TAMPA, Fla. — They stand on the outfield grass shoulder to shoulder, as much as the shortstop being 6-foot-3 and the second baseman being 5-9 permits. They talk and laugh with each other, waiting their turns to bat or to take infield drills, sometimes one rapping his fist on the other's fist in congratulations for a clever observation or a funny line.
In the clubhouse Derek Jeter and Chuck Knoblauch occupy adjoining lockers. Adjoining lockers, either separated or linked depending on the observer's point of view, by a large trash can. This is no accident of placement in the great scheme of things.
This is known as bonding. There will be times with the tying or winning run on third base with one out in the ninth inning when a ground ball is hit toward Jeter at shortstop and he'll be expected to feed it to Knoblauch, who will relay it for the double play. Or it will be the other way around. They should know each other's moves and likes as if they were Vernon and Irene Castle or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Joe Tinker and Johnny Evers.
As if they were Kubek and Richardson or Dent and Randolph.
"Me and Bucky, it got so we were like the same person," said Willie Randolph, who works with Jeter and Knoblauch. "When a guy comes to an organization, they have to be comfortable telling each other what they like and don't like. They have to be big enough to correct each other."
Knoblauch is the biggest change in a team that didn't miss repeating as American League champion by much. His obvious offensive skills at leadoff and 62 stolen bases provide a dimension the Yankees haven't had since Rickey Henderson went west. He goes into the batting cage right-handed and deliberately hits the first half-dozen pitches against the mesh on the first-base side because one of his weapons is hitting behind the runner.
Regardless of whether it's Jeter behind Knoblauch in the batting order, the two are guaranteed in the lineup. A man stands at the plate alone; in the field shortstop and second baseman are a dance.
Before the first boxscore is compiled, both Jeter and Knoblauch defer to the other. "This team was a favorite to win before I came around," Knoblauch said. "The guy over here at shortstop has great baseball tools to do what he's done in two years."
Jeter said, "I've played two years; he's been around a lot of years. I'm doing what I have to do to accommodate him, not saying he has to accommodate me." Dent used to know that Randolph wanted the feed at his thighs because he liked to throw underhand. Both Jeter and Knoblauch like the ball between the belt and the chest.
In two seasons Jeter has played with 10 second basemen. "He's a little shorter than the other guys I've worked with," Jeter said. Andy Fox, for one, was 6-4. Knoblauch is still cautious with wisecracks. He comes with advance notices about being a pain in the neck in the clubhouse from time to time. "I guess I was," he said. "We were getting our butts kicked every day. That part of my career is over."
He says he has learned that an 0 for 12 is not the end of the world. He says he still feels "losing is the most painful thing that can happen." Notice, however, that when the Yankees held a brief seminar for rookies on dealing with the media, Knoblauch was the veteran in attendance. "I saw there was something to be learned," he said. He picks up quickly on the name of his interviewer.
Perhaps that's the same frame of mind that will bond him with Jeter. Once upon a time in a springtime of The Great Dynasty, it was suggested to a TV producer that he focus a shot on the double-play combination of Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson. "Show me what it looks like," he requested. So Kubek, the shortstop half, put his glove on the wrong hand and flipped from second base to Richardson, who had his glove on the wrong hand, playing shortstop. They needed no advance preparation to be jokesters together.
"Tony Kubek? You mean the TV broadcaster," Knoblauch straightfaced. "Oh, I know who he is." He knows some history. He appreciated the significance when Mickey Rivers, once known as Mick the Quick, asked Knoblauch to sign a baseball and said Knoblauch was on "my all-star team for movers" with the likes of Robin Yount and Lyman Bostock.
Knoblauch thinks in terms of the great double-play combinations of his time. He names Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, who covered more than their generation together in Detroit. Jeter is 23 years old. Knoblauch is 29. But players rarely stay together as long as the two Tigers.
Knoblauch can demand a trade or gain his free agency after this season. He says, "I just got here," and it's too soon to think of moving, but no trade is made these years without considering free agency. The Yankees considered both the value of having Knoblauch for this season and the possibility of keeping him worth the investment.