THE PHONE CALLS ARE ESPECIALLY HARD, yet three times a week, no matter where he is, New York Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch makes sure to call home, to his parents in Houston—though from one time to the next, he never really knows what to expect.
His mother, Linda, is fairly predictable. From her he hears mostly the complaints of a primary caregiver, someone always desperately needing just a few more hours of sleep or a little break to get some errands done or a moment’s time to herself in peace and quiet simply to regroup for another day. His father, Ray, the legendary former baseball coach of Bellaire High School, is another matter entirely. Ray has Alzheimer’s disease. From him, even on the best of days, Knoblauch hears a voice that hardly resembles the one he grew up with, a voice growing more confused and distant, a voice that might suddenly go silent on him.
For nearly four years now, Knoblauch has had to ask his father questions that require only one-word answers.
“How’s the weather, Dad?”
“And how are you doing, Dad?”
“You feeling good today, Dad?”
During one such call, for no apparent reason, Ray broke down and cried, which not only startled his son but also touched him more deeply than ever before. All his life, he had heard his father cry only once: “When I broke my leg in high school.” Knoblauch insists there are never good days for his father anymore, only days that aren’t so bad. And there are times when he himself goes to pieces the second he hangs up the phone. “I’m trying to accept it,” he says. “I’m thankful I have the ability to talk to him at all, but I see the difference between last year and now. If he goes to the next level, it will be very hard on me.”
It’s a Wednesday afternoon in late April, three and a half hours before a game against the Seattle Mariners, and Knoblauch is sitting on a black leather sofa in the middle of the Yankee clubhouse. After playing for the Minnesota Twins for seven seasons—four of them as an All-Star and the last year as a Gold Glove fielder for the first time—he came to New York in a trade this past February, following months of controversy over his public request to be traded to a better team, even though he’d just signed a long-term, multimillion-dollar contract. But while the Yankees did indeed streak to the top of the American League early this season, Knoblauch has struggled, both at the plate (his batting average was at one time nearly 60 points below his lifetime mark of .304) and in the field (where he has made a number of throwing errors). There was a time when he would have looked to his father for help, asking him to watch his swing and throwing release for flaws. “But those days are over,” Knoblauch says sadly. “Long over.”
Something of a Knute Rockne of high school baseball in Houston, Ray Knoblauch coached Bellaire from 1961 to 1986, amassing a record of 598—225 and winning four state titles (he had been a minor league pitcher before an elbow injury forced him to quit). A disciplinarian known for his absolute disdain for laziness, lack of teamwork, or straying from fundamentals, Ray had a simple coaching creed: To play for me, you must be serious about the game—which means always working hard as well as maintaining your intensity and concentration. There are famous stories, in fact, about Ray ordering some kid to “hit the track” after committing an indiscretion, sternly telling him to not come back “until I tell you so.” His son, however, remembers a private man who rarely showed any emotion or spoke very much, either at home or around the field. “For the four years we rode to high school together,” he says, “we’d spend the fifteen minutes in the car mostly without ever exchanging a word.”
Knoblauch says that though it was subtle in the beginning, his father started showing signs of Alzheimer’s in 1991, five years after he had retired from coaching, slurring his words occasionally and exhibiting minor memory lapses. It eventually reached the point where he sometimes couldn’t even get the words out at all, so Chuck and his wife, Lisa, took him to the Mayo Clinic for tests. After doctors removed a chunk of his brain for analysis, they diagnosed his affliction. “My dad worked his whole life to get to where he didn’t have to work anymore,” Knoblauch says, furrowing his brow, “and now he can’t even travel and enjoy the rest of his life.” He pauses, and a joyless half-grin pinches his face. “It shows you how delicate the brain really is,” he says quietly. “It’s a strange disease. A very strange disease.”
This is not easy for Knoblauch. He admits to being uncomfortable talking about himself and even more uncomfortable discussing something so personal. He suddenly catches himself and stops; when he resumes, he says he is done for now revealing himself to the world. “You know, you can’t let each and every person in,” he explains. “The less information you give out about yourself, the better. I mean, why let somebody know you unless they have to? The only people that need to know about me are my family.”
Named after his uncle Ed, a former minor league outfielder, Edward Charles Knoblauch was born in Houston on July 7, 1968, the youngest of four girls and two boys. At three, he was already the batboy for his father’s team, the Bellaire Cardinals. “I was born right into baseball,” Knoblauch says, “and I developed a real love for it right away. I never needed to be forced to play.” One of the first toys he remembers playing with was a Johnny Bench Batter-Up set, complete with a bat, ball, and batting tee. The idea was to hit the ball with a level stroke: If