The Coach’s Son
Growing up in Houston, pro baseball star Chuck Knoblauch would turn to his father whenever he was in a slump. He can’t anymore.
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 struck properly, the arm of the batting tee would wind around and spin back with another “pitch”; if not, the arm would wobble and quit spinning around, and the hitter would have to reset it. In time, Knoblauch developed such a perfectly level swing that he rarely needed to stop for resets.
From there he graduated to “killer” whiffleball games with his brother Mark, who is eight years older; he lost every one and afterward would either cry or scream to play one more inning. He regularly took batting practice. He fielded hundreds of grounders from his father’s bat. Finally, when he was ten, his father built him a mound in the back yard so that he could practice his pitching. “I didn’t throw hard, but I eventually could throw a pretty decent curve,” he says.
Knoblauch was always the smallest kid in class, but because he possessed his mother’s strong-willed nature, his uncle’s fiery competitiveness, and his father’s rigid adherence to discipline, he was formidable enough that he often played with the older kids. “I was always playing with guys physically stronger and more developed than I was,” he says. “I always had to fight just to keep up.” In Little League, he was an all-star shortstop who idolized Ozzie Smith: He taped up torn-out, full-page Sports Illustrated pictures of the St. Louis Cardinals standout on the walls of his bedroom, read every story about him, watched him whenever he could, and tried to copy everything he did. “I remember once I heard that he took two hundred ground balls a day,” he says, “so I took exactly two hundred grounders too.”
A huge Astros fan, Knoblauch went to about a dozen games at the Astrodome every season. He was so obsessed with the team that he knew what brand of glove and shoes each player wore and memorized all the uniform numbers. His favorite player was outfielder Cesar Cedeno. (“Number 28,” he remembers.)
He played basketball and football too, but after his freshman year at Bellaire, he was all baseball, playing three years under his father. He always felt the pressure to perform at a high level and stay in line. “Being Ray Knoblauch’s son, it was always, ‘Oh, he’s playing because he’s the coach’s son.’ So if I screwed up, it was open season for everybody to attack me.” Including his father—yet he wasn’t yelled at only for what he did on the field; there was also his temperament. “I was pretty psycho back then,” he says. “I could go nuts with the best of them. I mean, I’d just snap sometimes.” He’d rant and rave in the dugout, ram his bat into the ground before flinging it down the foul line, throw helmets everywhere. “I’ve really mellowed over the years,” he says. “The anger beats you up mentally and physically. But I still have my moments.” In his senior year Knoblauch sat out the season with a broken leg, but he cheered as his father coached the team to the state title. Then, after graduation, he enrolled at Texas A&M University to play in the revered baseball program and Ray retired from coaching.
Knoblauch played center field for the Aggies his freshman year, then became an All-American shortstop. “He wasn’t a real cutup,” recalls Mark Johnson, A&M’s baseball coach since 1984. “He was all business on the ball field. Even when he came to practice, he had an agenda. He was very self-conscious about his play and always wanted more and more feedback: ‘How’s my swing? Did I dip? Am I staying down on the ground balls?’ In fact, if there was anything I needed to scold him about, it was his working too hard. I was always telling him to relax, to not beat himself up so much. He was his own worst enemy at times.”
In 1989 Knoblauch was drafted by the Twins organization in the first round. He was the twenty-fifth pick overall—unusually high for someone who didn’t hit homers or throw 95-mile-per-hour fastballs. “My father wanted so badly for me to be picked by the Astros,” Knoblauch says. “He was really upset about it. I wasn’t. I was just happy to be picked by anybody.” After signing for $120,000, Knoblauch wanted a guarantee from Twins officials that if he played well enough his first season in the minor leagues, he’d be invited to the big league training camp the following spring. “Hit .280 and we’ll invite you,” then—general manager Andy MacPhail told him. “Make it .300,” Ray chimed in, to his son’s chagrin. MacPhail would say later, “I knew then that this was a kid with the genes of a competitor.”
In his one year with the double-A Orlando Sun Rays, Knoblauch switched positions from shortstop to second base and hit an impressive .289. His manager, Ron Gardenhire, described him to reporters as a “headstrong” player who angered teammates with his intolerance of “any screwups, either by himself or his teammates,” but he managed to get invited to spring training in 1991. Although he was a non-roster player with only 187 minor league games under his belt, he batted close to .400 and made the cut, beating Nelson Liriano, a five-year veteran, out of his second-base job. In that first season, he batted .281, scored 78 runs, and stole 25 bases—enough to earn him the American League Rookie of the Year award. He went on to hit .350 in the playoffs and .308 in the World Series, helping the Twins to become world champions.
In the years that followed, he and the Twins went in opposite directions. He became the AL’s best second baseman and leadoff hitter, but the team never matched its success—not even close. Although he signed a five-year, $30 million contract in August 1996, the following fall he informed the Twins that he wanted to waive his no-trade clause and be dealt to a contender as soon as possible. “Why would somebody want to stay here to play?” he said at the time. “Believe me, there’s nothing fun about losing ninety games. It makes it difficult to go to the ballpark.” (The Twins would ultimately lose 94 games en route to a franchise-record fifth straight season under .500, finishing 181Ú2 games out of first place.)
On February 6, 1998, Knoblauch was acquired by the Yankees for four minor league prospects and $3 million in cash. “Chuck had that fire we needed,” Yankees manager Joe Torre says. “He’s a tough player who never takes the safe way out. He does a lot of things to create an attitude.” Indeed, when you ask people about Knoblauch, they say admiringly that he “plays like a coach’s son,” which means he’s mentally rock-solid and fundamentally airtight. “He is constantly demonstrating the way the game is supposed to be played,” says Yankees general manager Brian Cashman.
His at bats, in particular, are masterful—more epic events than fleeting moments. After each pitch, he performs a bizarre ritual: He steps out of the batter’s box, tugs at the shoulder of his uniform jersey, unwraps and rewraps the Velcro of his batting gloves, pounds his bat against his cleats to knock loose dirt, stares at his bat, mumbles something to himself, and then finally steps back in. “It’s more time to think than anything else,” Knoblauch says. “The count. The situation. Everything.” He has also made an art form of the ten-pitch at bat. Aside from hitting from a crouched stance, which reduces his strike zone to something the size of a postage stamp, he rarely swings at bad pitches and has the ability to foul off pitch after pitch after pitch, wearing down the opposing pitcher. He’s a see-and-react hitter who seems to always find a way—whether by a walk, getting hit by a pitch, a bunt, or a hit—to get on base, which accounts for his .391 on-base percentage. “He’s a true leadoff hitter,” says Willie Randolph, the team’s third-base coach and its former leadoff-hitting second baseman. “He’s one of the few in baseball who really understand that role.”
And yet, you wouldn’t know it this year, for reasons that mystify him as much as anyone. He seems himself as he hunches over on a stool in the Yankee clubhouse, sipping hot chocolate and looking into the bottom of his cup with a far-off gaze. In his stall half a dozen black-and-red bats smeared with pine tar are lined in a neat row, and on an upper shelf sits a picture of him and Lisa. But he isn’t himself: He has a sore knee and middle finger, a bandage on his right knee, scratches of assorted lengths on his feet and lower legs, and a bruise on his forearm. “Oh, I’m a mess right now,” he says with an uneasy laugh.
He’s asked the obvious: Is he trying too hard to impress his new team?
“No,” he says, stone-faced. “I don’t need to impress anybody.”
He is then asked if maybe he’s feeling the pressure of New York City.
Another quick no, followed by a pause, then an explanation: “I’m a firm believer that pressure comes from within. If you concentrate on the game, you’ll be all right. My father taught me that.”