's Day allusion? Or your version of the yips?
2008-02-02 07:53:21
3.   Fleckman
I sat a couple rows behind Chuck Knoblock at the Yanks/Sox game a couple years back when Jeter dove into the crowd and the Yanks won in extra innings. Manny homered in the top of the 12th or 14th or whatever and then the Cairos and Flahertys of the team staged an incredible 2 out rally in the bottom half. One of the best games ever. Chuck left in the 8th. Its been downhill for him ever since.
2008-02-02 08:31:37
4.   gpellamjr
2 I think the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph shows a budding case of the yips (i.e. an inability to conjugate verbs).
2008-02-02 08:34:09
5.   weeping for brunnhilde
Hi Emma! So nice to see you! Great piece. I was going to urge you to edit, edit, something happened! but mp, far more astute than I, spared me the embarrassment.

Hi Emma! So nice to see you! Great piece. I was going to urge you to edit, edit, something happened! but mp, far more astute than I, spared me the embarrassment.

2008-02-02 08:51:19
6.   tommyl
Great article Emma. I've always felt nothing but pity for Knoblauch myself. The players who stink up the joint because they are lazy or have large egos are easy to hate. Chuck just seemed to care too much, and I think once his father got sick (and eventually died) he just didn't know who to turn to. The sad thing is that he still seems haunted by it, ten years later. No friends in baseball? He must be actively avoiding anyone he ever knew. That's sad.

As for that game in June, the closest thing I can think of in my personal experience is that I was in the stands for the game where Edwar immolated himself. By the time he gave up that grand slam (to Navarro? I can't remember) the entire stadium was booing and he looked like he was going to cry on the mound. Booing him then seemed like the fan equivalent of kicking a puppy, a puppy that had just been adopted after being left on the street.

2008-02-02 11:08:57
7.   OldYanksFan
"Spring training begins in less than two weeks, yet around 150 players are still without jobs."

That's an average of 5 per team or 20% of each 25 man squad. That's quite significant. Is this a sign that FA prices are so high that all but the best players are priced out?

#150 was Sean Casey, who pulled down a whopping 700K. Something's up.

Everyone hung over today?

2008-02-02 11:19:03
8.   Emma Span
1 Well, sure -- obviously, I have no idea what Chuck Knoblauch's secret hopes and dreams are. (Though I certainly know better than to consider Major League Baseball glamorous). But I think the main point still stands: that he achieved extraordinary success in his chosen profession, then had it all fall apart in an incredibly puzzling way. I hope he's happy now, too, and he might very well be, but while it was happening it can't have been much fun.

2 4 5 Uh oh...

7 Yes.

2008-02-02 14:21:00
9.   OldYanksFan
I would have to imagine that many of the FAs who are STILL FAs (almost 150 of 'em) are getting pretty nervous. I would imagine some might sign a one year deal CHEAP, especially if there are incentives.

Josh Fogg is a 5 ERA guy in the NL, although last year for Colorado, he had a 4.15 ERA on the road. As 0.5 to 0.75 to translate up to the A.L., and maybe he is a 5 ERA guys for NY.

He has averaged 160 IPs over the last 6 years. I haven't looked hard, but he doesn't look much worse then Moose 2007.

Considering we might be talking a Million or 2 for a year (which is throw away money), is it worth taking a flier on him?

I know I'm fishing, but I think we need a close-to-league-average-innings-eater on the club.

2008-02-02 14:39:53
10.   Hapless Astro Fan
Chuck Knoblauch was always to me what might have been. I grew up living and breathing baseball in Houston at the same time as Knobluach. Knobaluch and I attended the same church as kids, but we did not really know eachother. Although we may have both had dreams, Knoblauch had potential, both in talent and coaching.

Like every normal person, each year, I became less and less a star player and more and more marginal until I went away to college as a student while Knoblauch went to college as an athelete.

The dream officially ended when baseball cards began appearing with players whose birthdate ended with 1968. My one solitary link to the dream was the cohort who starred at Texas A & M, rose through the minors, was Rookie of the Year, World Series champion more than once and then the butt of the joke - pointing toward first base with the ball on the ground as the winning run scored.

The dream long gone, I no longer collect baseball cards, spend hours lover boxscores or even agonize over the Astros wins or losses. Punctuated by the crime committed by the players killing our past time during the 1994 strike, the game is not what it once was but only what it brings out in us - hopes, dreams, success, lessons, loves, loss, life. Baseball to Knoblauch was just a job - his real life is probably somewhere else.

I don't know him, but I wish him the best.

2008-02-02 15:49:37
11.   monkeypants
7 150 FAs -- "That's an average of 5 per team or 20% of each 25 man squad."

Or, only about 12% of each 40 man squad. I wonder, is 150 a large number, at least compared to other seasons? A 12% attrition rate in professional sports doesn't strike me as all that high.

Does anyone have data from last year?

2008-02-02 16:04:13
12.   OldYanksFan
From ESPN:
We polled 12 front-office types this week on whether they thought the Phillies or post-Johan Mets would win the NL East. Ten of them took the Mets. But one who didn't, an NL executive, was adamant that the Phillies have an energy and a personality the Mets lack.

"I'm talking about the way guys like (Jimmy) Rollins and (Chase) Utley and (Shane) Victorino play," he said. "Guys like that find ways to grind out wins. The Mets don't have those kinds of guys.

My God! Does that mean Cashman has to find some trades for some 'energy and personality'?

2008-02-02 17:01:07
13.   OldYanksFan
From NYTimes:
Randy Newsom, a reliever last season for the Cleveland Indians' Class A and AA affiliates, set up a Web site through which fans and other outsiders could purchase a piece of his future major league earnings. Through Thursday, Newsom had sold about 1,800 shares of himself at $20 apiece. Each share afforded the bearer .002 percent of his career pay, uniting his goals with investors who hope he makes it big.

Dozens of minor leaguers had expressed interest in also going public through Newsom's new company, Real Sports Investments, he said. Unfortunately for Newsom, however, his plan did not exactly thrill M.L.B., the players union or the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Offerings shopped over the Internet must be registered with the S.E.C., and Newsom's was not. After speaking with a lawyer for M.L.B. on Thursday afternoon, Newsom decided to table his idea to work with authorities on a venture they would approve and perhaps even support.

Really, is that freakin' brilliant or what?

2008-02-02 18:18:19
14.   Dockside Courtesies
Interesting article from SI in 1998:

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.

Link: http://tinyurl.com/2eyf29

Ah, the age of innocence.

2008-02-02 22:12:17
15.   Raf
12 Get Jose Lima on the phone!
2008-02-02 22:52:51
16.   Chyll Will
10 I really like what you said, HAF. My baseball dreams began with my Mom teaching me how to play, and ended after too many trips to the emergency room after grand mal seizures. Life, I'm tellin' ya...

Yet baseball is not something you have to play to appreciate. It represents some of our dreams, our desires, our working mind; our personal drama written all over a pitcher or batter's face. Baseball is in me, period. Ces't la vie.

2008-02-03 05:10:28
17.   joe in boston
10 Wow, good words indeed. The transister radio under the pillow is long gone, the baseball cards removed from the spokes are also long gone. I wish I saved my first glove.

I do still have ticket stubs I saved from the 70s and 80s. A few from the late 60s I think, as I entered the world of Yankee baseball. I also saved some boxscores from the games I saw. Happy memories.

2008-02-03 06:35:11
18.   bob34957
I taught elementary ed in Florida, about more than over a decade ago, I taught two of Chuck's nephew's, Robert and Jonathan. They were both gifted athletically and good students. They were soft spoken and quiet,well behaved and got along well with all. That is the same way I perceive Chuck. He didn't create any enemies and his friends were many.
2008-02-03 07:36:29
19.   Raf
10 MLB is but one small part of the game. Players and owners cannot kill the pastime, no matter how hard they try. A telling reminder of how powerful a grip the game holds was that there were no shortage of replacement players trying out when the opportunity arose.

During the strike, I kept busy playing baseball. Took in a few minor league games. Supported friends and family during their little league games.

Don't get me wrong, MLB is fun to watch, and I enjoy it as much as the next person, but not the be-all, end all of baseball.

2008-02-03 09:57:07
20.   weeping for brunnhilde
16 Yes, Will, c'est la vie.

C'est la guerre, aussi!

And HAF, I appreciated your memories as well, thanks for that!

2008-02-03 11:41:09
21.   geb4000
Dockside Courtesies

There were dozens of stories like that in the 90's. Endless guys with new "diet and training regimens" suddenly improving. These writers are cocksuckers. You would think some of them might get suspicious and do some investigative reporting rather than regurgitating press releases.

2008-02-03 14:28:36
22.   OldYanksFan
From BP unfiltered: For schits and giggles

Team GS W-L IP H BB SO HR ERA SuperVORP
Mets 32 16-8 225.0 184 60 239 25 2.94 56.8
Twins 33 15-9 227.0 197 62 230 25 3.32 55.6

Let's say the Phil Highes has an averageish year with a 4.32 ERA. Based on the (AL) projection above, that would mean that Santana, compared to Phil, would save us 1 run every 5 games.

ONE RUN EVERY FIVE GAMES
So... what's that worth?
A 7 year commitment for $150m... plus
A few years (or more) at $10m/yr to replace Melky
Plus 2 others prospects, whom if ONE becomes MLB material, will save a minimum of $50m to replace his position.

I'm guestimating that over 7 years, the Santana trade would have cost us well over $200 million, and with the luxury tex, the real cost would be $280m, over 7 years, or $40m/yr real dollars.

And that $40m/yr buys us... ONE RUN EVERY FIVE GAMES
And that of course assumes that Santana is good for a 3-ish ERA for the NEXT seven years, and Phil is good for a 4-ish ERA for the nect 7 years.

I'm not terribly bright. I personally can't imagine why anyone would even consider that deal.

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