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Baseball Playoffs | BILL PLASCHKE

Mental 'Blauch' Turns It Around

Yankee second baseman's sorry effort on the field becomes a wonderful apology a day later.

October 09, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

CLEVELAND — This time, Chuck Knoblauch didn't let the most urgent thing in life just lay there.

This time, he didn't spit out his pride while his integrity gathered dust.

This time he spun around, grabbed what he was supposed to grab, threw it exactly where it was supposed to go.

To his New York Yankees and their fans.

An apology.

What on earth will this 1998 baseball season think of next?

"I screwed up," Knoblauch said, his blue cap pulled low over his weary eyes on a gloomy Thursday afternoon here. "I just screwed it up. I should have gotten the ball.

"I need to apologize to my teammates, manager, and all the Yankee fans. I screwed up, and I feel badly about it."

And so Thursday wasn't a day off for everybody in this dead-even American League championship series between the Yankees and Cleveland Indians.

One man had a play to finish.

One man did it splendidly.

"I screwed up, and cost us the game," Knoblauch told the assembled media horde in a stunning mea culpa conference.

Amid the tension and finger-pointing that has suddenly enveloped what could soon be the winningest team in baseball history, the words glowed like a freshly laundered pinstripe.

The only thing more amazing than Knoblauch's remorse was, well, his lack of precisely that after the play that caused it.

You remember. For a long time, many will remember.

It was Wednesday night, Game 2, 12th inning, Yankees and Indians tied, 1-1.

Enrique Wilson was on first for Cleveland. Travis Fryman bunted. Tino Martinez's throw to Knoblauch hit Fryman in the back and bounced behind first base. Wilson sped toward second.

Knoblauch was so busy trying to convince plate umpire Ted Hendry that Fryman should have been out for interference, he forgot about the ball in the dirt several feet behind him.

Wilson rounded second, rounded third, slipped on the wet grass, staggered several steps, and still scored the eventual winning run moments after Knoblauch realized his mistake, grabbed the ball and threw wildly to the plate.

Knoblauch's image was not helped by his actually blowing bubbles while he was arguing.

That image suffered even more when Yankee fans showered him with boos when he batted in the bottom of the 12th.

"I was embarrassed to see one of our players booed like that in the playoffs," Paul O'Neill said Thursday. "I was embarrassed for New York."

The final blow was delivered afterward, when Knoblauch's reaction was less contrite than caustic.

He was mad not at the umpires, but himself. He said if he had to do it all over again, he would.

"I expected the man to be called out," he said defiantly. "I didn't have any idea where the ball was."

Judging from the headlines in Thursday's New York tabloids, you would have thought he had just admitted to being an abusive Queens cop in cahoots with Al Sharpton.

"Chuck Brainlauch" screamed one.

"Blauchhead" howled one.

"Chucklehead," cried another

Knoblauch, who flew with the team to Cleveland on Wednesday night after the Indian victory had tied the series at one game apiece, said he had no access to any of the papers.

He said he wasn't counseled by teammates or friends or family.

He said that while sitting alone in his hotel room early Thursday morning, after watching the San Diego Padres beat the Atlanta Braves, he was struck by a vision.

ESPN, of course.

"I got a chance to see the replay for the first time, and it gave me a real different feel," he said. "I could see where the ball was. How close it was. It was like time standing still."

And he said he finally realized what everyone--from the fans to his teammates standing several yards away--had been shouting about all along.

When a Yankee publicity man phoned him around noon Thursday on another matter, Knoblauch asked for a chance to come clean.

"The bottom line was, I didn't go get the ball," he said. "I should have gotten the ball."

When asked if that was the only reason he apologized--because he finally realized he was wrong--Knoblauch shrugged.

"There will be good times and bad times, and you've got to face facts," he said. "That's the guy I'm trying to be."

Is that the guy he really is? Is this really a case of a man painfully, honorably, admitting an error in baseball and life?

Or was this a scripted response by a man who realizes he'd better make nice, and quick, before the abuse swallows him whole?

Is this a man who wants to really be remembered for his integrity? Or is this a man who simply doesn't want to be remembered as Bill Buckner?

Does it matter?

The bottom line is, a major leaguer has taken public responsibility, not only for a play that may embarrass him for the rest of his career, but for his actions afterward.

A major leaguer has actually acted like, well, a major leaguer.

You know those youngsters you shooed from the room early Wednesday evening, ordering them never to act like that baseball player they just saw on your screen?

You can bring them back now.

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