TEMPE, Ariz.—Fans might not know the identity of the older man in the Angels uniform observing workouts and games at the minor league complex, but Bobby Knoop is there just about every day that school is in session for the youngest of the Angels farmhands.
The 78-year-old former big league second baseman and major league coach watches workouts and games from his ubiquitous lawn chair, perched behind the fence on one of the complex fields. Here he can get a good view of what's happening on the field, occasionally taking breaks between innings to work on the crossword puzzle from the daily newspaper. At times, he'll head to a side field to hit fungoes and give individual instruction to infielders. During the Arizona League season or when there's an extended spring training game in Tempe Diablo Stadium, he settles into a seat on the concourse level, where he gets a bird's eye view of the field.
Bottom line—if there's baseball happening at the Angels minor league complex, Knoop is likely nearby.
Knoop's professional career dates back to 1956 when the Southern California teenager signed with the Milwaukee Braves. Selected by the Angels in the December 1963 Rule 5 draft, Knoop made his big league debut in 1964, launching a playing career that spanned nine seasons with the Angels, White Sox and Royals. Regarded as one of the best defensive second basemen of his era, Knoop won three Gold Gloves. In his best years he teamed with All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi, who played 18 years in the bigs followed by a 15-year managerial career.
"He was my teammate, of course, but more than that he was my roommate," Knoop said about the late Fregosi, ". . . my closest and dearest friend in baseball."
Knoop's acrobatic movements around the keystone earned him the nickname "Nureyev," after Rudolph Nureyev, the Russian ballet dancer of the era. That name was coined by Angels beat writers after Knoop told them his mother insisted he take ballet lessons as a child. Knoop laughs now at the mention of the nickname.
"The press put 'Nureyev' in there," Knoop said. "When they asked a question I said my mother said I had to take ballet lessons—which was a total fabrication! "
After his playing days were over, Knoop spent 21 years as a big league coach with the White Sox, Angels and Blue Jays, and even got to fill in a few times as a manager. Does he regret not getting the chance at a permanent managerial gig?
"I think anybody that stays in the game after they're through playing (has) the thought they would like to manage," Knoop said. "It's just that in my career no one ever asked. If they don't ask, you can't say yes or no. They didn't ask."
Knoop's primary role with the Angels is to observe and advise, a role that he's held since returning to the organization nearly five years ago after holding a similar position with the Rockies. He was inducted into the Angels Hall of Fame in 2013.
Knoop brings 60 years of professional experience to the field. When he talks, players, coaches, coordinators and managers alike listen.
"My position here is more as an observer," Knoop said. "A person who can notice things and talk with the individuals, especially the coordinators and the instructors. I don't do a lot of instruction with the individual players because I feel they get too many opinions from too many people. It's better that they have one or two people in the area that gives them information, so I pass information on to the instructors, coaches and managers . . . The more information that you have the better decisions you can make later on."
Knoop's contributions are certainly well-received by the minor league coaching staff.
"I'm usually walking by him to say, 'Hey, Bobby, what do you think?," AZL Angels manager Dave Stapleton said. "He's the wise one that will say, 'That's enough ground balls' and those kinds of things . . . He's the best bench coach I have."
Knoop especially reaches out to the younger coaches and players who were born long after his major league career ended. But just because the younger generation never saw him play or collected his baseball card as kids, it doesn't mean they don't have the utmost respect for him.
"He just brings so much knowledge that young coaches just gravitate to him and talk to him all the time," Stapleton said. "Even as long as I've been doing this game, I'm talking to him every day about new stuff. Just the wealth of knowledge that he brings to everybody . . . there's not a player around that doesn't know they can go to him, talk to him, and he will make his way over if there's something wrong . . . Sometimes throughout the day he will touch them and talk to them about the things that he did and how to approach it differently."
While Knoop works more with the infielders, he has an impact on every player at the Angels complex. Outfielder Jimmy Barnes, just 20, said that Knoop has helped him with his bunting, but more importantly just talking to him about life issues and handling things mentally.
"Great players may strive to be the best that they can be," Knoop said. "(But) it's a team concept, and if you're not willing to help someone else be successful that takes away from your success . . . In order for you to be successful, someone else has to help you. You have to have that same logic and that same feeling every day you go out there on the field."
At 78, Knoop shows no signs of slowing down. When told that he's in good shape for his age, Knoop chuckled and then said, "I'm not really certain that I'm in good physical shape. But I like to use the expression that my father used—I'm in great shape for the shape I'm in . . . When you're active as an athlete and you start to lose your mobility—your ability to move and to have quick reactions—it bothers you a little bit."
Considering that his father lived to 101, Knoop should be able to stay around the game for as long as he wants. He points to the example of former Angels coach Jimmie Reese, who worked with the big league team into his 90s.
"I'll do it as long as I feel I'm physically capable and mentally capable," Knoop said," and as long as they want me to. They'll let me know when they've had enough."
But why not take it easy and enjoy some retirement years, especially considering he's outside in the brutal Arizona heat nearly every day?
"I suppose basically it's all I've ever done, really," Knoop said. "I don't like being indoors. It's kind of rejuvenating to be able to work with younger people on a daily basis. I have civilian friends, but basically the people I associate with are baseball people."