Chuck Knoblauch was not made for New York. Like Fred Snodgrass, Fred Merkle, Bill Buckner and Donnie Moore before him, four-time World Series champ Chuck Knoblauch seems to be known only for what he did wrong. Late in his career with the Yankees, Knoblauch developed a mental problem where he was unable to throw to first base from his position as a second baseman. The situation got so bad, he was eventually moved to left field.
This is what Knoblauch is known for and it should only be a small part of his legacy as a big leaguer. I know he wasn’t the nicest guy, he didn’t handle fans well and he was later included in the Mitchell report for using performance enhancing drugs. Before he skipped out of Minneapolis for the big time in New York, the Twins second baseman was making a good case for the hall of fame. He didn’t have the mental toughness to handle New York and it cost him a brilliant career. Sure, he got three more World Series rings, but his career was cut far short, much like the great Roger Maris.
When the second baseman was traded from the Twins to the Yankees in February of 1998, no one knew how well the trade would work out for both teams as well as Knoblauch in the short run. The Yankees received one of the best hitters in the game coming off a gold glove season at second base. In 1997, he had a.390 on-base percentage and stole 62 bases and was only caught 10 times. Knoblauch had signed a multi-year deal before the 1997 season with the Twins with the hope the team would become competitive. They didn’t and Knoblauch wanted out.
What the Yankees got was what appeared to be the best second baseman in the game. They went on to win the next three World Series. The Twins got the building blocks to what would eventually propel them to their first winning season in eight years in 2001 and three-straight AL Central division champs (2002-2004). The Twins received Brian Buchanan, Eric Milton, Cristian Guzman, Danny Mota and cash. Mota did more than this writer ever did when he pitched five and a third innings in 2000 and never stood on a big league mound again. Brian Buchanan played in 143 unimpressive games for the Twins from 2000 until he was traded to the Padres midway through the 2002 season.
Milton would play six seasons with the Twins and be a big part of their 2002 division championship. Milton also pitched a no-hitter on a non-televised day game during the 1999 season. In 16 1/3 postseason innings, the lefty had a 1-0 record and a 1.65 ERA. He won 57 regular season games for Minnesota over six seasons before being traded to the Phillies for Nick Punto and Carlos Silva.
Guzman would play six seasons in Minnesota and was also a big part of the three consecutive division championships. He never learned much plate discipline, but he could play shortstop well and led the league in triples three times. He left via free agency to the Washington Nationals after the 2004 season. Both Guzman and Milton were members of the 2001 American League All-Star team.
As for Knoblauch, he may have been a part of one of the greatest dynasty runs in baseball history, his career was winding down a lot faster than anyone would have expected. He was 29 when he joined the Yankees, but he didn’t look like his prime. Knoblauch’s average dropped 32 points from the Twins to the Yankees while his OBP went down 25 points. Despite the PED and the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, his slugging percentage managed to drop slightly as well. He never made an all-star team and he, obviously, didn’t approach a gold glove award.
But let’s focus on the good. It’s probably been a while since someone has looked at what good Knoblauch did for the game.
It began in 1991 when the 22-year old jumped from double-A to the Twins after an impressive spring training. Knoblauch batted second behind Dan Gladden for most of the season. His numbers (.281 AVG /.351 OBP /.350 SLG) and defense were enough to earn him the rookie of the year award. The little guy managed only one home run, but stole 25 bases and was caught only five times. He collected 15 postseason hits in 12 games, stole six bases, scored eight runs and sacrificed Gladden, the eventual winning run, to third base in the bottom of the tenth inning of Game 7 of the World Series. This simple act will never be forgotten in Twins history.
Knoblauch made the all-star team in 1992, improved his numbers (.297/.384/.358) and scored 104 runs for the second-place Twins. He would see his stats drop in 1993, but would surge in the next four years. Before the season was stopped because of the strike in 1994, Knoblauch was challenging the single-season doubles record of 67; he had 45 through 109 games. His batting averages from 1994 through 1996 were .312, .333, and .341. In 1996, Knoblauch would play his strongest offensive season. Making up for the loss of Kirby Puckett, Knoblauch’s numbers were superb (.341/.448/.517) while showing good power with 13 home runs and leading the league in triples with 13. Although the Twins pitched as well as a Toyota car salesman, they could hit like no other team led by Knoblauch and Paul Molitor, both hitting .341 (Molitor was percentage points higher). Molitor would help the second baseman to his highest runs scored total of his career with 140.
In seven seasons with Minnesota, Knoblauch hit .304 with a .391 OBP. He stole 276 bases and scored 713 runs. Baseball-reference.com compares his seasons with the Twins with Nellie Fox and Rod Carew – both members of the hall of fame. He had a World Series ring, a rookie of the year award and was one of the best hitters (and fielders) in the league. Until his later years in Minnesota, he was known as the cute rookie with boyish enthusiasm for the game. After Puckett hit the walk-off home run to win Game 6 of the 1991 World Series, Knoblauch screamed at the camera, “Yeah! It’s over now, it’s over!”
Yes, he left the Twins on poor terms and went to the evil empire, but don’t forget that Chuck Knoblauch was one of the best players the Twins ever had. The Twins had him in his prime – his best years. Then they traded him and got great players in return and Knoblauch had a mental baseball breakdown. But while he was in the low-key Twin Cities, he was truly great.