Friday, October 21, 2011

Chuck Knoblauch And the Fickleness of the World Series

After several years out of the public eye, Chuck Knoblauch is back. He has a new website and has become a regular tweeter on Twitter. As such, it was kind of a perk when the former player hit this Fan's follow button. Today in twitterspeak is called #FF day, which is short for, "Follow Friday." Another Twitter guy this Fan follows is called @TheRealGruber and that person #FFed Chuck Knoblauch with a #WorldSeriesHero hashtag. For those not on Twitter, a hashtag is like a marker of sorts that helps such sayings trend on the Twitter site. Wow! If you had read this paragraph a decade ago, it would be really strange. But anyway, the hashtag got this Fan thinking about Chuck Knoblauch and the World Series. He was a big part of those Yankee championships in their run of the late 1990s. Since those events are all vivid in this writer's mind, Mr. Knoblauch became the poster child on the fickleness of the post season as a small sample size under a microscope.

Chuck Knoblauch was indeed a hero in his first three World Series appearances. The first one was with the Minnesota Twins in 1991 when they beat the Atlanta Braves. Knoblauch was everywhere in that series as he batted .308 with a .387 on base percentage. He stole four bases in four attempts. It was his first season, a year he won the Rookie of the Year and he might have been the toast of Minnesota at that point.

The Twins went through a long stretch without making the post season and by 1997, Knoblauch was unhappy in Minnesota. At least that's the way this writer remembers it. The Twins obliged him and traded him to the Yankees to start the 1998 season. Twins' fans never forgave Knoblauch and booed him lustily every time he returned to play against the Twins.

Knoblauch's timing was impeccable as the Yankees were about to embark on a three year run as the champions of the baseball world. Knoblauch's play that season wasn't his best, at least not by the standards he had put up before. But in the World Series, Knoblauch was again in the middle of everything. He batted .375 that series with an OPS of 1.063. A case could have been made for him for series MVP if it wasn't for Scott Brosius playing out of his mind in that series.

Knoblauch hit much better in 1999 and it was his best offensive season for the Yankees in his time there. But it was during that season that he developed (or at least it hit full stride) a real problem throwing the ball to first base. It was definitely a yip sort of problem that was one of those mental things that drive us in our humanity to distraction. He made 26 errors that season. But the Yankees still got to the World Series and again, Knoblauch was terrific, hitting .313 with a .912 OPS. To this point he had played in three World Series and had been brilliant in each of them. He was a World Series Hero all right.

But that's when the fickleness of life kicked in. His struggles in the field led to absences from the line up and he only managed to get into 102 games. He was still somewhat effective at the plate but the Yankees no longer trusted him in the field. Thus, when the 2000 World Series rolled around, he was the center of stories in the media. And the aforementioned darling of the World Series fell flat. He went 1-10 in that series and wasn't really any factor in the Yankees beating the Mets in four games.

By 2001, the Yankees gave up on Knoblauch as a second baseman and he was sent to left field to play. He wasn't Brent Gardner out there, but who is? The truth is that Knoblauch was a pretty good left fielder, especially since it was a position he wasn't used to playing. But his offense plummeted in 2001. After hitting well in the ALDS and the ALCS, Knoblauch nearly went zero for the series against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series. He had one hit in eighteen at bats. The World Series ended the Yankee dominance and Knoblauch was viewed as one of the goats. Knoblauch had played in five World Series. Three were heroic and two were complete duds.

The Yankees had no interest in signing Knoblauch after the 2001 series and the former second baseman struggled through one more sad season as a member of the Kansas City Royals before calling it a career.

The point of all this is the fickle nature of the small sample size that is the World Series. At most, a series goes seven games. A player gets hot or goes cold and the narrative paints that player as the hero or the goat. But the narrative is really unfair. In such a short period of time, any result a player accomplishes is strictly in the fluke category. What we watch in each game is a new drama where anything can happen. Each game should be viewed separately as an event with the knowledge that extravagant story lines should be limited to each game and each event. Scott Brosius was a hero in three World Series and tanked in the fourth. Gene Tenace was a hero in the 1972 World Series and tanked in the next three. It's best not to get too excited about whether Albert Pujols "comes through" for the Cardinals or doesn't. It's the nature of the beast.

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