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Targeting a problem

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 15, 2001


TAMPA -- Standing behind second base, Chuck Knoblauch took aim and fired. It should come as no surprise that he missed the target.

To be fair, Knoblauch was in a joking mood when he made the long, looping toss toward the rightfield line in the direction of a reporter. When the ball landed harmlessly nearby, Knoblauch feigned chagrin over his continuing problems with accuracy.

Of all the throws Knoblauch made during an informal workout at the Yankees minor-league complex Wednesday afternoon, this is the one New York should pay heed to. To see Knoblauch joke about his infamous malady may be the best sign he will overcome this tendency to overthrow.

"Today was a great day," Knoblauch said with near mantra-like consistency afterward. "I'll worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes."

For a baseball player, it is the simplest of tasks. Perhaps the only skill that can be mastered by nearly everyone in the outfield bleachers. It does not compare to hitting 98 mph fastballs, or stopping screaming ground balls, or outrunning a catcher's arm. It is a throw of no more than 60 feet.

And it is ruining Knoblauch's reputation.

Knoblauch, 32, has developed an apparent throwing phobia. The short toss to first base from his spot between first and second has been turned into a tabloid adventure in New York. The problem began two years ago and seemingly reached its apex in the playoffs last season when manager Joe Torre began playing journeyman Luis Sojo in place of Knoblauch, a four-time All-Star.

As the Yankees began to gather at Legends Field, in preparation of pitchers and catchers reporting to camp today, Torre reluctantly classified Knoblauch's throwing woes as the most pressing issue for the three-time defending World Series champions.

"I just want to see comfort more than anything," Torre said. "(You) ask what's the most important thing and I mention Knoblauch. Ideally, I'd like to not have the spotlight on him, but I've already put it there."

The spotlight is sure to grow no matter how Torre or Knoblauch spins it. Already there is talk that Knoblauch has been seeing a sports psychiatrist. Knoblauch all but acknowledged it but said he would rather the Yankees release that information. The Yankees sidestepped the issue.

What is clear is that Knoblauch has admitted a problem exists and has been working overtime to correct it. Torre said Knoblauch's willingness to acknowledge the weakness has been a critical first step.

After the World Series, which Knoblauch admits was a bittersweet victory, he took a vacation in Italy to relax. He then came to Florida a month ahead of schedule to begin working on his fielding.

"I'm the only one who can take care of (this). I'm the only one responsible for that," Knoblauch said. "That's why I've been down here for a month because I'm dedicated to doing this."

Knoblauch spent an hour in the batting cage hitting off live pitching Wednesday before putting on a glove and working on his fielding. Along with Clay Bellinger, Knoblauch took a couple dozen grounders at second and threw to first base. Several throws looked shaky and one sailed way past the first baseman, but most were on target during the relaxed drill.

While all other players at the complex worked with relatively little fanfare, Knoblauch's fielding drill was viewed by 11 reporters and three photographers.

"It's nice to know he's been thinking about me," Knoblauch said, when told Torre had identified him as his No. 1 curiosity this spring. "This is no secret."

In seven seasons in Minnesota, Knoblauch made four All-Star teams, won a Gold Glove and was named rookie of the year in 1991..

Torre is emphatic that the Yankees are a much better team when Knoblauch, a lifetime .297 hitter, is in the leadoff spot. Torre kept his bat in the lineup in the post-season by using him at designated hitter, but he said that is not an option for the entire regular season.

Knoblauch said he is returning this season with a positive outlook and is confident he will return to All-Star form. Though his throwing will continue to be an issue, he said he does not anticipate talking about it any more.

"Hopefully, after this little session here, I'm not going to talk about last year any more or negatives or anything like that, because it's not worth it to me or anybody to talk about what yesterday meant," he said. "My frame of mind is that today is a great day for me and I'll come back tomorrow expecting the same thing.

"Just take it one day at a time. Literally, taking it one day at a time and not just saying that."

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