TORONTO -- You watch Chuck Knoblauch play second base for the Minnesota Twins and you figure baseball is going to survive. You figure they can shower the world with lockouts and holdouts and colossal egos, but the game is going to be fine as long as there are kids breaking in like this.
Kids who don't so much play the game as wear it, sliding headfirst and getting banged up and diving around, hitting breaking balls to the opposite field and putting down Cooperstown bunts and taking to the postseason as though they were wizened old galoots.
Knoblauch, 23, is the son of a Texas high school coach, a squat, broad-chested, twang-talker who was playing in the Florida Instructional League this time a year ago. Now he is all but leading the Twins against the Blue Jays in the American League playoffs, finishing up a rookie year that has never stopped going up and up.
The series has his name written all over it. He is thriving, among the series leaders in batting average, on-base percentage and runs scored. It could be argued that the Twins, with their big bats slumping early in the series, would be in trouble without him.
"I'm sure after the season I'll sit and reflect on doing so much my first year, but right now it feels like I've spent my whole life playing at this level," said Knoblauch, who already has the most hits by any rookie in the 23 years of the American League playoffs. "Right now I'm just having a lot of fun."
Perhaps the only people who aren't surprised are the Twins, who long ago grew accustomed to such poise and production from this kid who looked like he should be their mascot. His regular-season numbers were terrific, a .281 average, 159 hits, 78 runs, 25 stolen bases, a 20-game hitting streak. He is a shoo-in for AL Rookie of the Year.
It is all the culmination of a rise through the organization that was rapid, though no surprise. He didn't just drop out of the sky. He was the club's first-round pick in 1989, a second-team All-America shortstop as a junior at Texas A&M. He had an elite pedigree.
He was such a glowing prospect that the Twins were willing to accept his guidelines for skipping minor-league spring training. As a prerequisite for signing he wanted an invitation to the big-league camp -- a precious commodity for young players -- if he hit .285 in rookie ball. Twins GM Andy MacPhail said OK.
Before MacPhail left the family's house in Houston, though, Knoblauch's father said, "Make it .300." MacPhail smiled and said that would be OK, too. "I'm not sure that was so smart," Chuck said after MacPhail left. It wound up not mattering: He hit .308, went to the Twins' camp and wound up jumping all the way to Double-A.
The story makes Knoblauch's father, who pitched in the Texas League, sound like a taskmaster, the cliche of the high school coach putting big demands on his son. Not at all true, Knoblauch said.
"He never pushed me," he said. "I played all the sports when I was young. When I chose baseball, it was my choice. I think that's why I enjoy it so much. I was never forced to do anything. I played because I enjoyed it.
"I did spend a lot of time watching games on TV with my dad. The game was always in the house. I was a batboy at his games, just always around it. He was there for me. When I was a pitcher, he built a mound in the back yard. I learned so much from him. But I didn't live, eat and breathe it. I enjoyed other sports, things. I was a normal kid."
The normal kid came to the Twins' camp this year after a year in rookie ball and a year in Double-A. They'd moved him from shortstop to second because they had other prospects at short. They figured their second baseman would be veteran Nelson Liriano. Knoblauch stole the job. "Liriano had no idea who I was," he said.
He is just one of the many pieces that suddenly fit, enabling the Twins to go from worst to first in the American League West. After Game 3 the other night, in which he scored the tying run with a tough slide that barely beat the catcher's tag, he stood in front of his locker with dirt stains all over his pants and a big ice wrap on his throwing arm ("no big deal") and talked about his season.
"It's funny, but this just doesn't seem that different than Double-A," he said. "Bigger stadiums and more fans, and more consistency here, but that's a good brand of ball down there. There's a lot of players with talent who just aren't in the right place at the right time. I was lucky. They moved me to second and that was my break. That got me here in a hurry. I don't want to give myself too much credit."
He said that, he really did, this kid who is going to be AL Rookie of the Year, this kid who is knocking them dead in the playoffs. You stand there listening, and you look at the stains on his uniform and his stocky body, and you think about his headfirst slide, and someone says, "You play a little like Pete Rose, you know?"
And he smiles and talks about idolizing Ozzie Smith, but then he thinks about it a minute and nods his head. "I guess I do play a little like Rose, don't I?" he said.
PD And you understand that the game is going to be fine. Just fine.