Sabo says he's O so glad to be 1

January 25, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

In less than 30 minutes yesterday, Chris Sabo may have set a baseball record for happy talk.

Making his first visit to Camden Yards since signing with the Orioles as a free agent Jan. 14, Sabo repeatedly used the same phrase to describe his feelings. "I'm really happy," he said at virtually every opportunity.

"I know I keep saying that, but I've been saying that ever since I signed with the Orioles. Once I knew I wasn't going back to Cincinnati, I just wanted to play for a winner.

"I just want to be in contention in September. I could've made more money other places, but I think the Orioles will be a good team.

"I'm very happy. My only two goals are to win and play every game. I've won before [in 1990, when the Reds swept Oakland in the World Series], but I haven't been able to play every game, so that's my other goal."

When Sabo's signing became official 11 days ago, he quipped to a Cincinnati writer, "the left side of their infield won't miss a game."

The Orioles, of course, don't expect Sabo to emulate shortstop Cal Ripken's streak of 1,897 straight games. In fact, questions about his physical condition probably damaged his value on the open market.

Sabo says those fears are exaggerated and his track record supports his contention. He has played at least 137 games in four of his six big-league seasons.

"The injuries I've had haven't been pulled muscles or nicks, they've been traumas," he said. "I tried to play with a broken ankle [suffered while sliding into first base in 1989] and I played 96 games with a bad knee [after a home-plate collision in 1991]. They were a result of how I play the game."

The way he plays the game was a prime reason why the Orioles decided to pursue Sabo. "He has a great devotion to being as good a player as he can be," said Orioles general manager Roland Hemond.

"The key," said manager Johnny Oates, "is that he's interested in 'we' -- not 'I' or 'me.' "

Sabo's reputation is that he's a "give me a uniform and tell me when to show up" type of player whose actions tell his story. He did little to dispel that notion during his get-acquainted visit yesterday, though he had no reluctance to express his satisfaction.

"I have no bitter feelings at all toward Cincinnati," he said. "I was very happy there. To tell you the truth, I didn't think I'd ever leave.

"But the way the economics of baseball have gone, they had a lot of big-money players, and I just didn't fit. The Reds were good for me -- and I was good for the Reds. But those days are gone."

Once he realized that, Sabo said it was easy for him to make the move to the Orioles. "It's obvious they're making a commitment to winning," he said. "Plus they already had a good team.

"I wanted to go where I could be happy and help a team win. Winning makes everybody happy, and I didn't want to go where you might have to wait three or four years. I want to win now -- and then try to win again next year."

Although he didn't mention any other team by name, Sabo's best offer came from the New York Mets, who guaranteed him more than the $2 million he is assured of making this season.

"I don't play the game for money," he said. "Don't get me wrong -- I'll take it. But my family is not going to go hungry. The Orioles are paying me good money. And how much can you spend?"

Sabo, who grew up in Detroit and said Baltimorean Al Kaline was his boyhood idol, indicated that Oriole Park also was a major influence in his decision. "It's 364 feet to left-center field," he said, gazing at the park through a sixth-floor window in the warehouse. "I like that.

"This field is beyond description. I'd heard about it and seen it on television, but when I saw it for the first time I couldn't believe it. And I know a lot of people come to the games -- so it'll be like Opening Day at [Cincinnati's] Riverfront Stadium every day of the year.

"I'm excited -- and very happy," said Sabo. Somehow, he managed to get the message across.

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