An important cog in the Twins’ amazing transformation from last-place losers in 1990 to World Champions the following year, Knoblauch was named Rookie of the Year in 1991 after replacing the Twins’ ineffective troika of Al Newman, Nelson Liriano, and Fred Manrique at second base. The scrappy second baseman soon established himself as an All-Star performer on a team that would quickly return to mediocrity; frustrated by his franchise’s futility, Knoblauch’s relationship with the Minnesota fans soon soured. After bitterly demanding a trade to a contending team towards the end of the 1997 season, the pesky Texan was sent to the New York Yankees for four minor-league prospects. He left as the Twins’ career leader with 276 stolen bases.
Knoblauch’s first major-league hit came off Oakland’s Bob Welch on April 9, 1991; his first — and only — homer that season came on July 31st against Mike Mussina of the Orioles. Batting second behind centerfielder Dan Gladden, Knoblauch hit .281 with 25 stolen bases (tying a team rookie record set by Willie Norwood in 1978) and led the league in stolen-base percentage. Although he would soon be regarded as one of the best defensive second basemen in the majors, Knoblauch made 18 errors during his rookie season. Ironically, the Minnesota infield (comprised of Knoblauch, first baseman Kent Hrbek, shortstop Greg Gagne, and third baseman Gary Gaetti) still finished the year with the fewest errors in the league.
In his seven years with the Twins, Knoblauch would average nearly 40 stolen bases a season. Although a force on the basepaths, Knoblauch rarely bunted for base hits. But his speed helped him take the extra base — at the time the players’ strike halted play in 1994, he was on pace to break Earl Webb’s 1931 major-league record of 67 doubles in a season.
Much of Knoblauch’s success was due to his ability to crowd the plate and punch pitches to right field; as his career developed, critics would occasionally note that he seemed intent on pulling the ball more in an effort to increase power. (“We hate to think about Knoblauch hitting home runs,” said Yankee manager Joe Torre in 1998. “because it usually gets him out of his game.”) Nevertheless, Knoblauch raised his average in five of his first six seasons, peaking in 1996 with a .341 mark. His 13 round-trippers that season were a personal best, marking only the second time Knoblauch had hit more than five homers.
His average and home run totals both dropped in 1997 (.291, 9, 58 RBI) but his 62 swipes were second only to Detroit’s Brian Hunter, who stole 74. Moreover, Knoblauch won his first Gold Glove and was named to his fourth All-Star squad.
But Knoblauch — who had announced “I want to be with the Minnesota Twins my entire career” upon signing a five-year contract that guaranteed him $6 million a season in August 1996 — had become disenchanted with what had become a perennially disappointing franchise. When his dissatisfaction erupted into a “trade-me-to-a-contender” ultimatum in late September, Twins fans were disappointed, but not entirely surprised. Reportedly, Knoblauch and manager Tom Kelly had not always been on the best of terms; in 1995, a young autograph hound had claimed that an angry Knoblauch had shoved him against a wall after hearing the fan’s insults.
Thus set off a strangely underwhelming bidding war in the early months of 1998; the Yankees, Indians, and Braves all wanted Koblauch, but none were willing to meet the Twins’ asking price. Eventually, Knoblauch was dealt to New York for four prospects — pitchers Eric Milton and Danny Mota, outfielder Brian Buchanan, and shortstop Cristian Guzman — and $3 million.
Slotted at the top of a powerful Yankee lineup, Knoblauch had his worst year at the plate in terms of average (.265) but stole 31 bases and slugged a career-high 17 homers. Armed with a roller-blade-style elbow pad on his left arm, he was hit by 18 pitches during the season — the most in the AL.
His most infamous moment of the season came in Yankee Stadium in Game Two of the ALCS, when Cleveland’s Travis Fryman laid down a sacrifice bunt in the twelfth, hoping to advance Enrique Wilson into scoring position. First baseman Tino Martinez fielded the ball, but his throw to Knoblauch (covering first) hit Fryman’s back and rolled behind the base into shallow right field.
Knoblauch, who felt Fryman should have been out for running inside the basepaths, ignored the ball and instead argued with home plate umpire Ted Hendry, allowing Wilson to score the go-ahead run. “CHUCK BRAINLAUCH” raged the New York Post, while the Daily News countered with “BLAUCH HEAD” as their back-page headline. Nevertheless, the Yankees advanced to the World Series, and Knoblauch redeemed himself with a game-tying home run off Donne Wall in the series opener against the San Diego Padres.
Midway through the 1998 season the former Gold Glover developed a mental tic that caused him to hesitate after fielding the ball, often forcing him to make wild throws to first base. Knoblauch’s problem was reminiscent of Steve Sax‘s troubles a decade earlier and some reporters joked that when Knoblauch handled the ball, Tino Martinez was more a goalie than a first baseman. His league-leading 26 errors in 1999 — including fourteen throwing errors — were the most by any Yankee second baseman since George Stirnweiss’ 29 in 1945.
Knoblauch continued to experience throwing troubles through the 2000 season until finally manager Joe Torre moved him to left field during spring training of 2001. The athletic Knoblauch made his share of rookie mistakes, but his speed and athleticism helped him learn the position quickly. Unfortunately his hitting statistics did not improve, and he shared playing time in left and as a DH with Shane Spencer and David Justice.
Knoblauch’s departure from Minnesota in 1998 had been acrimonious, but in his first trips back to the Metrodome as a second baseman he was far enough from the stands to be safe from fans’ ire. But in left field he was a target, and Minnesotans took full advantage by throwing cups and batteries at the diminutive leadoff man during a game in May 2001. Ultimately, the situation became serious enough for Twins manager Tom Kelly to accompany Knoblauch to his position, putting his arm around the left fielder’s shoulders and warning the fans to stop their harassment.