Sabo gives Yanks' O'Neill assist

February 22, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- They didn't know it at the time, but the Orioles had help from one of their rival camps while they were trying to sign Chris Sabo.

It came from Paul O'Neill, a former teammate of Sabo's with the Cincinnati Reds who now plays for the New York Yankees. The two talked often during the off-season, and even though Sabo said he didn't need much encouragement to come to Baltimore, he got some unsolicited advice from O'Neill.

"Paul is probably my best friend in baseball," said Sabo, who reported to camp yesterday, three days ahead of schedule. "We talk at least once a week, and he told me, 'If you have the chance, go.'

"He said it [Oriole Park at Camden Yards] was the best place to play. 'If Baltimore wants you, go there,' " is how Sabo recalls the conversation.

There were few bidders, so it didn't take much to lure the free agent. It cost the Orioles $2 million plus incentives to sign Sabo, a 33 percent pay cut from the $3.1 million he made last year with the Reds and about $500,000 less than the New York Mets' offer.

"There wasn't much of a market for third basemen," Sabo said. "In fact, except for a handful, the market wasn't good for too many people, which is fine.

"I'm still making a lot of money, believe me -- and if that's the only reason I'm playing something is wrong. The most important thing is that the Orioles are a good team.

"Don't get me wrong, I like money like everybody else, but if the Orioles weren't a good team I wouldn't be here. All I want is the chance to play and win. I've been on good teams all my life and that is what's important to me. The Orioles have a lot of tradition, like the Reds. And we've got a lot of hitters. It looks like the strongest lineup around."

Sabo, 32, comes with the reputation of being a fiery player who wears his emotions on his sleeve. That, he says, is just way he plays the game.

"I just play, I don't talk much," he said. "I don't even talk to my wife that much."

He does, however, admit that he is sometimes easily upset. "Anger motivates me pretty good," he said. "But I get over it real quick."

Sabo would like to be able to dismiss questions about his physical makeup as easily as he tones down his temper. However, he realizes that isn't likely to happen until he has finished his career.

He has suffered ankle and knee injuries during his six years in the big leagues and has grown weary answering questions about what is supposed to be a chronic back problem. Twice in six years (1989, 1992) he played fewer than 100 games.

"I read in the New York Times that I'd had back surgery -- and I've never had back surgery in my life," Sabo said. "I led the Reds in games played [148 in 1990], the last 100 in a row.

"My back is fine. I don't think it hurts any more than anyone else who plays the game. If you think you're going to go out there feeling 100 percent every day, you're dreaming. That doesn't happen."

Davey Johnson, the ex-Oriole who replaced Tony Perez as Reds manager last May, said Sabo's skills "have deteriorated." The remark initially irritated Sabo, who hit .259 with 21 homers and 82 RBIs last season.

"At first I was upset," Sabo said. "But the more I thought about it, the more I thought he really didn't mean it. I was one of the guys who played [hard] for him. I had a decent year on a team that didn't do too good.

"The more I thought about what he said, the more I thought it was to calm the ticket buyers. It wasn't too popular that I wasn't signed."

After 11 years in the Reds' system his preference would have been to stay in Cincinnati, Sabo said, but he already has put that experience behind him. "That's the way baseball is now," he said. "You can't always do what you want to do."

In his first workout yesterday, Sabo gave manager Johnny Oates an indication of what he can do. It was only against soft batting practice serves from the coaching staff, but Sabo put on a power display, hitting several balls over the left-field fence.

JTC "That was only batting practice, but he's got some numbers to back up what he did [yesterday]," Oates said. "He's got a nice, short, quick stroke."

Sabo used that stroke to put on another power display just a few miles from the Orioles' training site last week. While working out with Kansas City Royals second baseman David Howard (son of ex-Orioles pitcher Bruce Howard), Sabo bounced several drives off houses behind the outfield fence at Sarasota High School.

After receiving a complaint, the school quickly shut down the informal workout. "I guess you couldn't blame them," said Sabo, who moved to the Sarasota area last October.

He's hoping the seats in left-center at Camden Yards prove to be as inviting a target. That's the area that got most of his attention when he visited Baltimore in December.

"I went out and stood at home plate and it looked good," said Sabo.

It was during that visit that Sabo underwent an extensive physical to prove he was sound.

At one point he told general manager Roland Hemond that he would change shoes and go on the field to prove he could run. "That's when I got the feeling he really wanted to play for the Orioles," said Hemond.

Little did the GM know that Sabo already had heard a sales pitch from Paul O'Neill.

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