National / Sports / October 13, 2010

Chuck Knoblauch, Brooks Conrad, and schadenfreude

Chuck Knoblauch was a tremendous baseball player, by almost any measure. If one had the rather unenviable task of compiling a top five list of second baseman from the 1990s (as it was an incredibly talented group), Knoblauch would certainly appear.

But Knoblauch was also a bad guy—again, by almost any measure. Since falling out of baseball in the early 2000s, Knoblauch has appeared in court for domestic assault, been featured in affidavits and congressional reports as an alleged steroid user and displayed a generally dick-ish view about his time in the game. It’s also worth noting that Knoblauch was no saint during his playing days, demanding a trade away from the Minnesota Twins–with whom he won a ring–to the New York Yankees. It was the ultimate heel-turn.

Going to the Yankees was not exactly a godsend, however. Nobody really knows why or how, but Knoblauch developed the “yips” not long into his Yankee career. The “yips” are the baseball equivalent of the “shanks” (read: not desirable), and in Chuck’s case he could not make the simple throw from second base to first base. From what I remember of these highlights (watching “Sportscenter” as a grade-schooler), the sportscaster almost always made an uncomfortable, generally empathetic sigh, an Oh Chuck, you poor thing, every time he lobbed the ball into the stands. I, too, grimaced. The thought that such a great ballplayer could lose it all overnight – and in such embarrassing fashion (there are little-leaguers who could easily throw the ball from second base-range to first with ease) – was soul-crushing.

But why? What made us empathize with Knoblauch? He had everything. That he could no longer throw the ball from second to first did not change the fact that he was a four-time all-star, a World Series hero, and a gold-glove winner. Loathing the most talented, the wealthiest and the most glorified among us is a tried-and-true American tradition. When Sammy Sosa’s career went up in flames in Baltimore, very few felt for the guy – and there was no positive test against Sosa. His fall from grace was just as heartbreaking, if not more so, than Knoblauch’s.

Chuck had certain admirable qualities: he was 5-foot-9-inches, 175 pounds. In layman’s terms, Chuck was a short white guy. And he was a little stocky in his later years – not quite Costanza-esque, but he was far from svelte. With Chuck, all praise of him was always tinged with a hint of boy, if this short white guy can make it – anyone can! Keep working on the fundamentals, kids. That Knoblauch’s undoing involved perhaps the most fundamental play for a second baseman made for razor-sharp irony.

But Knoblauch was special, of course – he was an All-American at the college level after turning down a Major League Baseball signing bonus out of high school. He was a first-round draft pick in 1989. The odds were not exactly bad for Chuck – in fact, they were rather good. That he had a successful decade in the game was certainly an accomplishment, but his was no underdog’s tale. But no one bought into that.

If Chuck was around today, he might be viewed as the anti-Alex Rodriguez. (Rodriguez, of course, has been ridiculed roundly for his various miscues—most notably his glove-slapping incident in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS.) Knoblauch would be the lunch-pail guy beside A-Rod’s star persona; the yin to his yang, so to speak.

And then there’s Brooks Conrad. For a little while tonight, the 30-year-old utility infielder was the second highest “trending topic” on Twitter. Granted, we’re talking Sunday, late afternoon, pre-“Mad Men” Twitter, but hell, it’s still Twitter. And what for? Well, screwing up.

“I feel absolutely terrible right now,” Conrad told reporters, shortly after doing everything possible to prevent the Braves from taking a 2-1 lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League Divisional Series on Sunday. Conrad made three errors in the Braves’ 3-2 loss, including one in the ninth inning that allowed Freddy Sanchez to score the go-ahead run. Conrad handed the Giants the 2-1 series lead, which, though it was not insurmountable, ultimately led to the Giants’ 3-1 series win.

Conrad is a bad fielder. He was only inserted in the starting lineup when Martin Prado hit the disabled list. Still, Conrad had a solid 2010 – with an .800+ OPS in sporadic plate appearances. A good season for a reserve, in other words. That he now has to play a key role in the NLDS is happenstance – the inevitable result of key injuries that have decimated the wild-card Braves.

Unlike Knoblauch, Conrad deserves the pity. Conrad spent parts of eight seasons in the minor leagues before making his Major League debut in 2008. He was something less than a footnote – even coming into Sunday’s game – in the history of Major League Baseball. But now, things are different. His miscues will be shown over and over again, dissected at length; commentators may even attribute his trio of errors to mental deficiencies (maybe they’ll call it the “yips”). Perhaps they will show a clip of Knoblauch throwing the ball over his first baseman’s head, lumping the two together for their heart-breaking mistakes.

Underlying all of this is the assumption that guys like Conrad, Knoblauch and other shorter-than-six-feet white men are adept at fundamentals; in other words, that they are smart ball-players. That they lack flash; that they make the routine play; that they make the intelligent, crafty play; that they do not have the athletic ability of men with different ethnic backgrounds; that they are, in a sense, the underdogs who have worked extra hard to reach the highest level (because, well, they had to work hard because they aren’t athletic).

While other players – those with different backgrounds – are evaluated differently. When Aramis Ramirez finally became the solid, good-hitting third baseman he was supposed to be, it was not chalked up to hard work: time spent in the cage, talking to the hitting coach, reviewing tape, etc. It was chalked up to Ramirez finally tapping into his natural ability.

Now, back to Chuck. I am not saying he should not have received pity, that people should have been happy that the normally adept Knoblauch forgot how to throw the ball forty feet. No one should celebrate that. But if next year, in 2011, Aramis Ramirez forgets how to throw the ball to first or if Juan Pierre drops every ball hit to him in left field, will commentators lump them with Knoblauch? Or will they be on their own island – criticized for their lack of focus, hard work and fundamental ability? It’s not so simple, though I’d wager it might be closer to the latter. Again, remember Sosa?

This assumption – that somehow short white guys are at a natural disadvantage in baseball – applies to other sports. When Patriot Danny Woodhead scored a touchdown on Monday Night Football last week, commentator Jon Gruden fell all over himself, calling Woodhead 5-foot-7-inches and 180 pounds. “Keep lifting weights back home, kids!” Gruden praised. Never mind that Woodhead is two inches taller and 20 pounds heavier; or that he was the one-time all-divisions NCAA career rushing record holder. Woodhead is a white running back in a league where that is rare; for Gruden, it’s elementary that Woodhead got there solely because of his work ethic.

When Sammy Sosa tried to reclaim his career as a Texas Ranger, the vitriol was still there. People continually accused him of steroid use, mocked him for his inability to understand English at a Congressional hearing and generally rooted against him. He was, I guess, a pariah of the steroid era. I viewed him that way, and rooted against him. Certainly. Happily.

But when Knoblauch tried to rejuvenate his career in Kansas City in 2002, I was rooting for him. I wanted him to come back and prove people wrong. I’d say most people felt that way. Gone were the days when Twins fans would throw batteries and golf balls and hot dogs at Knoblauch upon his return to Minnesota. He was, again, an underdog, and something of a comeback story.

Conrad, too, will be treated with the kid gloves used on Knoblauch. Braves fans more than likely want to give him a hug rather than kick him to the curb. Well, maybe not until the season is over.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’d say it’s desirable – it’s a rather pragmatic, civilized view in a sport that’s sorely lacking in perspective. I just hope that if, say, Rickie Weeks or BJ Upton made a similar mistake, they would be treated the same.

Kevin Morris

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