Twins' Knoblauch good, and getting better

October 16, 1991|By Joe Donnelly | Joe Donnelly,Newsday

MINNEAPOLIS -- The education of a rookie is an ongoing process, even when it's Chuck Knoblauch, who is virtually certain to be the American League's Rookie of the Year.

The Minnesota Twins' second baseman was standing on second for the first time since Sunday, when he hit a two-run double in the sixth inning that gave the Twins a 5-5 tie in the game that won them the pennant.

Looking on Sunday at the SkyDome was a crowd of more than 50,000. The only people present yesterday were the Twins, resuming preparation for the World Series, and a few dozen media types at the Metrodome.

Wayne Terwilliger edged off second, looking back toward rightfield, as Knoblauch and manager Tom Kelly stood watching. There is a lot of mileage on Terwilliger, a 66-year-old Twins coach who played his first pro season in 1948, but Knoblauch listened attentively.

"Twigs was telling me something the fans didn't see Sunday," Knoblauch said. "I should have had a triple on that play. I didn't realize it, but [Candy] Maldonado kind of bobbled that ball in right. Our third base coach [Ron Gardenhire] was too busy waving runners home to direct me.

"I should have peeked back [to rightfield] to have a read on the play but I didn't. Twigs was showing me how to do it and T.K. was talking about how gifted Willie Mays was at it. It will come up again. Maybe not in the World Series. Maybe next year. And I'll get to third base."

As fine a season as he had, hitting .281 in 565 at-bats and stabilizing second base for the Twins, Knoblauch, 23, recognizes there is need for improvement. "You can learn every day you're fortunate enough to be up here," he said. "I hope in my 15th year I'm a better player at the end of the season than I was at the start."

The stockily built, 5-foot-8, 175-pounder loves the life he is leading. In a way he was born into baseball. His father, Ray, was a well-known high school baseball coach in Houston, and Knoblauch played for him. "The best thing was he took the coach home with him, so I learned there, but he never took the Dad on the field."

When Knoblauch was drafted in the first round in June 1989, the 25th pick overall, he sought as part of his signing agreement to be invited to the major-league training camp the next spring. Twins general manager Andy MacPhail wasn't eager to grant that wish.

"At first he said it was something the club couldn't do," Knoblauch recalled. "Then he made a deal with me. He said, "If you hit .285 in rookie ball [in '89], then we'll bring you to the big-league camp in spring training.' "

At this point Ray Knoblauch, who was in on the negotiations, said, "Make it .300!"

"I can remember saying to my Dad after the meeting broke up, 'What are you getting me into?' But I know it's just that he had a lot of confidence in me."

Knoblauch hit a combined .308 for Kenosha in the Midwest League and Visalia in the California League in 273 at-bats. He was on his way. Signed as a shortstop, the Twins converted him to a second baseman the following spring.

He responded beautifully for Gardenhire, who managed him last year at Double A Orlando in the Southern League. "I felt he could play shortstop," Gardenhire said. "But body-wise and every way else, he was a second baseman. And that was the need of the organization.

"I can remember saying at our postseason organizational meetings, I think he will be the everyday second baseman for the Twins next year. You could see the attitude instilled in him and it's a no-fail attitude. It's not a cockiness but a hard-nosed belief."

Knoblauch's .289 average led Orlando, which was one reason Kelly wasn't surprised the rookie made the jump to the Twins even though he was a non-roster player in spring training.

"If you can play in the Southern League and survive, you can play here," Kelly said. "It's Orlando to Nashville to Jacksonville by bus. If you can survive the heat, the buses breaking down, the 13-hour rides and hit .280 to .290, you can play in the bigs. The Southern League will test you."

Knoblauch agreed. "I was glad for once I was short," he said. "I had room to maneuver my legs. It's tough to get off that bus after eight hours and go play."

He's one of the fortunate ones. The only bus trips he's taken lately are to and from first-class planes and hotels. That's liable to continue for years.

"I would take a year like he's had for the rest of his career," Twins batting coach Terry Crowley said. "I can remember in spring training when he made solid contact off Nolan Ryan. I thought then we were looking at a major-leaguer for years to come, and I see no reason to change my thinking now."

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