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Late-bloomer Chris Sabo gives Reds refreshing rookie star

By Phil Elderkin / August 15, 1988



You are not going to believe Chris Sabo, the rookie third baseman of the Cincinnati Reds. Chances are you're going to think he's somebody I made up or swiped from an old Ring Lardner column. Turn back the clock to the 1940s and you've got some of him. The rest you will have to take on faith. Sabo drives an '82 Ford Escort, sports a modified butch haircut, and wears goggles instead of glasses that make him look like a welder. He also can't stand the thought of wearing the jewelry and gold chains popular with so many other ballplayers.

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Pete Rose, the Reds' manager, calls him his mechanical man, which is Rose's way of saying that Chris always comes to the ballpark wound up and ready to play.

``Sabo [at 26] is older than most rookies, so basically he's more experienced than most rookies,'' Pete told me. ``He makes a lot of smart adjustments at the plate and he's a gold glover in the field.''

``We took Chris to spring training this year, because like any young player who has been in our organization for a while, we wanted to see more of what he could do,'' Rose continued. ``We didn't plan to keep him, but when Buddy Bell [since traded to Houston] got hurt and we needed a third baseman, he was there. At that time, he was also getting a lot of base hits.''

Eventually Sabo would play so well that he was selected to participate in the All-Star Game at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium. No other rookie made either league's roster.

``I'm sure Sabo never expected it,'' Rose explained, ``and he was really embarrassed when the Cincinnati fans kept chanting for [National League manager] Whitey Herzog to put Chris in the game. I mean this kid didn't think he belonged on the same field with guys like Bobby Bonilla and Vance Law. To me, his attitude is refreshing.''

Sabo's father is a plumber for Detroit's water treatment department, his mother a waitress at Carl's Chop House, and Chris attributes his approach to baseball to the American values of hard work and perseverance they preached.

``They taught me that if you're going to do something, it doesn't do nobody any good if you only go half way.'' Chris said.

Asked what kind of player he was in high school, he replied: ``I was the world's worst fielder. I couldn't catch anything and those balls that I did stop, I threw away for errors. I learned how to field by going out and taking hundreds of balls every day during infield practice and having a coach show me how to throw. I got a lot more help when I played for the University of Michigan.''

Although his first interest has always been baseball, Chris was once a pretty good ice hockey player. He played goalie on a 17-and-under team that won two national championships.

But he also forged quite a record as a high school and college baseball player. At Detroit's Catholic Central, he was twice named all-state, and in his junior year at Michigan he batted .368 with 16 homers in leading the Wolverines to a third-place finish in the College World Series.

As a major leaguer, he says his toughest adjustment has come as a hitter. ``Early in the season, I had an awful lot of problems with sliders,'' he admits. ``But eventually you learn to handle them, and when you have a slump you do the best you can and play through it.''

When Chris's performance at the plate fell off recently, Rose was pleased that the National League's top Rookie of the Year candidate continued to play ``super ball'' in the field.

``I think he would have had a good year anyway, but the fact that he hit well early really seemed to boost his confidence,'' Rose said. ``I'm also impressed by the way he always keeps his head in the game. Listen, you'll find veterans occasionally who don't know how many outs there are or who is playing right field for their own team. But not Chris. He doesn't draw those kind of blanks and you won't catch him throwing to the wrong base, either.''

I was shocked when the Reds' manager told me that a few years back, when Cincinnati put Sabo in the Instructional League for two months, that he spent his spare time working the counter at a fast-food McDonald's.

This is more than a little understandable, however, if you know that Chris's Instructional League salary at the time was $183 every two weeks.