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Chucking It Away

It starts out like a Brothers Grimm fable, or maybe the beginning of a Charlie's Angels episode: Once upon a time there were three second basemen who played in the American League. They were each different, but each so good in his own way, that people would say "We're watching the best second baseman since Eddie Collins— and I'm not sure which one it is." (Collins, for those who don't know, made his name playing for the A's and White Sox in the days before Lou Gehrig was a ball player, much less a disease.)

The first of the three second basemen, the most gifted player in a gifted baseball family, ventured north of the border while he was still a callow youth and helped his teammates secure great victories. But upon his return to the States, he succumbed to a moment of ire, and in a heartbeat people went from calling him "the best all-around player in the game" to "the guy who spat on the umpire." To this day, Roberto Alomar still wears the Scarlet E, for expectoration.

The second dazzled us by doing things that most second basemen can only dream about: hitting .300 and driving in 100 runs year in and year out. He even performed some amazing feats, like hitting a homer from each side of the plate in the same inning, that no one has accomplished, before or since. But then one day he was traded to the grandest city of all, where he ate, drank, and whatever-elsed his way out of the big leagues as quick as you can say Keith Hernandez. "Carlos Baerga'll make it to Cooperstown," they now say sadly, "but he'll have to buy a ticket like everyone else."

And then there's the third second baseman. His story is a more complex one. His successes have been great. His failures equally so. Are these the best of times for Chuck Knoblauch, or the worst of times? Damn good question.

Watch Chuck Knoblauch for a single trip to the plate, and you'll swear he makes Andy Stankiewicz look like Ryne Sandberg. Tiny, even by the standards of major league middle infielders, he hoists the bat high over his head, wiggling it unsteadily as if it's a little too big for him. And then he unleashes a swing that seems better suited to decapitating gophers than hitting a baseball. If you didn't know better, you'd think that last year's .265 average was a fluke, and this was a guy who'd spend most of his career flirting with the Ordoñez line.

But for a different view, open Total Baseball and take a look at Mr. K's career stats. Hmm, he's patient— his career-best on base percentage is .452. He's sneaky fast— he once stole 62 bases in 72 tries. He's got some pop— 45 doubles in 109 games in 1994. And check it out, he scored 140 runs for a Twins team that finished eighth in the league in offense. Look more carefully at last year's slump and you will note that he scored 117 runs, a figure that Willie Randolph never approached and Joe Morgan topped only once. Scoot to the bottom line, and you'll see that with 1472 hits at age 31, he's among the handful of players with a legit shot (an 18 percent chance according to Stats, Inc.) at joining Boggs and Gwynn in 3000-land. If you're looking for the prototype of the modern leadoff hitter, you needn't look any further.

In the field, he's even more of an enigma. One year he wins a Gold Glove, the next he comes down with Steve Sax Disease (a/k/a Mackey Sasser syndrome), making throwing errors that would draw groans at a company softball game. Mentally, it's the same Jekyll-and-Hyde routine. In the seventh game of the 1991 World Series, he made one of the headiest defensive plays ever— deking Lonnie Smith with a fake throw that would ultimately keep the Braves from scoring the series-winning run. Then last year he made one of the dumbest, arguing with the ump instead of chasing the ball on Travis Fryman's bunt in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

So which is the real Chuck Knoblauch? If you were Pete Rose, you might have bet that he would put last year's minislump behind him and hit .320, maybe even draw a little buzz in the MVP voting. Instead he's at .289— respectable, sure, but holding-pattern baseball for a player of his talents.

Last Wednesday's getaway game against Toronto was a typically enigmatic day for Knoblauch. He started the action with a Hendersonian flourish: a lead-off home run. For the third time in a week, the Chuckster had started the game by touching 'em all. Next time up, he cracks a sharp grounder that squeaks between Tony Fernandez and the bag and rolls into the left-field corner for a double. Two for two. But on his next couple of at bats, it slips away. He flies out three straight times, a reminder of the night before, when his timid pop to right failed to score the tying run from third.

It's at times like these— when the short, built Knoblauch sacrifices another out to the Gods of Testosterone— that his manager looks ready to, well, upchuck. "I think he realizes he still has to hit line drives," Joe Torre says diplomatically. "Last year he didn't talk about it a whole lot. Now, he'll come in after an at bat and we'll talk about that particular at bat. I think he's a little more together in his approach." His manager's defense notwithstanding, the numbers don't lie. This year, for the first time in his career, Knoblauch's hitting the ball in the air more than on the ground— Len Dykstra disease. He is also hitting the ball in the air roughly twice as often as Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, a nutshell explanation for why he's no longer a batting title contender.

Later that afternoon, Williams hit two taters and Irabu extended his major league record for "consecutive wins by a pitcher called a fat pussy toad by his owner." Which makes Knoblauch's leadoff homer the third story of the day. So he arrives at his locker— littered with energy supplements and decorated with a snapshot of him with Evander Holyfield— fashionably late and typically inscrutable, wearing a shirt that says simply "HIT ME."

Village Voice: What was the pitch in the first inning?

Knoblauch: A forkball. A split finger.

Village Voice: Where was it?

Knoblauch: Off the barrel of the bat (bends down to grab antiperspirant from his bag). I don't know, man. I'm not trying to be a smartass. Two strikes, I'm not really paying attention to location or anything. I'm just trying to make it be a strike and hopefully put a good swing on it. I'm just trying to be aggressive, get good pitches to hit, not really doing anything different."

Ask around the clubhouse, and Knoblauch would get some votes as the most important Yankee. "He sets the tone for the offense," explains Jeter. And roughly since he got his hair bleached Courtney Love yellow in late June, Knoblauch has been hitting the proverbial snot out of the ball. Post All-Star break, he's hitting .363 with a .429 on-base percentage, and a Griffey-esque .637 slugging percentage. No coincidence that over that same span, the team is 16-8. "He's killing the ball, man," says Jeter, crossing the line from analyst to cheerleader. "He's getting on base, drawing walks, hitting singles, hitting home runs. He's in one of those grooves." When he's doing those things, the other Yankees know that he's the difference between a first-place team and a juggernaut. When he's not, they privately wonder if Alfonso Soriano can play second.

And as Knoblauch grimaces and tries not to think too much about his hot streak, the question remains: Is this for real, or is this yet another tease? Look into his eyes, you get the sense that it's as much a mystery to him as to anyone else.

But unlike his second base contemporaries, Knoblauch's second act remains unwritten. Thanks to the Yankees' '98 postseason comeback, Knoblauch wasn't saddled with a Scarlet V for Vapor Lock. Unlike that other second baseman whose career was derailed in New York, Knoblauch is still on track to Cooperstown. The biggest question is not whether he'll have to pay admission, but whether he'll be wearing a Yankee cap when he gets there.


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