April 16, 2004
Current and Ex-Yankee United by a Coach
BOSTON — They have a bond that is loose yet strong. They played baseball for the same high school, a decade apart. They were deeply influenced by the same coach, who was the father of one of them. They both made it to the major leagues and played for the Yankees. One is still here, while the other is not and does not miss it.
Bubba Crosby is the one who is still here, barely hanging on to his roster spot as the Yankees get ready to activate Travis Lee. Chuck Knoblauch is the occasional mentor, the more accomplished graduate of Bellaire High School in Houston and the son of the man who taught Crosby to throw a curveball.
Now that the 35-year-old Knoblauch is in his second year of retirement, he watches more baseball from his couch in Houston than he did while he was playing for 12 seasons. When Knoblauch sees Crosby play, he smiles. He smiles because he knows Crosby and, just as important, because he loves Crosby's style.
"Not that there aren't other guys who can play the game the right way, but he does play it the right way," Knoblauch said. "There aren't many guys who will run into a fence because they're worried about all the money they make. Bubba is all about baseball. He's a throwback."
There is another profound reason Knoblauch relishes Crosby's success, something any child who has lost a parent could understand. Knoblauch's father, Ray, who died two years ago after battling Alzheimer's disease, was the pitching coach for Bellaire in 1994, and Crosby was the ace who powered the team to a state title.
So when Knoblauch thinks of the dozens of players his father affected, he has fond thoughts of Crosby, who may have been one of the final players who benefited from his father's coaching wisdom. Shortly after Bellaire's title, the Knoblauchs noticed that Ray was slurring his speech, and the doctors' appointments started. In a way, Crosby's inspired play is a link to Ray, too.
"That was probably the last year that he was really effective as a coach," Chuck Knoblauch said in a telephone interview. "He started having trouble completing his sentences after that. My dad knew pitching. He helped a lot of those kids."
When Crosby, an underdog 27-year-old outfielder who has already popped two home runs and has made the Yankees think about shipping Kenny Lofton elsewhere, was asked what Ray taught him, he said, "Everything."
Crosby learned an immense amount from Coach Knob, as he called him. He learned how to toss a 12-to-6 curve, meaning that the pitch tumbled from the 12 on the clock to the 6, like one of Barry Zito's lollipops. Crosby learned how to throw a changeup that was more a palmball, and he used it for a strikeout that sent the Bellaire Cardinals into the 1994 championship game.
"That was the last year he was a pitching coach on a daily basis," Crosby said. "They didn't really tell us why or maybe they hadn't diagnosed it yet, but there was a difference. He wasn't around as much."
While Crosby was playing for Bellaire, Chuck Knoblauch, then a star for the Minnesota Twins, sometimes returned to his school to work out. Crosby studied him, yet was afraid to say anything. He revered Knoblauch from afar and still does.
"I'm in the big leagues now, but I view him the way I did when I was a kid," Crosby said. "He was in the big leagues for 10, 12 years. He's got four World Series rings. He was always someone I was looking up to when I was trying to get here."
Even though Crosby has Knoblauch's phone number programmed in his cellphone, he said he would never call Knoblauch. Crosby said it was simply a way of showing respect for a player after whom he patterned his patient, pesky offensive approach. It was good enough for Knoblauch to collect 1,839 career hits. Crosby has 1,836 to go.
"I heard there's Bubba mania in New York," Knoblauch said. "They love him because of the way he plays. I'm very happy for him and his family. If my dad was still around, he'd be just as proud."
Despite Knoblauch's enthusiasm about Crosby, he stressed that he enjoyed being retired.
"There's not one bone in my body that wishes I was playing," Knoblauch said.
He and Crosby are not buddies, but they are friendly. They have not spoken to each other in two months, but they get updates through mutual friends. Besides, the last time they spoke was one of the most important conversations Crosby has had about his stop-and-go career.
Knoblauch invited Crosby to dinner in Houston before spring training and sensed that Crosby was concerned about squeezing onto the Yankees' roster, which was almost set. So Knoblauch implored Crosby to ignore the dreary odds and force the Yankees to make a difficult decision. Crosby did and he is still hanging in the majors, still hanging in Knoblauch's old neighborhood.
"Tell Bubba he can call me," Knoblauch said. "He's a big leaguer now."