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December 06, 2001

Mental Blauch
By Dan Patrick

Chuck Knoblauch has been at the New York Yankees training camp for over a week now. Following a season in which he endured baseball's version of the putting yips, he must try to reclaim who he is and what he does for a living. Many athletes take their status and their paychecks for granted. Not Knoblauch. In a cynical age, Knoblauch must be admired for working so hard to get back to where he once belonged.

Chuck Knoblauch
Knoblauch made 15 errors in the first half of the 2000 season, many on throws.

Knoblauch, a former Gold Glove second baseman, was reduced to designated hitter last year because of his inability to throw the ball 60 feet (or less) to a first baseman who stands 6-foot-4. No one really knows why this happens to athletes. Think of Steve Blass, Mackey Sasser and Steve Sax. Sasser's career ended because he, a catcher, lost the ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher.

Some think the victim is thinking too hard about an act that should be natural and require no thinking. Some think the afflicted athlete is subconsciously distracted and therefore unable to summon up the muscle memory to perform a simple, familiar, physical task. Among other distractions, Knoblauch has recently endured a divorce and he has had to adjust to his father's Alzheimer's disease, both private torments he must try to forget when he puts his uniform on.

The Yankees just brought in Mike Mussina and signed Andy Morales, a Cuban defector, but all eyes still may be on Knoblauch in training camp. He's got a contract that calls for $16 million over the next two years. So you can't trade him. As strange as it sounds, the Yankees are stuck with one of the best leadoff men in baseball. On the flip side, they are also stuck with a guy who can't throw the ball to first base.

It's hard to feel sorry for a guy who has been a part of three world-championship teams. We still look at the game and certain players make it look so simple. Guys like Pedro Martinez and Mark McGwire possess an effortless ability to make the game look easy. Then you look at Knoblauch and he makes it look harder than it needs to be. The tough part for Knoblauch is that he has a killer flaw in his game. And he has to think about solving it -- yet thinking about it may be the very cause of it. It's easy to say, "Just throw the damn ball." It's harder to do when you are in Knoblauch's cleats. So the media will focus on Knoblauch. The questions have already started.

Knoblauch turns 33 this summer. There has been talk of a contract extension but you have to believe there is no way the Yankees will do it if he continues to have these problems. He arrived in spring training a month ago, essentially a month early for a part of the season everyone agrees goes on too long. And so far, he seems to be fielding as many questions as ground balls.

We might be able to read his body language, maybe a smile on the field, or a shrug, as if to say he's ready to leave his troubles behind. But last year Knoblauch threw comfortably in spring training and into April. His problems began in May. So even if he appears to start off throwing well (read: straight) it will take a while to determine if the former Gold Glover will continue to struggle with his now pewter arm.

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