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Dream Catcher: Andrew Knapp's pursuit of a dream

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Summer Managing Editor

FEBRUARY 25, 2013

Mike Knapp was in the kitchen when the phone rang in February of 1997. On the other end was Expos general manager Kevin Malone, calling to negotiate Knapp’s contract for the upcoming season.

Once upon a time, Knapp was a promising prospect. A defensive specialist and reputable leader, he rose through the lower minors and reached Triple-A by age 24. But Knapp couldn’t handle the pitching at the advanced level and struggled in the high minors for eight years.

By age 32, he knew the end was near.

His bags, with batting gloves and his catcher’s mitt in tow, sat fully packed near the front door. Another spring training in sunny Florida with the big-league ball club was mere days away.

Midway through the phone conversation, Knapp had an epiphany: It was finally time.

“I had no intentions of retiring until that phone call,” Knapp says.

He hung up, walked over to his family in the living room and told them that it was over.

“There’s definitely still some frustration that I didn’t get that one final call,” Knapp says. “But it was time to move on.”

Andrew Knapp was 6 years old the day his father retired. He internalized this story and swore to himself he would succeed where his father fell short.

Mike’s legacy is preserved in every line drive flying off Andrew’s bat.

Like his father, Andrew Knapp oozes potential. Cal’s 21-year old catcher spent last summer in the Cape Cod League, a prestigious All-Star league in which college baseball’s best gather to impress MLB scouts.

He finished among the leaders in the Cape in both batting average and home runs, even earning a spot in the Cape Cod All-Star game.

“I’ve been working with Coach (David) Esquer extra in the cages,” Andrew says. “I don’t think anything just suddenly clicked.”

If his Cape Cod success carries over into the regular season, an early-round draft selection is all but guaranteed in June.

His father knows it probably better than anyone. At one of Andrew’s games earlier this season, Mike’s old Cal teammate and current A’s scouting director Eric Kubota saw him in the stands and struck up a conversation.

“(Kubota) said, ‘Hey Knappo, if you could hit like your son, you could’ve made some money.’”

Andrew didn’t just wake up one day with home-run power. He attributes his success to his superior work ethic and drive, arising from internal motivation formed in early childhood.

Mike never forced Andrew to play baseball. His philosophy in parenting matters was simple: Push selectively when needed but otherwise pull away and allow Andrew the freedom to find his own passion.

“There’s a part of me that’s very cautious,” Mike says. “Do you want to put your kid into that environment? It’s a tough business.”

Andrew started playing anyway.

When Andrew was young, Mike told him stories of his minor league days — when he faced off against legends like Barry Bonds and Tony Gwynn.

Andrew harbored immense respect for his father’s accomplishments. But his fierce individuality often clashed with his dad’s wisdom.

“He likes to do things his way,” Mike says. “He has his own ideas about things.”

Andrew studies the game with unabashed enthusiasm and unyielding self-criticism. This has allowed him to surpass his peers despite his athletic limitations. But the approach isn’t without its drawbacks.

The intense and vigorous approach resulted in disagreements between father and son, predominantly as Andrew played the game for the first time.

The two used to visit the batting cages often, and fights broke out with regularity.

Andrew and Mike would leave the cages furious with one another. Neither  would speak on the drive home. Andrew would go in through the front door and Mike through the garage. Both doors would slam.

Andrew disagreed with his father’s advice from time to time. But Mike still felt an obligation to give Andrew tools in order for him to gain an advantage at the higher levels of play.

When Andrew turned 12, Mike wanted him to learn how to hit left-handed and right-handed — a task involving intense levels of patience and instruction to master, especially for a preteen.

Mike was at a crossroads — he was never fond of pushing Andrew, but some push was necessary for Andrew’s success.

At first, he struggled to use his new left-handed stance in game-time situations. So while his friends hit homers, he hit the cages.
But Andrew eventually corrected his mistakes and saw the results of his hard work finally pay off.

It was the Little League All-Star game. Andrew comes up to the plate in the first inning, hitting right-handed. The first pitch he saw, he hit clear out of the stadium.

Mike sensed a look in Andrew’s eye that seemed to say: “I’m going to do this again.”

In the next at-bat, from the other side of the plate, Andrew launched the ball into oblivion. In this moment Mike knew Andrew was going to be something special.

“I never hit two home runs in my whole life,” Mike says. “He’s 12, and he’s already outdone me.”

Baseball America named Andrew a first-team preseason All-American, an honor reserved for the best catcher in all of college baseball.

He’s off to a hot start to the season, hitting .303 with a home run and catching all eight games.

Andrew looks destined to make the leap to professional baseball at the end of the regular season. And he knows his father’s journey paved his own path to success.

Mike himself concedes Andrew’s approach to the game — determined, focused, maybe a bit too hard on himself — is a product of the harder side of the stories Mike told Andrew. Those stories that warn of the unglamorous aspects of pursuing a dream.

Those stories are why Andrew loves baseball so much.

And Andrew will reap the benefits of those stories as he chases the same dream that Mike once sought so desperately.

“I think he’s been my hero my whole life,” Andrew says of his father. “I’ve always tried to make him proud.”

Michael Rosen covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @michaelrosen3.

FEBRUARY 26, 2013