There have been many discussions amongst Twins fans debating the greatest player to ever don a Twins uniform. Puckett? Carew? Killebrew? But there is a more heated discussion that arises amongst the fans, and that is deciding who is the most hated.
And every discussion comes down to two players: Chuck Knoblauch and Anthony John Pierzynski.
Chuck Knoblauch was drafted by the Twins with the 25thoverall pick in the 1989 amateur draft, and he saw his first playing time in 1991, where he started 151 games, and hit .281 with 25 stolen bases, good enough to earn him the title of AL Rookie of the Year, receiving 26 of 28 first place votes, beating out Juan Guzman, Milt Cuyler, and Ivan Rodriguez for the award. The moment that solidified him as a fan favorite occurred in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series vs. the Atlanta Braves. In the top of the eighth in a 0-0 ballgame, with Lonnie Smith on first base, Terry Pendleton hit a double to the gap. Braves manager Bobby Cox had a hit-and-run on, and Smith took off from first on the pitch. But 2B Knoblauch faked a scoop of the ball and flipped the imaginary ball to Greg Gagne, who threw the imaginary ball to Hrbek. The play confused Smith long enough to where he made it only to third base, and did not score on the play.
Knoblauch went on to become the face of the franchise in the ‘90s, due to the retirements of players like Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett. Along with his ROY campaign in 1991, Knoblauch was a four-time All-Star for the Twins (’92, ’94, ’96, ’97), he won two Silver Slugger awards (’94, ’96), he was in the top-20 in MVP voting three times, he won a Gold Glove in ’97, he led the league in doubles (45) in ’94, led the league in triples (14) in ’96, as well as hit a career high .341, tying him for third in the league with teammate Paul Molitor. But the Twins were able to field a winning team in five seasons, despite Knoblauch’s play, and following the 1997 season, he committed the ultimate burning-the-bridge act that a player can do to the fans. Knoblauch demanded a trade out of Minnesota.
Knoblauch’s wish was granted, and he was dealt to the New York Yankees for four players (two of which included All-Stars Christian Guzman and Eric Milton, who threw the last no-hitter for the Twins.) Knoblauch was 3 for 28 when facing Milton.
Upon his arrival in New York, Knoblauch declared that he and rising star Derek Jeter would become the best double-play combo in the history of the league. Knoblauch’s dreams were cut short, however, when he came down with "Steve Blass Disease", a serious condition in which a talented player suddenly looses his talent and is not able to regain it. In the 1998 playoffs against Cleveland, Knoblauch began to argue with an umpire during a play, enabling Indians infielder Enrique Wilson to score from first, giving Cleveland a 2-1 edge in an eventual Yankee loss. Knoblauch began to make horrendous overthrows, one of which hit sports broadcaster Keith Olbermann’s mother in the face. As horrendous as he played, the Yankees won the American League Pennant the four years Knoblauch was on the roster, and won the ’98, ’99, and ’00 World Series.
But Twins fans were gleeful watching Knoblauch’s individual performance crumble. The New York Media had labeled him “Blauch-head” and his play at second had become so awful, that Yankees manager Joe Torre moved him to left field, and Knoblauch never played D on the dirt again. This enabled fans at the Dome to greet the Yankees leftfielder with a shower of Dome Dogs, beer bottles, garbage, and golf balls.
In 2001, Knoblauch was released by the Yankees, and signed with the Royals, where he hit a meager .210 in 88 games. He left the Royals at the end of the season, and retired in 2003 after being out of baseball for two seasons.
The story of AJ Pierzynski is a little different than Knoblauch’s. The Twins drafted AJ in the third round of the 1994 amateur draft, in a draft in which the Twins also selected Todd Walker, Travis Miller, David Delucci, and Corey Koskie. The Twins selected AJ as early in the draft as they did, because they failed to sign their first round draft choice from the previous draft, Jason Varitek. AJ spent four years in the minor leagues before being called up in 1998, backing up Terry Steinbach and Matt LeCroy before earning the starting job in 2001. While behind the plate for the Twins, the Twins won back-to-back Division Championships in ’02 and ’03.
Pierzynski had a career year in 2003, hitting career highs with 35 doubles, a .312 average, and had 74 RBIs, his most with the Twins. But the Twins had a young prodigy waiting in the wings, the 2001 overall draft pick Joe Mauer, and had a decision to make. The Twins voted in favor of the St. Paul native Mauer, and dealt AJ to the San Francisco Giants for reliever Joe Nathan, minor league pitcher Boof Bonser, and a throw-in player, some undrafted free-agent from the Dominican Republic named Francisco Liriano. AJ never found his groove in San Francisco, despite knocking in a career high 77 RBIs, and became a free agent in the off-season. He signed with the Chicago White Sox the following January.
While he has been in Chicago, AJ has earned the reputation as a sleeze ball to everyone not from the Southside. He was involved in a brawl with Chicago Cubs catcher Michael Barrett, and was involved in a controversial call that fell in Chicago’s favor in the 2005 playoffs against the Anaheim Angels, which swung the series back to Chicago, which ultimately resulted in the White Sox’ first championship since 1917.
Both trades have worked out in favor of Minnesota. Knoblauch was dealt for Eric Milton, who was then dealt for Carlos Silva and Nick Punto. Therefore, Chuck Knoblauch was ultimately dealt for Nick Punto, and not many Twins fans can complain about that. After Pierzynski was dealt, the door was opened for Joe Mauer, a two-time All-Star, and 2006 Batting Champ, who is also positioned to win the title again in ’08. Joe Nathan, Bonser, and Liriano, who were acquired in the Pierzynski trade, who many refer to as the most lopsided trade in MLB history, have all had success in Minnesota. Nathan is on pace to break Rick Aguilera’s franchise record in saves, Boof has moved into a middle-relief role for the Twins, and Liriano is regarded as one of the best young pitchers in the game. Pierzynski is 1-10 vs. Nathan, 7-20 vs. Bonser (who took Pierzynski’s number 26 in Minnesota), and 2-5 vs. Liriano. Nathan and Lirano have both been voted to the All-Star Game.
As much as both of these players are disliked in Minnesota, it is important to note that both players had major impacts for the Twins. Though they were impact players on the field, it is perhaps their impact off the field that the fans should remember. By trading these players, the Twins set the foundation for their future, by receiving four All-Star players that have anchored the team over the past few years.
So, in conclusion, since a lot of Joe-Mauer-is-so-hot-Twins fans I see at the games don't even know who Chuck Knoblauch is, they would say AJ. In fact, 56 of 60 people I asked at the 9/25 game vs. the White Sox said they hated AJ more...and the four people who said Knoblauch looked like they had seen a game or two at old Metropolitan Stadium.
Don’t get me wrong, I never hesitated to boo Knoblauch when he came, and I’ll boo even louder for Pierzynski, but one of the greatest thrills of going to a game at the Dome is cheering for a man with the nickname of “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOF!”, and remembering the critical role that Knoblauch and Pierzynski had in re-vamping the Twins with young talent that will roam the Metrodome and Target Stadium for years to come.