Spuds McKenzie: Chris Sabo
"I never wanted to be that friendly with opposing players."
Baseball fans of a certain age will remember when Chris Sabo took over the world.
It was the spring of 1988 and there was a crop of National League rookies that had the baseball world excited. Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar was about to break in with the Padres. There was plenty of hype around Mark Grace and Ron Gant. The Mets had Kevin Elster ready to take over at short and although he started the year in the minors, Greg Jefferies was going to be the next Pete Rose.
Despite all of that incredible talent coming into the league at the same time, it was Sabo who captured the imagination of baseball fans with his hard-nosed play, his clutch hitting and, of course, his Rec Spec glasses.
The three-time All-Star and icon of late 1980’s baseball joins us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Sabo went into Spring Training in 1988 with the idea of competing for a backup infielder role. He was 26 years old and had spent the previous two seasons in AAA where he had nothing left to prove.
Just two weeks later, Pete Rose was singing Sabo’s praises and bestowed him with the nickname “Spuds McKenzie.”
The Reds were expected to start six-time Gold Glove winner Buddy Bell at third base in ‘88, but a Spring Training injury opened the door for Sabo, who ended up as the Reds starting third baseman on opening day.
By mid-June, Sabo had his average in the .320s and was running the bases with aplomb. He did such a good job playing the hot corner that the Reds shipped Bell off to Houston in a trade.
Sabo was named to that year’s All-Star Game as a reserve, which was even more special because it was played in his home ballpark. To show how popular he was at the time, the National League started six Hall of Famers in that game, including hometown hero Barry Larkin, yet it was Sabo who clearly drew the biggest ovation of any player on either squad.
Sabo would battle injuries for much of the rest of his career. He played just four full seasons in the Majors and nine overall. In three of his four full seasons, he was an All-Star. In 2010, Sabo landed among Johnny Bench, Tom Seaver, Noodles Hahn and so many other greats in the Reds Hall of Fame.
As fantastic as his rookie season was, Sabo enjoyed his best season in 1990. He belted 25 home runs, stole 25 bases and capped the season by hitting .563 in the Reds’ improbable sweep of the powerful Oakland A’s in the World Series.
Thirty years later, Sabo is the Head Baseball Coach at the University of Akron where he is looking to instill his trademark hustle and concentration on fundamentals in a new generation of players.
As we remember the Reds on the 30th anniversary of their last World Series, let’s go Spitballin’ with a franchise favorite, Chris Sabo.
“For me, I just always thought, ‘Don’t screw up.’ To me, that was more important than doing well. I didn’t want to be the guy to make the error that cost us a ring or anything like that.”
Thanks for joining me today, Mr. Sabo. I was 14 years old when you took baseball by storm and like everyone else, I loved what you brought to the game. Before we get into the Majors, I’d like to ask about how you came to love sports growing up as a kid.
I grew up in Detroit and we really played every sport, every season. We played in the street and on the cement and always wore Levi’s jeans in case we had to slide. I loved baseball and the Tigers. We had those Detroit Tigers fake batting helmets and bats and it was just a great time growing up. I’m still friends with pretty much everyone I played with when I was a little kid.
So, you were a big Tigers fan growing up in Detroit?
Oh yea, the Tigers are my team. I remember the ’68 World Series and all those guys. Mickey Lolich, Denny McClain, Norm Cash, Gates Brown, Jim Northrup, Mickey Stanley. I liked all those guys. Norm Cash, Bill Freehan and of course Al Kaline, too.
The University of Michigan is probably my favorite sports team, but I loved the Red Wings, always have. Unfortunately, when I was growing up, they were terrible, but they got better as I got older. Gordie Howe was my guy and I liked Alex Delvecchio too. I loved all those guys.
I read that you were a great ice hockey player growing up too. At some point you had to choose baseball over hockey. What made you go with baseball?
You know, it was a tough choice to have to make because I really loved both sports. But I chose baseball because I loved hitting and also really loved running.
You were drafted by the Expos out of high school but chose to play at Michigan, where you had a great career. The Reds then picked you in the 2nd round of the 1983 Draft. You ended up coming up through the minors with a lot of the guys from the 1990 Reds team. What was your minor league experience like?
Pretty much every year I played in the minors we were in the playoffs. I have a couple of minor league championship rings too. Even in AAA we lost a heartbreaker in the American Association championship. We had some good teams.
Let’s jump to Spring Training in 1988. You had spent two seasons in AAA and were competing for a backup infielder spot because it looked like the Reds were pretty well set around the diamond. What was your thought process during that spring?
I knew what I was competing for and who I was competing against. I was competing for that utility spot and knowing who I was up against, well there was no way in hell he was a better player than me as far as I was concerned.
Buddy Bell was the third baseman, and I was trying to make it as an extra infielder. Then Buddy hurt his leg and it gave me an opportunity. My dad always used to say that when you got an opportunity, you had to take advantage of it, so that’s what I tried to do.
Pete Rose seemed like the perfect manager for someone with your style of play. He was your first manager in the Majors. What was it like playing for Pete Rose?
You know, I was not a Reds fan growing up. I rooted for the Tigers, so I was an American League guy. Quite honestly, I did not even follow the Reds growing up. I think I was pulling for the Red Sox in 1975 because they were the American League team.
I knew who he was, of course, and he treated me great. He gave me my opportunity in the Majors. In fact, I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. He called me about a high school player he wanted me to look at for [Akron] University. I had fun talking with him for about 15 minutes. It was good to catch up with him and he’s still got a ton of energy. I love the guy; he’s great to me. I would never say anything bad against that dude.
That’s awesome. I have met him a couple of times and he’s always been great. I want to move on to your rookie year now. You really took the baseball world by storm and people seemed to love you from the start. Fans loved the way you played hard and you had that image as probably the most visible guy to wear those Rec Specs. What do you think of that image you had as a rookie in 1988?
Well, I wore the Rec Specs for a reason! I tried not to pay attention to all of that. I was just trying to play good every day, that’s the way I approached it. I mean, I loved people cheering for me so much. I’ve gone to plenty of places and people boo, so it was good to have so many people cheering for me. But I was just interested in trying to keep my job.
You know, as a rookie I didn’t have a Major League track record, so I felt like I was one bad month away from losing that spot and Buddy Bell taking that position back.
I thought it was great that you made the 1988 All-Star Game as a rookie in your own ballpark. You got such a huge ovation. What was going through your mind during that? You went from competing for a roster spot to an All-Star in just a few short months.
That was cool. I’m not stupid, any home stadium is going to cheer their own team during that, but that was a lot of fun. It was really cool playing that game in Riverfront Stadium and I got to meet so many guys. The Ryne Sandbergs, Darryl Strawberrys and Gary Carters of the world.
Whitey Herzog was the manager and he told me that Bobby Bonilla would be playing third. He told me I might not play, and I said, “That’s fine, I don’t care. It’s just so cool to be here.” Then in the seventh inning he told me, “Hey, get in there and steal this base.” He put me in as a pinch runner, and I did. I thought that was great.
You were injured in 1989, but you bounced back and started the All-Star Games in 1990 and 1991. What are you thinking that in your second full year, you were recognized as the best third baseman in the league and you were out there in the All-Star Game playing next to Ozzie Smith?
I never really thought of it that way. I just was out there playing. I respect Ozzie Smith and all of those guys, and I like talking to them, but it’s different now. Everything is more cordial. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, there was no interleague play.
You spent the season just trying to beat your rivals. So, I never wanted to be that friendly with opposing players. I wasn’t rude or anything, I just wasn’t going to be that friendly. Back then, you could blow up second base on a double play. I don’t want to be friends with that guy because it might compromise the way I play.
Sabo creating another cloud of dust, and taking another base
That’s a great point. Moving onto the 1990 World Series now – at the time, I don’t think people realized how good the Reds were. You were all so young, so the A’s were huge favorites. What were your thoughts going into that series?
I’m a guy that tries to rely on common sense. I knew what kind of pitching we had, and those guys had the big swingers. But we did too. We could do a lot. We could run and had a great defense. We could hit and really do everything. Of course, we had the great bullpen too. I can say I definitely thought we were going to win. I thought we had the better overall team, there was no doubt in my mind. But I didn’t think we would sweep them, I never thought that.
Looking back at the guys on that team, I am not surprised you all had that confidence. There were so many really competitive guys there. What was it like playing in a World Series? What is going through your mind during the games?
I loved it. I used to love the crowds, the buzz and the intensity. You just know it’s so intense. You want to play [well], and you don’t want to make a mistake to hurt the team. I thought it was so awesome and you have to be intense every pitch.
You know, people ask me what I did to celebrate after winning the World Series. I tell them I went back to my hotel in San Francisco and went to bed. I was so exhausted when it was over because you have to concentrate so hard on every pitch.
For me, I just always thought, “Don’t screw up.” To me, that was more important than doing well. I didn’t want to be the guy to make the error that cost us a ring or anything like that.
I really always believed the intensity of that team was what led to success. When you look at the roster, there were so many winners on that team and that’s why you succeeded in pressure situations.
I love it. I love that kind of pressure. Playing in the World Series in that setting was amazing. My best friend when I was playing on the Reds was Paul O’Neill. He got to play in so many World Series. I still tell him, “You’re lucky, I only had one World Series.” I wish I was traded to the Yankees with him too.
Chris Sabo laces a hit in the 1990 World Series
Even though the ’90 World Series was a sweep, Game 4 was a great pitchers’ duel between Dave Stewart and Jose Rijo. You went 3-4 and you guys scored two in the eighth to win 2-1. What are your reflections on that game?
Rijo was a really amazing guy. When he was healthy, you just never knew how right handers hit him. He had that great slider and the juice to get inside on you. I was always confident in our guys. Rijo, Tom Browning, Danny Jackson, Rick Mahler, Jack Armstrong. Those guys threw hard for the day. That game was no different.
You really were a complete team, and I can tell by the way you talk about the guys, you were all pretty close.
I loved all those guys. I miss my playing days. You know, I’m coaching now and it’s great, but it’s not like playing. It’s not even close. I still throw with the team every day and I hit fungoes. I’ll hop in the cage every so often and do live batting practice. The only thing I can’t do is run and honestly, that’s depressing. Too many aches and pains. I was actually a really good runner when I was younger.
I used to love going first-to-third in games, that was one of my favorite things. I think that’s one of the most exciting things there was. Especially if it was a close game, you could hear the crowd build up as you made the turn from second to third. Then you slide hard a big cloud of dust comes up and you see what happened.
That’s great, I can see you’re still competitive! I know you also played for three other teams, but you’ll always be a Red in my mind and many others’. In 2010, you were inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. That’s an incredible honor for a franchise that goes back to the start of Jose Rijo, Tom Browningprofessional baseball. Can you talk about that?
It surprised me getting voted into the Reds Hall of Fame. My career was cut short with injuries, so to get elected to that was awesome. It’s always a great presentation. The Hall of Fame itself is a really good production. If anyone gets a chance to go to it, they should. It’s such a historic team, baseball’s first professional team, and to be in their Hall of Fame is really something.
This has been a great interview, Mr. Sabo. I think anyone around my age remembers going nuts trying to collect your baseball cards as kids, so it was really neat to talk with you. One last question on the way out, do you have any thoughts or a message you’d like to leave our readers?
You know, I always dreamed of playing in the Major Leagues as a kid and I can’t believe I did it. My time there was awesome. I was fortunate enough to win some minor league championships and the World Series, I got to play in some All-Star Games and play with great guys. I have lived a great baseball life and it’s been a blessing.