When the Twins played the Orioles on July 22, Minnesota second
baseman Chuck Knoblauch avoided a hitless night by singling in
the ninth inning. When he arrived at first, Orioles first
baseman Rafael Palmeiro asked him, one top hitter to another,
"Don't you ever take an 0-fer?" Knoblauch smiled and said, "No,
I have a 100-game hitting streak going."
It only seems that way. At week's end Knoblauch was leading the
major leagues with a .369 average, and recently he had been
especially torrid. Through Sunday he had gone 45 for 106 (.425)
in his last 28 games, including a streak of 10 consecutive
multihit games that ended July 11--the longest such streak in
the major leagues since 1978.
"I told him before he went to Philadelphia for the All-Star Game
that he had had one of the greatest half seasons I've ever
seen," says Twins designated hitter Paul Molitor, a 19-year
major leaguer. "He's so disciplined. I've never seen a hitter
have so many 10-pitch at bats, then draw a walk. I've never seen
a player who has been in the majors for only five years who
could do what he can. It took me so long to learn to go to the
plate with a plan, then carry it out. I still don't do it like
Knoblauch, 28, has always been a disciplined player. When Chuck
was growing up in Houston, his father, Ray, a high school
baseball coach, built a mound in the backyard so he could throw
batting practice to Chuck. Ray also hit as many grounders a day
as Chuck wanted, to sharpen his fielding. "I used to count them
up to 200," says Chuck.
That discipline became even more rigid after the 1993 season,
Knoblauch's third in the majors, when his batting average
dropped to .277--a 20-point decrease from the year before--and
the Twins lost 91 games. "That was the worst season for me and
the team," he says. "We were down early so often, I gave away a
lot of at bats. I learned that year never to give away at bats
no matter what the score."
In 1994 Knoblauch bounced back to hit .312 with 53 extra-base
hits, but he wasn't satisfied. The next spring he showed up at
camp weighing 168 pounds, 12 fewer than the year before. The
weight loss and a 6% reduction in body fat--he's at 6.8%
now--came from working out with personal trainer Philip Green.
"I learned how to eat," says Knoblauch. "The toughest thing I
had to eat was yams, but now they're my favorite things. There
are a lot of ballplayers who feel, Why mess with success? But I
wanted to make myself better. I'm lighter and stronger."
Last year Knoblauch hit .333 with 53 extra-base hits, and this
season he has been even better. At week's end he was on a pace
for 73 extra-base hits, and he could cash in on that achievement
if he becomes a free agent after this season. That hinges on one
giant variable, however: the completion of a new labor agreement
between the players and the owners.
Knoblauch may be the most desirable of a number of players
(list, above) who fall just short of six full years of major
league service but who could become free agents if the players
are awarded service time for the days lost during the strike of
1994 and '95. That may happen because the players have been
given service time after every previous work stoppage. If
Knoblauch gets to test his value in the open market, he will
probably be seeking between $5.5 million and $6 million a year
for four or five seasons.
That puts the Twins in a difficult spot. They're trying to get
the public to build them a new ballpark in the Twin Cities area,
but the club is almost out of contention this year, they aren't
drawing well, and they have lost the most popular player in club
history, Kirby Puckett, who was forced to retire on July 12
because of glaucoma in his right eye. Minnesota can hardly
afford to lose Knoblauch, now its best player, but it may not be
able to match what bigger-market teams like the Yankees and the
Dodgers might offer him. As a result the club may have dealt him
by this Wednesday's trading deadline, after which any player
traded must first clear waivers. A player of Knoblauch's stature
would surely be claimed by one or more contending clubs.
Unlike Puckett and another Twin Cities hero, retired first
baseman Kent Hrbek, Knoblauch isn't emotionally tied to the
Twins and will not take less money to stay with them. "I enjoy
playing in Minnesota," he says, "but the lesson I've learned
from Kirby's retirement is that you might wake up tomorrow and
not be able to play anymore. You have to make the most of
everything when you can."
After the 1995 season the Twins tried to sign Knoblauch to a
long-term deal, first offering him a four-year contract worth
$16 million, but he wanted $17.8 million. As Minnesota increased
its offer, Knoblauch's figure also rose, and the negotiations
broke down. On the baseball field, in contract negotiations and
with everything else in life, Knoblauch is a maniacal competitor
who has a fierce drive to win. If the other top second basemen
in the major leagues--the Orioles' Roberto Alomar and the
Astros' Craig Biggio--are making $5.5 million a year, then
Knoblauch believes he shouldn't get a cent less. His desire to
be recognized as one of the game's best players also brings with
it an arrogance that hasn't made Knoblauch the most popular guy
in the Twins' clubhouse. Earlier this year Knoblauch got called
out on strikes, was ejected for arguing, then screamed at the
umpire, "I've got the best eye in the league!"
In the next few months, if he succeeds in winning his first
batting title and becomes the premier free agent on the open
market, he may find himself in the best spot in all of baseball.
THE A'S HAVE IT
The 1996 season opener was two weeks away, and first-year A's
manager Art Howe didn't know who would be replacing first
baseman Mark McGwire, who was on the disabled list; he didn't
know who would take over for closer Dennis Eckersley and staff
ace Todd Stottlemyre, who had been traded to the Cardinals; he
didn't have a leadoff hitter because Oakland hadn't re-signed
free-agent leftfielder Rickey Henderson; and he wasn't sure who
was going to play where in his outfield. "Expectations were not
high," says catcher Terry Steinbach. "The media said it would be
a good year for us if we didn't lose 100 games."
Four months later the A's are the surprise story of the American
League. Going into Sunday's action, they had three more wins
than the Orioles (with a payroll of $19 million compared with
Baltimore's $49 million), were only 5 1/2 games out of first
place in the American League West and had only two fewer wins
than the White Sox and the Mariners in the wild-card race. The
biggest reason for this performance is an offense that is on a
record home run pace, but credit should also go to Howe, who has
done a masterly job. "We've snuck up on some people the first
half," Steinbach says. "I think teams saw us coming and said,
'It's the A's, they're rebuilding, they're no good.'"
They are now, at least at the plate. Through Sunday the A's had
hit 176 homers, which projects to 269 for the season--or 29 more
than the major league record set by the 1961 Yankees. That's not
the only home run mark the A's are chasing. McGwire (38 homers
through last weekend), DH Geronimo Berroa (26), Steinbach (24),
infielder-outfielder Jason Giambi (20) and third baseman Scott
Brosius (16, despite missing 47 games because of a fractured
left forearm) give Oakland a chance to become the first team to
have five 30-homer players. Only the '77 Dodgers and the '95
Rockies have had as many as four. "We'd have more homers if
they'd stop pitching around [second baseman Rafael] Bournigal,"
says Howe facetiously. Bournigal, a 165-pound second baseman,
is the only Oakland batter who has yet to go deep.
McGwire, who was on a pace to challenge Roger Maris's record for
home runs in a season (61), has been the leader of this Bash
Brigade, but of late Steinbach has been almost as hot. In his
last 34 games through Sunday, Steinbach had 15 homers. He is
threatening the American League record for homers by a catcher
(33), set by Carlton Fisk of the White Sox in 1985. "I've never
had a streak like this on the major league level," says Steinbach.
This spring it looked like a given that once Oakland fell out of
the race, Steinbach would be traded to a contender. A deal that
would have put him in an Angels uniform for the stretch run
seemed like an intriguing possibility, but as July was coming to
a close, the A's had a better record than California.
Howe was hired in November to replace Tony La Russa, who had
resigned to become manager of the Cardinals. Oakland general
manager Sandy Alderson said at the time that he thought Howe
would be better than La Russa for the A's because he had had so
much experience working with young players when he managed the
Astros from 1989 to '93. Alderson was right. Howe is a better
manager for this team than La Russa, who may be too intense for
a young team that is bound to make a lot of mistakes.
Oakland is winning despite a starting staff of no-name pitchers,
who had a 5.88 ERA through Sunday. Last week Howe smiled and
said of his five starters (John Wasdin, Don Wengert, Doug Johns,
Dave Telgheder and Willie Adams), "I bet most of the people in
Oakland don't know who's in our rotation." The bullpen is
equally anonymous, but it had won more games in relief (24) than
any bullpen in the league, and the committee of Jim Corsi, Buddy
Groom, Mike Mohler and Billy Taylor was 19-2 with 23 saves and
only seven blown saves.
Taylor, 34, has emerged as the closer, with 11 saves, a
remarkable achievement for a journeyman whose peripatetic career
with 11 minor league teams began in 1980. In '90 he nearly
retired and was prepared to go to work for UPS when the Braves
signed him and sent him to Durham. It wasn't until '94 that
Taylor reached the major leagues, with Oakland, making him, at
age 32, the oldest rookie in the majors that season. After
missing '95 with a knee injury and then not making the A's out
of spring training, he was going to retire again, but Howe
talked him out of it. Good thing. He was called up from the
Triple A Edmonton Trappers on May 27 and at week's end was 5-2
with a 3.77 ERA and had 48 strikeouts in 43 innings. "If I had
to name everywhere I've played, it would take about an hour,"
says Taylor, "but I finally made it. Someday, I'm going to
write one hell of a book."
The chapter on the 1996 A's will be fascinating--and hard-hitting.
THE HITS KEEP COMING
Last Saturday night Padres catcher John Flaherty had a pair of
hits, a third-inning single and an eighth-inning grand slam, to
extend his hitting streak to 27 games. Let's put that into
perspective. The longest streak Babe Ruth had was 26 games. Ted
Williams's longest was 23. Hank Aaron? His best was 25. Willie
Mays? Only 21. Lou Gehrig never hit safely in 20 straight games.
Flaherty has the longest streak of this decade. Benito Santiago,
who hit in 34 straight games for the Padres in 1987, is the only
catcher in major league history with a longer hitting streak
than Flaherty's. "When I heard the catchers' stat," says
Flaherty, "I thought, Wow, this is pretty cool."
Flaherty, 28, was a lifetime .227 hitter (in 644 major league at
bats) who had never hit in more than six straight games before
starting this streak. Always a solid defensive catcher with a
great work ethic, Flaherty was never regarded as an especially
good hitter, even when he was in college at George Washington.
But he had a terrific first half last year with the Tigers,
hitting .297 with nine homers at the All-Star break before
falling off badly. After a slow start this year, he was traded
along with shortstop Chris Gomez to San Diego on June 18 for
catcher Brad Ausmus and shortstop Andujar Cedeno. The Padres
hoped he might develop as a hitter, but no one expected him to
bat this well.
"[Coach] Davey Lopes came up to me the other day and said, 'Joe
DiMaggio called me today and told me to say hello,'" Flaherty
said with a smile last week. "I'm having fun with it. But I've
swung the bat terribly through some of this and still managed to
get a base hit. More than anything during this streak, I've been
In a game against the Indians on July 22, Toronto's Erik Hanson
walked a batter without throwing four balls. With two outs in
the third inning, Hanson missed on a 2-2 pitch to Cleveland's
Jim Thome, who took the pitch and jogged to first. Umpire Mike
Everitt, a fill-in from the Pacific Coast League, didn't stop
him. "I told the umpire, 'That was only 2-2,'" says Hanson, "and
he gave me a blank stare. Then I thought I must have been
wrong." Everitt had called the previous pitch a ball and had
told Thome the count was 3-2. Thome knew it wasn't, but when the
next pitch was a ball, he took first. The ensuing hitter, Albert
Belle, hit a three-run double, and the Indians went on to win
the game 4-2....It's all but official: During interleague play
next year the designated hitter will be used in American League
parks but not in National League parks. This is a really stupid
idea. Both leagues have to play by the same rules if interleague
play is going to work properly--either ban the DH from the
American League or make the National League accept it.
Otherwise, the American League will be at a severe disadvantage
because its pitchers, most of whom haven't batted during their
pro careers, will have far less of a chance of getting a hit
than their National League counterparts.... On July 23 Padres
outfielder Rob Deer launched one of the highest balls anyone had
seen hit at the Astrodome. The moon shot hit a cable above the
speakers that hang from the ceiling. As the ground rules
stipulate, it was called a dead ball. Said San Diego coach Tim
Flannery, "It reminded me of the old episode of The Munsters in
which Herman Munster tried out for the Dodgers."
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Knoblauch, a disciplined hitter whose average has gone wild, may prove too costly for Minnesota. [Chuck Knoblauch batting]
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT Unheralded Flaherty streaked past some Hall of Fame hitters after coming to San Diego in a trade. [John Flaherty batting]
FREE TO GO?
Besides Chuck Knoblauch, here are 10 other quality players who
will have general managers salivating if a new collective
bargaining agreement sets them loose as free agents after this
Moises Alou, OF Expos Too costly for Les Expos?
Mike Bordick, SS A's A premier defensive player
Alex Fernandez, P White Sox Has 72 wins at age 26
Bernard Gilkey, OF Mets Already a career-high 76 RBIs
Luis Gonzalez, OF Cubs Solid lefthanded hitter
Chris Hammond, P Marlins Southpaws always desirable
Mickey Morandini, 2B Phillies Best-ever 20 steals already
Tim Naehring, 3B Red Sox Hitting .313 with power
Mel Rojas, P Expos Not a top closer, but almost
Mike Timlin, P Blue Jays Would help many bullpens
Statistics through July 27