Chuck Knoblauch: Unpacking memories

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2014 - 3:46 PM

There were many for Chuck Knoblauch: Rookie of the Year, World Series rings. But he has turned a definitive, nostalgia-free page into a reclusive retirement.

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HOUSTON -- When it was over, Chuck Knoblauch simply walked away.

 Baseball had become a paradox -- a game that gave him joy, yet caused him pain -- and when he'd had enough, he moved on.

 He bought a lot at the end of a cul-de-sac in Houston's Bunker Hill neighborhood and built a sprawling, stone-set home, where he lives with wife Cheri, 2-week-old daughter Charleigh and stepdaughter Raegann.

 The house holds no reminder that, 20 years ago, Knoblauch was a feisty 5-8 second baseman wrapping up a Rookie of the Year season with the Twins. There are no mementos from the 1991 World Series championship that followed, from the three titles he won in New York or from his four All-Star appearances. There are no hints of his 12 seasons in the majors at all.

The memories on his walls are of smiling faces in family photos. His living room is filled with board games.

Fifteen miles away, in the condo where Knoblauch spent his offseasons as a player, boxes line the walls. All of it is junk. That's what he told his real estate agent when he gave her instructions to toss the stuff.

She opened one of the boxes and found a Gold Glove.

"He doesn't like a lot of shine on him at all," Cheri said. "He probably hasn't even been through that stuff. It's probably just been there from when it got sent there. It's never been unloaded from the box."

He is 43 years old, nine years into retirement after earning slightly more than $42 million during his playing career. He spends his days like any retiree, mostly relaxing at his home with his family. He has no involvement with any organization and does no promotional work or speeches. He has spoken to only one ex-major leaguer since he stopped playing.

He's found comfort in seclusion, but the memories -- both good and bad -- are still firmly intact.

The boxes are there. All you have to do is open them.

• • •

Knoblauch is sitting down with a reporter for the first time in a decade. His Wikipedia page is displayed on an iPhone, chronicling what would hastily be called the full story. Won in '91 with the Twins. Whined for a trade until he went to the Yankees. Was hit by hot dogs and beer bottles from Minnesota fans upon one return. Won three championships in New York but lost his ability to throw to first. Retired. Named for HGH on the Mitchell Report. Arrested for and convicted of domestic assault. All you need to know.

Knoblauch has been content to leave his public life in Cliff's Notes form. No one outside of his family, he says, needs to know more.

This August, when the Twins hosted the 20-year reunion of the 1991 team, only five players weren't there: the late Kirby Puckett, Steve Bedrosian, Carl Willis, Shane Mack and Knoblauch.

Knoblauch's wife was eight months' pregnant at the time, and heading north was not an option. But even Knoblauch's not sure what he would have done without that ready-made excuse. Those who know him say he is uncomfortable in the spotlight; he calls the attention of a reunion "embarrassing."

And a return to Minnesota brought another concern.

"I don't know what the reception would have been, to be honest with you," said Knoblauch, who lingers as one of the most reviled athletes in state history. "What if I took my [kids] with me out there, and I get booed by a whole stadium? What do I say to them? That was my biggest fear."

At one point, a hero's homecoming seemed inevitable. When Knoblauch made the team out of spring training in 1991, he won over the fan base with his hard-nosed attitude and fireball personality.

In his second year, he was an All-Star. He finished in the top 20 in MVP voting three years in a row. He signed a five-year, $30 million contract extension in August 1996. By '97, he was a Gold Glover, a Silver Slugger and one of the best second basemen in the game.

But he was also increasingly frustrated by a Twins team that had slipped to the middle of the pack. They were a second-place team in '92, fell below .500 in '93 and settled into last place by '95. Knoblauch remembers moping around the house after every loss, unable to hide his resentment from his then-wife, Lisa.

Finally, late in 1997, the Twins were swept in Kansas City, and on the long, depressing ride from the ballpark to the airport, Knoblauch called his agent and said he wanted a trade.

"I was just dejected," he said. "The losing got to me. I wasn't handling getting beat up on a pretty consistent basis."

When the request leaked to manager Tom Kelly, any vision of a graceful exit vanished, Knoblauch said. He remembers the manager suggesting to the media -- Kelly doesn't remember saying this -- that Knoblauch wanted out of Minnesota because he didn't think his teammates were good enough.

"When TK made that statement, it was like a seismic shift, because he had a lot of control over the organization," Knoblauch said, seeming stunned, still. "I love him, looking back on everything, I do, but I just think people pay attention to what he says -- the people of Minnesota, the fans. And I think that's why there was so much hate or hostility toward me when I came back. He probably thought I was abandoning them ... but I just wanted to win."

• • •

Knoblauch's only brother, Mark, is eight years older and impossibly taller. It was never a fair fight growing up.

Knoblauch learned to shoot "rainbows" at the basketball hoop in their driveway just to get the ball over Mark's outstretched hand. When the two played Wiffle Ball in the yard, Knoblauch would get so mad over the perpetual defeats that as Mark would walk away, the younger brother would stay rooted to the field, clenching the plastic bat and screaming, "Get back out here! I have to win!"

When Knoblauch was traded to the Yankees in 1998, he got his wish. New York won World Series championships in '98, '99 and 2000. But the victories came with a price.

Two years after being named the American League's best defensive second baseman, Knoblauch inexplicably lost his ability to consistently make accurate throws. In 2001, he spent a week in Atlanta with a sports psychologist. He reported to spring training two months early. He watched tape to change his approach to defense. Nothing worked, and finally the Yankees moved him to left field.

"Something obviously went wrong, but I have no idea what it was," Knoblauch said. "I couldn't overcome it. I got to thinking too much, and I couldn't shut it off.

"I was bright lights, big city and I was having this serious issue, in front of millions of people, and I had to wake up every day and face it. And I faced it. If you care so much about something, it's hard not to make it a life and death thing. I feel like I went to New York as a boy and I left it a man. Because I went through the wringer."

Minnesota fans felt no sympathy.

When Knoblauch returned to the Metrodome in 2001 with the Yankees, he took his spot in left field, and frustrated Twins fans took aim, pelting him with hot dogs, beer bottles and quarters. The game was halted and umpires threatened to declare it a forfeit.

"It hurt," he said. "I mean, I'm human. I can't even give you any details. It was like an out-of-body experience ... that's the part of my life that's like, 'Really?' It really meant that much? You're trying to hurt me, knowingly throwing a quarter or a marble or something at me? It's twisted. It made me bitter about Minnesota, definitely."

A year later, after playing a single season with the Royals, Knoblauch called it quits. He hasn't been back to Minneapolis since he retired.

"When he's passionate and cares about something, you can really see," his wife, Cheri, said. "All that stuff -- it hurts him more than he will let on."

• • •

After his 12 years in the majors, there is just one man in baseball he calls "friend."

Knoblauch was in the twilight of his career when he met A.J. Hinch in Kansas City. The two lived in the same building, rode to the ballpark together and were hitting partners in practice.

Earlier, as a catcher with the Athletics, Hinch had grown used to opponents yapping with him while they were in the batter's box.

"[Knoblauch] wasn't that way," said Hinch, who managed the Diamondbacks in 2009-10 and now lives in San Diego and works for the Padres organization. "He wasn't social on the field. The competition was all that mattered."

When they were Royals teammates in 2002, Hinch gained an understanding of what drove Knoblauch.

"There's very little gray area with Chuck," Hinch said. "It's very black and white. He's got a stubborn streak, but he protects those that are close to him."

These days, Knoblauch's social life consists of gathering around the living room coffee table with Cheri and Raegann for game night. The Knoblauchs call themselves "boring" and admit they don't often leave the house.

When the Mitchell Report was released late in 2007, Knoblauch was tagged for HGH use and forced to leave his private persona to testify before a grand jury.

"I didn't care about the Mitchell Report," Knoblauch said. "I was out of baseball. I did HGH. It didn't help me out. It didn't make me any better. I had the worst years of my career from a batting average standpoint. And I got hurt. So there was no good that came out of it for me -- it was not performance-enhancing for me."

In 2009, Knoblauch was arrested for domestic assault against his then common-law wife and initially charged with hitting and choking the mother of his 6-year-old son -- a felony in Texas. Six months later, the charges were downgraded and Knoblauch pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

In a private conversation, he will tell a story that never got reported, one that ends in shouting and a shove. Publicly, he has been content to let the verdict speak for itself.

"I'm comfortable with myself," he said. "As long as my family knows the truth, I don't really care what the neighbor who I don't talk to thinks. Because I know who I am. I know what kind of heart I have."

• • •

On a Saturday night, Knoblauch's doorbell rings and it's his older brother, Mark, arriving for dinner. At 6-5, he dwarfs his younger brother with a hug.

If there's a former professional athlete in the room, surely it's not the 5-8 introvert who's always doting on his pregnant wife.

"My whole life it was, 'You're too small -- you'll never make it to the major leagues -- you'd better stay in school,' " Knoblauch said. "You have people telling you all this negative stuff -- well, I was just getting more and more mad. 'I'll show you. I'll show you.' "

In his first Twins game, at Oakland, Knoblauch reached first base only to find a towering Mark McGwire, whose arm, Knoblauch was sure, was bigger than his own leg.

"I was 5-8! You know?" Knoblauch exclaimed. "I had to have that. I had to be kind of nasty, kind of down and dirty. I'm not going to apologize for playing hard and being cocky. I was a little punk out there with all these monsters!"

Sitting on his couch in Houston, Knoblauch's monsters are nowhere to be found. He is surrounded by a family he loves, a man both buoyed and wounded by the game of baseball.

Knoblauch had enough success to see it fade. He felt the spotlight, felt the adulation of fans who watched his dreams come true, then turned on him.

And when it was all over, Knoblauch walked away. He built a life in this sprawling stone-set house at the end of a Bunker Hill cul-de-sac, just a few miles away from unopened boxes of memories.

"I left it on the field," Knoblauch said with a shrug. "I wanted to be the best I could be -- and I think I did that. That's why I don't have any regrets."

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