An important cog in the Twins' amazing transformation from last-place losers in 1990 to World Champions the following year, Knoblauch was named Rookie of the Year in 1991 after replacing the Twins' ineffective troika of Al Newman, Nelson Liriano, and Fred Manrique at second base. The scrappy second baseman soon established himself as an All-Star performer on a team that would quickly return to mediocrity; frustrated by his franchise's futility, Knoblauch's relationship with the Minnesota fans soon soured. After bitterly demanding a trade to a contending team towards the end of the 1997 season, the pesky Texan was sent to the New York Yankees for four minor-league prospects. He left as the Twins' career leader with 276 stolen bases.
Knoblauch's first major-league hit came off Oakland's Bob Welch on April 9, 1991; his first -- and only -- homer that season came on July 31st against Mike Mussina of the Orioles. Batting second behind centerfielder Dan Gladden, Knoblauch hit .281 with 25 stolen bases (tying a team rookie record set by Willie Norwood in 1978) and led the league in stolen-base percentage. Although he would soon be regarded as one of the best defensive second basemen in the majors, Knoblauch made 18 errors during his rookie season. Ironically, the Minnesota infield (comprised of Knoblauch, first baseman Kent Hrbek, shortstop Greg Gagne, and third baseman Gary Gaetti) still finished the year with the fewest errors in the league.
In his seven years with the Twins, Knoblauch would average nearly 40 stolen bases a season. Although a force on the basepaths, Knoblauch rarely bunted for base hits. But his speed helped him take the extra base -- at the time the players' strike halted play in 1994, he was on pace to break Earl Webb's 1931 major-league record of 67 doubles in a season.
Much of Knoblauch's success was due to his ability to crowd the plate and punch pitches to right field; as his career developed, critics would occasionally note that he seemed intent on pulling the ball more in an effort to increase power. ("We hate to think about Knoblauch hitting home runs," said Yankee manager Joe Torre in 1998. "because it usually gets him out of his game.") Nevertheless, Knoblauch raised his average in five of his first six seasons, peaking in 1996 with a .341 mark. His 13 round-trippers that season were a personal best, marking only the second time Knoblauch had hit more than five homers.
His average and home run totals both dropped in 1997 (.291, 9, 58 RBI) but his 62 swipes were second only to Detroit's Brian Hunter, who stole 74. Moreover, Knoblauch won his first Gold Glove and was named to his fourth All-Star squad.
But Knoblauch -- who had announced "I want to be with the Minnesota Twins my entire career" upon signing a five-year contract that guaranteed him $6 million a season in August 1996 -- had become disenchanted with what had become a perennially disappointing franchise. When his dissatisfaction erupted into a "trade-me-to-a-contender" ultimatum in late September, Twins fans were disappointed, but not entirely surprised. Reportedly, Knoblauch and manager Tom Kelly had not always been on the best of terms; in 1995, a young autograph hound had claimed that an angry Knoblauch had shoved him against a wall after hearing the fan's insults.
Thus set off a strangely underwhelming bidding war in the early months of 1998; the Yankees, Indians, and Braves all wanted Koblauch, but none were willing to meet the Twins' asking price. Eventually, Knoblauch was dealt to New York for four prospects -- pitchers Eric Milton and Danny Mota, outfielder Brian Buchanan, and shortstop Cristian Guzman -- and $3 million.
Slotted at the top of a powerful Yankee lineup, Knoblauch had his worst year at the plate in terms of average (.265) but stole 31 bases and slugged a career-high 17 homers. Armed with a roller-blade-style elbow pad on his left arm, he was hit by 18 pitches during the season -- the most in the AL.
His most infamous moment of the season came in Yankee Stadium in Game Two of the ALCS, when Cleveland's Travis Fryman laid down a sacrifice bunt in the twelfth, hoping to advance Enrique Wilson into scoring position. First baseman Tino Martinez fielded the ball, but his throw to Knoblauch (covering first) hit Fryman's back and rolled behind the base into shallow right field.
Knoblauch, who felt Fryman should have been out for running inside the basepaths, ignored the ball and instead argued with home plate umpire Ted Hendry, allowing Wilson to score the go-ahead run. "CHUCK BRAINLAUCH" raged the New York Post, while the Daily News countered with "BLAUCH HEAD" as their back-page headline. Nevertheless, the Yankees advanced to the World Series, and Knoblauch redeemed himself with a game-tying home run off Donne Wall in the series opener against the San Diego Padres.
Midway through the 1998 season the former Gold Glover developed a mental tic that caused him to hesitate after fielding the ball, often forcing him to make wild throws to first base. Knoblauch's problem was reminiscent of Steve Sax's troubles a decade earlier and some reporters joked that when Knoblauch handled the ball, Tino Martinez was more a goalie than a first baseman. His league-leading 26 errors in 1999 -- including fourteen throwing errors -- were the most by any Yankee second baseman since George Stirnweiss' 29 in 1945.
Knoblauch continued to experience throwing troubles through the 2000 season until finally manager Joe Torre moved him to left field during spring training of 2001. The athletic Knoblauch made his share of rookie mistakes, but his speed and athleticism helped him learn the position quickly. Unfortunately his hitting statistics did not improve, and he shared playing time in left and as a DH with Shane Spencer and David Justice.
Knoblauch's departure from Minnesota in 1998 had been acrimonious, but in his first trips back to the Metrodome as a second baseman he was far enough from the stands to be safe from fans' ire. But in left field he was a target, and Minnesotans took full advantage by throwing cups and batteries at the diminutive leadoff man during a game in May 2001. Ultimately, the situation became serious enough for Twins manager Tom Kelly to accompany Knoblauch to his position, putting his arm around the left fielder's shoulders and warning the fans to stop their harassment.
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FROM THE BASEBALL CHRONOLOGY
»June 5, 1989:
The Orioles select Louisiana State University pitcher Ben McDonald (14–3) with the first pick in the annual amateur draft. He'll sign August 19 and debut September 6, missing by three days being the first in this draft to debut. The Jays John Olerud, picked on the 3rd round, will debut September 3, singling in his first at bat. The next three picks are high schoolers: the Braves take Tyler Houston; the Mariners pick Roger Salkeld; and the Phillies choose Jeff Jackson. The White Sox get Frank Thomas with the 7th pick, while the Angels take Kyle Abbott with the 10th, and Chad Curtis on the 45th round. The Dodgers use their 1st round pick on Jamie McAndrew, son of former Mets P Jim McAndrew. Mo Vaughn goes to Boston on the 23rd pick and Chuck Knoblauch to the Twins on the 25th (he had been picked on the 18th round by the Phils in 1986, but did not sign). On the 4th round, the Twins select and sign P Scott Erickson, who was drafted but not signed in the previous three drafts.
»June 5, 1996:
The Twins score nine runs in the 4th inning to trim the Angels, 14–3. Chuck Knoblauch's grand slam is the inning's big blow.
»July 11, 1996:
In the Twins 11–7 loss to the Indians, Chuck Knoblauch completes his 10th multi-hit game in a row—the longest such streak in the ML since 1978. Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle drive in nine runs between them for the Tribe, and Jack McDowell picks up the win.
»September 16, 1996: Paul Molitor of the Twins triples in the 5th inning of Minnesota's 6-5 loss to KC for his 3,000th big league hit. He becomes the 1st major leaguer to get 200 hits in the same season in which he reached 3,000. Teammate Chuck Knoblauch gets his 1,000th hit in the same game.
»May 27, 1997:
Mariners' reliever Norm Charlton walks Chuck Knoblauch with the bases loaded, as Minnesota caps a six-run ninth-inning rally to win, 11–10. Seattle's collapse mars a game in which Ken Griffey Jr. and Joey Cora each set records. Griffey hits his 23rd homer, breaking his own major league mark for homers through May; Cora is 4-for-6 to extend his hitting streak to a team-record 22 games, and also ties the A.L. mark for switch-hitters.
»April 1, 1998:
The Angels put together a four run rally in the 4th to hand the Yankees a 4–1 opening day defeat. Matt Walbeck's two RBI triple was the big hit in the game. Chuck Finley earned the win as he gave up a run on four hits and six walks in seven IP, with seven K's. Chuck Knoblauch entered the record books as he played his 1000th game at 2B and set the American League record for highest career fielding percentage.
»August 3, 1998:
Leading off for the Yankees, Chuck Knoblauch lines a hit off Mike Oquist's ribs, and the Yankees continue to connect off the Oakland pitcher for 15 more hits, including four homers, in five innings. New York wins, 14–1, scoring all 14 earned runs off Oquist, the most runs allowed since Bill Travers in August 1977. Orlando Hernandez picks up the win.
»October 7, 1998: The Indians score three runs in the 12th inning to take Game two of the ALCS from the Yankees by a score of 4–1. The lead run scores when NY 2B Chuck Knoblauch argues the call on a bunt play at 1B, rather than going after the ball.
»October 17, 1998: The Yankees explode for seven runs in the last half of the 7th inning to blow away the Padres, 9–6, in the Series opener. Chuck Knoblauch hits a 3–run homer in the inning, then Tino Martinez follows with a grand slam. David Wells notches the win.
»April 14, 1999: The Yankees defeat the Orioles, 14–7, as Chuck Knoblauch gets five hits, including his 1st home run of the year, for the winners.
»July 30, 1999: The Yankees defeat the Red Sox, 13-3, as 2B Chuck Knoblauch raps out five hits, including a double and home run, and drives home four runs.
»September 10, 1999: The Red Sox trip the Yankees, 3-1, as Pedro Martinez hurls an impressive one-hitter for his 21st victory of the year. Martinez strikes out 17 batters, the most Yankees ever fanned in a single game. DH Chili Davis' 2nd inning home run is NY's only safety. Chuck Knoblauch leading off the game gave the Yankees their only other baserunner he was caught stealing, so Martinez faces just one over the minimum.
»October 26, 1999: Down 5-1 in Game three of the World Series, the Yankees bounce back to defeat the Braves, 6-5 in 10 innings. OF Chad Curtis' leadoff home run in the bottom half of the inning -- his 2nd of the game -- is the game-winner. Tino Martinez and Chuck Knoblauch also homer for NY, with Knoblauch's 2-run blast in the 8th tying the score at 5-5. Mariano Rivera picks up the win for the Yankees, hurling two scoreless inning of relief.
»October 21, 2000: The Yankees defeat the Mets, 4-3 in 12 innings in Game one of the World Series. The longest game in World Series history (4 hours, 51 minutes) is ended on Jose Vizcaino' single which drives home Tino Martinez. It is Vizcaino's 4th hit of the night. The Mets lead, 3-2, going into the 9th, but Armando Benitez surrenders the tying run on a sacrifice fly by Chuck Knoblauch. The victory is the Yankees 13th in a row in Series play for a new record. Todd Pratt of the Mets ties a Series mark by being hit by pitches two times.
»April 19, 2001: The Yankees defeat the Blue Jays, 6-5, in 17 innings and almost six hours. Six relievers pitch 11 scoreless innings before Chuck Knoblauch walks and Derek Jeter singles him to 2B. Paul O'Neill's 4th hit of the game finally ends it.