No starch in Sabo's blue collar

March 03, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- What about the Ford, Chris? You know, the Escort. The car with 200,000 miles on the odometer, the car you still drove even after you were making $1 million a year.

"It lasted a long time," Chris Sabo says. "It finally just broke down. A radio station auctioned it off for charity, used the money for that."

So, what are you driving now?

"Ford Taurus," Sabo replies.

He's from Detroit. His brother-in-law works for Ford. So do a few cousins. Chris Sabo isn't going to be caught in a fancy foreign car. A Ford suits him just fine.

They loved him in Cincinnati, Say-bo, Spuds McKenzie, the flattop, the goggles, the whole bit. No doubt, they're going to love him in Baltimore.

Rafael Palmeiro will be admired for his gorgeous swing, but Sabo will be a working-class hero, the toast of Hampden and Dundalk and Pigtown.

"The guy will walk through hell in a gasoline suit for you," Pete Rose said when he was Sabo's manager.

He gets his uniform dirty. Bowls over catchers. Plays with no fear.

He's a former hockey goalie whose high school team won two national championships.

He's a scratch golfer who once tried out for the golf team at Michigan under an assumed name to get in a few free rounds.

Talk? Save it, buddy.

Sabo is here to play ball.

He talks in staccato bursts. No wasted words, no phony baloney. Ask him 30 questions, the interview might last three minutes. Is that it? All right. See you tomorrow.

So, Chris, we hear you're a Civil War buff.

"I just like history, history of wars, all the wars," says Sabo, who was a history major at Michigan.

Baltimore is smack in the middle of Civil War country.

"Yeah, Maryland. War of 1812."

So, you'll tour some battlefields?

"If I have time. I'm here to play baseball. I'm not here to look at the sights."

Here to win. Here to play ball.

On his first day of interviews in Baltimore, Sabo did a live shot with a television station in Washington.

So, Chris, do you feel you're going to be a leader in the clubhouse?

"I just want to play. I just to win," Sabo said. "You're in Washington. You want a leader? Get Bill Clinton."

Any more questions?

Early in spring training, Orioles manager Johnny Oates noticed Sabo keeping to himself and asked if anything was wrong.

"No," Sabo said. "Why?"

"I just see you by yourself, reading a lot," Oates said.

"Is there anything wrong with that?" Sabo asked.

"No," Oates replied.

"That's just me," Sabo said.

Sort of.

"I know it's not him on the field," Oates said. "I've seen him play before."

Reds owner Marge Schott once said her team needed a shot of Sabo-ism, and everyone knew what she meant. Sabo suffered a ruptured disk in June last season, but still played 148 games.

Here to win. Here to play ball.

Colorful? Not exactly. Sabo lives in black-and-white. Picture him as a cop walking the beat on "Homicide."

Or as one of those quirky characters in an Anne Tyler novel.

Last season, he found a jingle bell on the artificial turf at Riverfront Stadium. He attached it to the shoestring of his spike, and sure enough, broke out of a slump.

"Oh, forgot about that," Sabo says, chuckling. "I don't know how that started. We were in a slump. I don't know. Some bells."

Ding dong, third baseman calling.

Oh, he'll fit right in, hon.

When Sabo was in the Florida Instructional League, the Reds' minor-league staff couldn't figure out why he kept showing up tired. Turned out Sabo was working the night shift at McDonald's.

Years later, after he reached the majors, Sabo went to an Atlanta mall for a haircut. When the stylist botched the job, he stormed out of the salon with half a flattop.

He's 32 now, new city, same haircut.

What about Baltimore, Chris?

"It looks like Cincinnati," he says. "From what I've heard, it's a small town, the same type of town.

"They like their baseball team. I look forward to it."

They're going to love you, Chris.

"As long as you produce, everyone loves you," Sabo says. "It's like that everywhere. If you don't produce, they hate you."

Black-and-white, baby.

Chris Sabo.

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