• Sal Maiorana

Knoblauch ignores the boos in return to Minnesota as Yanks roll on

NEW YORK (May 13, 1998) – As Chuck Knoblauch reveled in a champagne shower on the night of Oct. 27, 1991 following one of the greatest World Series games in history, Minnesota’s rookie second baseman could not have imagined what was in store for him and the Twins almost immediately thereafter. Knoblauch had just helped deliver the Twins’ second world championship in five seasons and the rookie of the year had made two under-the-radar plays that were instrumental in the Twins’ 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 7 at the Metrodome. In the top of the eighth, Knoblauch and shortstop Greg Gagne duped Atlanta’s Lonnie Smith with an old schoolyard play that prevented Smith from scoring from first base on Terry Pendleton’s double into the left-center gap. Smith lost sight of the ball and as he was running to second, Knoblauch pretended he had fielded a grounder and then feigned a throw to Gagne covering the bag. The confused Smith stopped, then realized the ball was still in the outfield and that gaffe forced him to stop at third. Minnesota’s Jack Morris then pulled a Houdini act to get out of the second-and-third, no-out jam without allowing Smith to score, thus preserving the scoreless tie. The game went to the bottom of the 10th and after Dan Gladden led off with a double, Knoblauch sacrificed him to third from where he trotted home with the World Series-winning run on Gene Larkin’s single a few minutes later. Knoblauch was 23 years old, his whole career still in front of him, and he had to believe the Twins would just continue on this merry path for years to come. After a near miss in 1992, over the next five seasons Minnesota never sniffed the playoffs as it played a combined 91 games below .500. The incessant losing wore on him, and of that he said, ‘‘As it would anyone. Everybody’s into winning. It’s something you enjoy doing. I play to win and hate to lose and I’ll never, ever, get used to losing. Obviously, I wasn’t too happy there because of the losing.” Which is why on the morning of Feb. 5, 1998, ‘‘I screamed at the top of my lungs,” he said, recounting the news that the Twins had traded him to the Yankees for four minor leaguers and $3 million in cash. ‘‘My wife (Lisa) jumped up and down a little bit. We were very excited.” Joe Torre had batted Derek Jeter in the leadoff spot 102 times in 1997 and Wade Boggs was the most often used No. 2 hitter on 54 occasions. Boggs was now gone, and Torre knew that while Jeter had done well at the top, he was better suited in the two-hole, provided the Yankees could find an ideal leadoff man.

Knoblauch had been Minnesota’s leadoff hitter on and off – mostly on, especially his last three years there – since 1993. In seven seasons with the Twins he’d compiled a superb .391 on-base percentage and averaged 39 stolen bases per year. He was, in essence, the quintessential player for that role. And beyond being the table setter the Yankees needed, the 1997 Gold Glove winner would finally provide some defensive consistency at second base, a position the Yankees had tried numerous players since Torre took over in 1996. “Hopefully, I’ll be a guy who will get on base and score a lot of runs,” Knoblauch said during spring training. “There are plenty of people to drive them in. I just hope to be one of the guys on base, kind of a catalyst.” Now, nearly a month and a half into 1998, Knoblauch had been New York’s leadoff hitter in all but one game, and while he’d been solid, his numbers were down in relation to the standard he had set in Minnesota. Most felt it was merely because he was settling into his new situation where the spotlight shone like it did in no other baseball locale. As the Yankees prepared to begin a three-game series in Knoblauch’s former home ballpark, the Metrodome, his batting average was .241 which was 63 points below his career average with the Twins while his .363 OBP was 35 points below his Twins’ number. He had only five extra-base hits, and in the field, while he’d been charged with only two errors, he was suddenly having difficulty with his throwing, making Tino Martinez work harder than he should have to corral some of his assists. Whether it was a return to a familiar place, or just Knoblauch’s competitiveness to quiet the booing that accompanied every trip to the plate or ball he fielded, he singled twice, stole two bases and scored twice as the Yankees beat the Twins 5-1. “I don’t have any thoughts on it,” Knoblauch said after the kind of game he had given the Twins so frequently. “To be honest, I was so focused at bat and in the field, I didn’t even really know what the reaction was.” Probably a fib because it was hard not to notice. Knoblauch had been vocal about his desire to be traded, and on his way out of Minnesota his comments about being dealt to a winner grated on Twins fans. That World Series victory in 1991 was certainly a distant memory. It had to be galling for them when Knoblauch laced a two-out single, stole second, and scored on Jeter’s bloop single to left to break a 1-1 tie in the seventh inning. And then in a three-run ninth that put the game out of reach, Knoblauch reached on a fielders’ choice and eventually scored on Paul O’Neill’s two-run single. “I was very calm and relaxed out there,” said Knoblauch. “It was a comfortable feeling. I didn’t get too carried away emotionally.” For the Yankees, this was their 22nd win in the last 24 games, their best stretch since the 1947 team won 27 of 29. “We’re playing tough,” Torre said. “Tonight it wasn’t easy. It just seems that we do what we have to do. We’re getting breaks, but we’re making some of our breaks, too.”

NEXT POST on July 15: Mr. Imperfect, David Wells, throws a perfect game.