TAMPA, Fla. -- Tucked away on a field behind the main stadium, while many teammates were finishing their morning coffee, Chuck Knoblauch already was at work Tuesday learning his new position. He was positioned on the wet grass, awaiting fly balls, as outfield coach Lee Mazzilli studied his every movement.
Knoblauch handled the drill with relative ease, jogging after soft liners and pop-ups. Once he had to sprint to the warning track, but he mistimed his jump as the ball hit the chain-link fence. Mazzilli quickly moved in, talking with Knoblauch and showing what he should have done.
That session lasted almost 30 minutes before Knoblauch rode a golf cart past a crowd of fans pressed against an adjoining fence. A few wished him good luck. The Yankees believe, with Mazzilli as his tutor, that Knoblauch's determination and athletic ability will make this experiment successful.
"He's going to turn himself into (a left fielder)," Mazzilli said. "All I can do is offer advice and guide him in certain areas. If it doesn't work out, I take the blame. If it works out, he takes the credit. That's the way it's going to be. And I think he's going to do just fine."
Manager Joe Torre decided to try Knoblauch in left, but he has assigned Mazzilli to teach him the position. Torre said he won't put Knoblauch in a game until Mazzilli gives his OK, and that may not be until Friday, at the earliest, against the Texas Rangers in Port Charlotte.
Given the sensitive nature of the switch, the Yankees want to make sure conditions are perfect when they finally insert Knoblauch in left. Mazzilli could use him in a game at the minor-league complex first, which would limit his exposure to fans but not the media. He also probably would prefer to have him debut during the day instead of fighting the lights at a spring-training park.
"There's no immediate rush to put him out there," Mazzilli said. "I want him to be confident before he goes out there. I don't want to put him out there until he's comfortable. It's unfair to him."
Mazzilli shadowed Knoblauch like a guardian angel. After the session on the back field, the two stood in left as the Yankees took batting practice, with Knoblauch peeling off to shag flies. He earnestly chased balls that were even remotely in his area and had the speed to track them down.
Besides Mazzilli, Knoblauch chatted with centerfielder Bernie Williams. But if Knoblauch learned anything, he wasn't in the mood to share.
Torre knows the process will have pitfalls, even if Knoblauch is a quick study, and Torre has told him that. "He's allowed to make a mistake out there. It's a new position," Torre said. "I just wanted to take that needing to be perfect' out of his mind."
Knoblauch's replacement, Alfonso Soriano, was less than perfect at second base in Tuesday's 3-0 loss to the Astros. Soriano handled the easy grounders that haunted Knoblauch, but he didn't show much range and needed first baseman Tino Martinez to bail him out on a double play.
The Yankees figure it will be more difficult for Knoblauch to play left than for Soriano, a converted shortstop, to switch to second. Soriano, who began camp as a leftfield candidate, was 1-for-4 and is hitting .367 (22-for-60) in 16 games.
And what makes Torre think Soriano can be his full-time second baseman? "Just the way he's handled everything," Torre said. "How he's played this spring."
Torre hopes he can say the same for Knoblauch when it's time to write the lineup card for opening day.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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