Jeff Bradley's story, co-written with Chuck Knoblauch, appears in the April 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine. In this sidebar for ESPNMag.com, Bradley explains why he found Knoblauch's story so affecting.
Chuck Knoblauch received a thunderous standing ovation for catching a routine fly ball in left field on Monday. A nice gesture on the part of the 53,000 fans at the Stadium, I suppose, to show their support for a guy who's struggled so publicly with some inner demon that's keeping him from being able to throw from second base.
Knoblauch said afterward that he appreciated the support, not only from the fans but from his teammates, who greeted him in the dugout after he corralled Carlos Beltran's fly to end the Royals' half of the third inning. So, I guess I should be happy for him.
Then why do I feel sad? Maybe it's because I remember how I felt 20 years ago, when my high school coach had to move me from shortstop to the outfield because I'd become a walking, talking anxiety attack in the infield. A fly ball would come my way, I'd catch it, and my teammates (not to mention all the parents) would react like I'd done something special. In reality, the only thing that made the play at all special was that I'd made half those catches while squinting through eyes filled with tears.
Now, I don't want to pretend like I was any kind of pro prospect. I wasn't. But I'll never forget the day a scout from the San Diego Padres told me after pre-game infield practice, "I like the way you move out there. I'm looking forward to watching you play." I nodded my head, mouthed the words "Thank you," and jogged behind a set of bleachers, where I sobbed like a baby. You see, like Knoblauch, I could take infield practice all day long, pick up hundreds of groundballs without bobbling a single one and throw nothing but chest-high seeds to first. But in a game, as soon as I saw the ball coming my way, I couldn't function. So, this scout was about to watch me play right field.
I told this story to Knoblauch a week ago down in Tampa. "There I was," I said, "a 17-year old kid, crying in the outfield." And he looked at me and said, "Doesn't matter if you're a 17-year old high school kid or a 32-year old pro, it's heartbreaking. I'm sure the reason you cried was because you cared so much."
He's right, I cared. Not only about myself but about how others perceived me. Big pats on the back and parents yelling "Attaboy!" when I caught a popup. Man, that hurt.
I thought of that on Monday, during Knoblauch's standing ovation, because we'd actually talked about it. I asked him what's worse, getting booed for making an error, or getting a loud ovation for making a routine play? He said, "Yeah, you do wonder, are they mocking you? Or are they really trying to lift you up?"
Maybe the best thing Knoblauch can hope for is that those cheers subside.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His story on Knoblauch appears in the April 16 edition. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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