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Chuck's Angels

When it comes to the Littlest Yankee, New York fans -- especially the female ones -- stand by their man.

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Angela Lugo spent the first two games of the baseball season in the left-field seats of Yankee Stadium, cheering lustily for her favorite ballplayer, her fingernails painted to read knob 2001. "He looks like a gorilla," she says, "but cute." Chuck Knoblauch's been her guy since 1998, just before his ability to throw to first base evaporated. As Knoblauch worked on his problem, the 21-year-old's devotion only grew. "It showed true dedication," she says. "It's a lot easier to give up."

For three seasons, the tri-state area has puzzled over Knoblauch's hang-up. Some called it the yips. Baseball aficionados called it Steve Sax syndrome, after a similarly afflicted Yankee. Manager Joe Torre, who's spent three years holding his breath on every hit up the middle, resolved the problem by sticking Knoblauch in left field, where he's drawn standing ovations for catching routine fly balls.

Perhaps those cheers have merely been the result of public failure combined with hard work. A dose of humility and self-awareness, after all, often taps into a deep vein of affection running through our city. But does Knoblauch realize that almost all the goodwill comes from women?

"The male fans are more result-oriented," explains Akino Yamashita, another 21-year-old Knoblauch devotee, who runs an online forum called Chuck's Brigade. "I think a lot of women know what he's been going through, and they feel very protective of him." At five-nine, Knobby is the smallest guy on the team.

Angela suspects that some fans (read: men) who joined in the standing ovations were being sarcastic. The bleacher crowd is still laughing about the errant Knoblauch throw that sent sportscaster Keith Olbermann's mother to the doctor last year. Knoblauch, however, chose to view the gesture in a generous light: "They can go on cheering for as long as they want," he told reporters after one game.

"Everybody's rooting for him," says Joan Stagoff, an Upper East Sider in her sixties, while taking in the Central Park sunshine recently. Explaining, she tells how she called to schedule an operation for her husband, Mort, and ended up gabbing about Chuck with Karen the receptionist.

Sitting next to Joan in the park, Mort isn't gushing about Knoblauch. He's busy fumbling with a portable radio, trying to get the Yankees game. "Oh, no," he says, "I think the Red Sox just scored."


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