The first time I had a serious discussion with Tom Kelly over the possibility of Chuck Knoblauch taking over as a rookie second baseman for the 1991 Twins was 2 ½ weeks before the start of spring training.
The reason I found this worth mentioning is the conversation took place in Kelly’s Metrodome office, and apparently the Twins were preparing to kick off the first-ever Twins Fest.
“It must be a big deal,’’ Kelly said on that morning of Feb. 1. “People are running around the halls, yelling at one another, trying to get ready for this thing.’’
Kelly was entering his fifth full season. The Twins had won a World Series in his first, in 1987, but they slipped all the way to 74-88 in 1990.
The manager was talking optimistically. He was pleased with the signing of designated hitter Chili Davis and satisfied with Mike Pagliarulo as the main replacement at third base for the lost Gary Gaetti.
Looking back at the column I wrote from that conversation … our pal T.K. was overly cheery. He must have been confident there was more help to come his way, and there was: Jack Morris signed on Feb. 5.
As for second base, Kelly wasn’t ready to commit to Knoblauch, entering his third pro season, but the other option was Nelson Liriano. Later, Kelly would say of Knoblauch over Liriano, “It wasn’t a tough decision.’’
T.K., Chilly, Pags, Black Jack, Knobby … they won a World Series that October. In November, Knoblauch was announced as the American League’s Rookie of Year.
We had our short, all-time superstar in Kirby Puckett then, and now there was another short standout on those world champs. We loved Puck the most, but that didn’t make us love Knobby less.
I was an admirer of Knoblauch for the manner in which he came back each season dedicated to improve an element of his game: aggressive base stealing one year, more doubles the next ... get better at turning the double play, take extra bases that will lead to more runs scored.
Knobby was a terrific player in his seven seasons in Minnesota. He was the best second baseman in Twins’ history, if you look at Rod Carew as a player who played second for a hunk of time before moving to his best defensive position at first base.
For sure, Knoblauch was the best eligible player not yet to be voted into the Twins Hall of Fame. There were conspiracy theories that somehow the Twins were manipulating the votes to keep out Knoblauch, because of the rude falling out that took place after the ’97 season… with Knobby’s demand of a trade.
That was not true.
There were suggestions that a number media members on the panel of 62 voters considered Knobby to be a pain and thus avoided voting for him.
I knew about the number of teammates and Twins' support folks that he had irritated. That wasn’t an issue for me. I asked questions and Knobby answered them. That’s all I’m ever looking for in dealings with a player.
And even if he told me to go perform an anatomically impossible act, it wouldn’t have made a difference in my voting. Heck, there’s a right-handed curveball pitcher in the Hall of Fame who once threw baseballs at me in Arlington Stadium, and I voted for him until he finally made the Hall of Fame located in Cooperstown, N.Y.
I spent several years lobbying, protesting and finally screaming to get my younger colleagues to vote Camilo Pascual into the Twins Hall of Fame. Once that happened in 2012, my soul was at rest when it came to historical recognition for Twins.
I voted for two players on this year’s ballot: Knoblauch and Cesar Tovar.
The Twins announced Friday at a media luncheon preceding the 24th Twins Fest that Knoblauch will be the 2014 inductee.
Forget the trade demand that led to him winning three more World Series rings with the Yankees. Forget the raucous boos when he first returned with New York in 1998. Forget the idiots throwing the Dome dogs at Knobby when he was stationed in left field in May 2001.
Remember these items instead: 153 games played, 701 plate appearances, 140 runs, 197 hits (62 for extra bases), .341 batting average and .448 on-base.
Those were Knoblauch’snumbers in 1996.
When you can put a season like that around six others of high performance, you’re a Twins Hall of Famer. There’s no controversy to be found in that.
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