It’s one of the stranger stories of this offseason, but it’s hardly been investigated: the federal government’s apparent inability, for the better part of a week, to find and subpoena Chuck Knoblauch. The former second baseman finally agreed to a meeting with the House committee lawyers, held yesterday, and will apparently testify on February 13th; but no one seems to know where he went, why he couldn’t be tracked down, or why he hid, if indeed he was hiding at all. Perhaps the media is respecting his privacy, but since that would be a first, I suspect he’s just not famous enough for people to care.
I keep wondering about it, though. In fact, over the years I’ve thought about Chuck Knoblauch much more often than I’d have expected to think about Chuck Knoblauch. His is one of the most bizarre stories of my baseball-watching life, and it has that haunting quality of all the best cautionary tales, only without any sort of moral. Partly, I suspect, my brain worries at the subject because I never really figured out what to make of his career: cosmic joke, or tragedy?
Knoblauch always seemed private, a bit awkward, not especially at ease with the media; despite being the kind of small, fast player fans often embrace at a disproportionate rate – textbook “gritty” – I don’t think he was ever particularly a favorite. Still, I was surprised by his quotes in the Times a few weeks ago, when a reporter finally tracked him down to comment on the steroid mess:
He described the Mitchell report as “crazy” and “interesting,” and added that what actually bothered him about being mentioned in the report is that “I’ve got nothing to do with any of that, I mean, any baseball.”
“And I don’t want anything to do with baseball,” he added…
… On Thursday, he did not voice any regrets. “I love baseball,” he said, “but I’m not trying to get a job in baseball. I don’t have any friends from baseball. Baseball doesn’t control my life anymore.”
Ten years in a job and no friends? Even Barry Bonds has friends in baseball; I’m not sure about Randy Johnson, but next to him Knoblauch is Oprah Winfrey. He sounds awfully relieved to be not only out of the game, but as far away from it as possible.
Knoblauch seemed destined to be the source of much amusement after the 1998 playoffs, when he argued passionately with the first base umpire for what felt like an eternity — while the live ball lay in the grass a few feet away, and the opposing runner (Enrique Wilson of all people) ran home. Knoblauch, deeply outraged by a call, was completely oblivious to the increasingly desperate screams of his teammates, 55,000 fans, and, almost certainly audible in the Bronx from a TV room fifteen miles away, my father. Since the Yankees eventually recovered to win that series, and the next, it was soon forgiven, just a memorably funny moment on the way to a happy ending.
The very next year he started to have trouble — throwing problems, a mental block, the yips, whatever you want to call it. Those were pretty funny, too, at first. Who can forget the time his throw sailed a dozen feet over first base, into the stands, and hit Keith Olbermann’s mom in the head? (Cartainly not Olbermann, who on his MSNBC show last week commented on Knoblauch’s failure to respond to Congress: “My theory is that Mr. Knoblauch got their invitation, wrote a letter back, tried to throw it into a nearby mailbox and instead hit my mother.”)
The Yankees were still winning, but the errors began escalating. No one had any explanation, and no amount of practice or training or, eventually, sports psychology seemed to have any effect whatsoever. Knoblauch was regarded, with varying degrees of sympathy, as a headcase. I remember one day he pointedly changed his at-bat song to Eminem’s “The Way I Am”: I am whatever you say I am, if I wasn’t then why would you say I am, in the paper, the news every day I am…
For me, it stopped being amusing abruptly, in the sixth inning of a game in June. I hadn’t remembered who the Yankees were playing, but the Times archives tell me it was the White Sox, a 12-3 loss. What I do vividly recall is that Knoblauch made three of his inexplicable, egregious errors in just the first six innings of the game, one worse than the other. When Joe Torre came out to remove the pitcher (presumably a tad out of sorts by that point), the infielders all met on the mound as usual — except Knoblauch, who stood by himself at second base, staring down, unable to even look at his teammates, who in turn didn’t look at him. It may not sound particularly dramatic, but it was absolutely agonizing to watch; he looked like he was trying to will himself to disappear.
It’s that image of Knoblauch, alone behind the mound, that I’ve never been able to get out of my head. When the inning finally, mercifully ended, Torre sent him home to spare him the media crush; and though he stuck it out in New York for another season and a half, that moment was really the end. I’m not sure what my equivalent of Knoblauch’s yips would be (a sudden inability to conjugate verbs?), but it must have been a nightmare.
Sure, Knoblauch is rich and apparently healthy and there are many, many people in the world worse off than him; I know it’s hard for most of us to drum up much pity for professional athletes. But there’s something about the randomness of the whole thing that really gets to me. Is it possible I’ll wake up tomorrow morning suddenly, say, unable to read? And what sort of lesson are you supposed to take from something like that? You live your dream, you play Major League ball, you get traded to a contender, you win the World Series, you make millions. But life still finds a way to screw you, and in exactly the way you’d least expect.
I still can’t figure out whether Knoblauch’s story is an elaborate punchline or a sob-story, but it seems like the sort of thing the Greek gods would have gotten a real kick out of.