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YANKS' KNOBLAUCH IS PROOF THAT GOOD THINGS COME IN SMALL PACKAGES

Infield practice at Legends Field. Sharply hit ground ball to the right of shortstop Derek Jeter. He moves quickly to gobble it up. Pivots. Guns to second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. Another pivot. Guns to first.

Butter smooth.

You would never know the two of them were strangers less than a month ago. The Yankees outbid a line of serious suitors to sign Knoblauch, the long-time Minnesota star who may have been the most desirable free agent in the 1998 market. Uniting him with Jeter could be the big story in the American League this season.

Knoblauch hadn't paid that much attention to Jeter before he became a Yankee. Who could blame him? Derek may be a jock version of Leonardo DeCaprio in New York, and he's the one who landed the Discovery card commercial. He's also more mature now, no longer so innocent and wide-eyed. The boyishness is disappearing and in its place is an edge that is not uncommon to people who work in New York for a long time. He's also a bona fide celebrity.

But in the baseball world, he's just another face in a spectacular crowd of shortstops.

It's unlikely that modern major-league baseball has seen so many great young shortstops at the same time: Nomar Garciaparra of Boston, Edgar Renteria of Florida, Alex Rodriguez of Seattle, Alex Gonzalez of Toronto and, right across town from Jeter in Queens, Rey Ordonez of the Mets.

Knoblauch needed an introduction to his new collaborator when he reported to camp.

"What I see now is a guy who is very tall for a shortstop, about 6-4," said the new second baseman. "Yet, for a tall shortstop, his footwork is very good. He has great anticipation and a strong arm. He's the total package.

"He's young, we're in a tough division and you add the pressure of playing in New York and it's tougher, but he has the confidence in him, like all the veterans on this team."

Once before Knoblauch experienced that feeling with the Twins. That was when Kirby Puckett played center field as well as anyone, Greg Gagne was Knoblauch's partner at shortstop, and Kent Hrbek, the first baseman, combined with third baseman Gary Gaetti to provide solid infield punch. They were fighting for championships then.

Finally, he thinks he's back in that position once again.

"Baseball is baseball, whether it's in Dunedin, Florida, New York City or Japan," he said. "What you have here, though, is a confidence and an expectation that the Yankees can be champions again. It's exciting for me to be part of that."

It's also a jolt for Yankee fans to see Knoblauch in pinstripes. They knew he was an all-star, but when he was a Twin, few of them noticed how diminutive the man actually is.

When the coaches called for pregame warmups the other day and Knoblauch took his place between Hideki Irabu and Paul O'Neill, he reminded me of Muggsy Bogues living in the Land of NBA giants. He may be the smallest important Yankee since Phil Rizzuto first became "The Scooter." The Yanks of Rizzuto's day were nowhere near the size of today's players.

As he first established his reputation in major-league baseball, Knoblauch was the quintessential No. 2 hitter in the Twins' batting order. Later he became their leadoff man. He hopes the leadoff role will continue in New York.

"I've been hitting leadoff for the Yankees all spring," he says. "I like that. My feeling is that, as the leadoff hitter, I can create problems for the opposition and create opportunities for us. I feel I can find a way to get on base and once on base, if the situation calls for a hit-and-run, or a stolen base, I can do that and everything else that is required."

Friday, in a game against Toronto, he didn't get a hit but he reached base twice and scored both times. The Yanks' No. 2 hitter, Jeter, drove him home both times, with a triple and with his fourth home run of the spring. New York won, 11-0.

Yankees fans are going to like their new double-play combination.

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