Just An Old Tiger At Heart

April 13, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

DETROIT -- He was all of 6 years old at the time, yet his memory of the hometown World Series champion 1968 Detroit Tigers is anything but hazy.

Bill Freehan behind the plate. Norm Cash at first. Dick McAuliffe at second. Don Wert at third. Ray Oyler at short. In the outfield, Jim Northrup or Willie Horton and Al Kaline flanking Mickey Stanley, except in the World Series when Mayo Smith moved Stanley from center field to shortstop to replace the light-hitting Oyler.

"That would never happen today," Chris Sabo said of Smith's gutsy move with Stanley. "There is too much scrutiny for that now. There would be so many interviews, so much second-guessing. In a lot of ways, I wish I would have been a player 50, 60 years ago. I think it would have been better."

Dim the color on your television set, and it wouldn't be difficult to imagine Sabo playing in another era. Crew cut. Hard-nosed. A playing style that screams hustle. All business, all the time. That's Sabo, the 42nd player to appear at third base for the Orioles since Brooks Robinson retired in 1977.

Sabo played at Tiger Stadium for the first time Monday, but to say he enjoyed that more than any other day of his major-league career is to assume he doesn't appreciate every day, not a safe assumption. His appreciation for life as a big-league ballplayer starts on the diamond, but extends beyond it.

"I like to walk around the cities and try to get a feel for them," Sabo said. "I'm looking forward to seeing all the American League cities and ballparks. It's going to be almost like I'm a rookie again, which is kind of a neat feeling."

Orioles general manager Roland Hemond has seen all types come and go during his 43 years in the game. Already, Sabo appears to be one of his favorites.

"He has such a strong love for the game, such a keen interest in the history of the game," Hemond said. "Unfortunately, too many players don't appreciate this golden age of their major-league lives and he seems to savor every moment of every day. He seems to thoroughly enjoy it."

Sabo enjoyed Monday, when he hit two singles and drove in a run for the Orioles, who spoiled Detroit's home opener, 7-4. He left 30 tickets for friends and family, including his mother, who watchedfrom near the Orioles dugout.

"All I ever wanted to do was play for the Tigers," Sabo said. "I went to a lot of games at Tiger Stadium and always sat in the bleachers."

Sabo, whose favorite player was Kaline, three times was scheduled to play for Catholic Central High School at Tiger Stadium. All three were rained out.

"Two of those times we got right up to the gate and they called the games," Sabo said. "I guess it just wasn't meant to be."

Even during his days as an All-America third baseman at Michigan, Sabo made several trips from Ann Arbor, about a two-hour round trip, with college buddies to watch the Tigers.

Playing at the major-league level only has enhanced his passion for the game.

"I do take it very seriously because you never know how long it's going to last," he said. "Every day I don't try to leave anything out there. Maybe it's cost me a few times. Maybe it would have saved me a few injuries if I didn't have that attitude, but that's the only way I know how to play."

Injuries have hampered Sabo, changing him from the player who stole 46 bases for Cincinnati on his way to National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1988.

He has undergone knee and ankle surgeries and last season spent time on the disabled list with a ruptured disk. Still, Sabo led the Reds in home runs (21), hits (143), doubles (33), extra-base hits (56), runs (86), at-bats (552) and games (148).

A move from the artificial turf at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium to the natural grass of Oriole Park should ease Sabo's aches.

"The game isn't meant to be played on artificial turf," Sabo said. "I don't care what anybody says. It just wasn't meant to be played on that stuff."

The addition of Sabo and Mark McLemore's move back to his natural position of second base gives Orioles manager Johnny Oates a set lineup he can count on almost every day. McLemore played 148 games last season. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro played 160. And then there is Cal Ripken.

"I should have played more games last season, but they put me on theDL without giving me the benefit of a doubt," Sabo said. "Every year my only goal is to play in every game. I've never done that."

Sabo, who played in a career-high 153 games in 1991, marvels at Ripken's consecutive-games streak, which stands at 1,903.

"What he's done is freakish," Sabo said. "Obviously, he's blessed with a very strong body and he has been lucky enough not to have a serious injury. There are a lot of guys who would like to play every game, but they aren't blessed with the right kind of body and the right kind of luck."

The presence of Ripken and the rest of the bats in the lineup played a factor in Sabo's choosing the Orioles' offer over that of the Mets.

"This lineup probably has got the most power I've ever played with. And it's the deepest lineup, but the Reds had more speed," he said.

"We won it all in '90, and until we do that here, I would still have to say the Reds' lineup was the best I've been a part of."

Sabo is one of six players on the Orioles roster who has played in the World Series, joining Harold Baines, Mark Eichhorn, Sid Fernandez, Ripken and Lonnie Smith.

"I wanted to go somewhere I could contend and it looks like we're going to be able to do that," Sabo said.

The Orioles' chances of achieving that improved the day they signed Sabo to a one-year, $2 million contract.

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