Sabo only misfit in Class of '94

May 29, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

CHICAGO -- The Orioles turned over 20 percent of their roster to veteran free agents, and only now are they encountering their first problem. Considering the potential for disruption, they should be grateful that Chris Sabo is the only sourpuss, and all he wants is more playing time.

Sabo popped off for the second straight day yesterday, taking aim at third baseman Leo Gomez, manager Johnny Oates and an organization that he believes is unaware of his strong need and desire to play. He sounded petty and self-centered, but he's not exactly the second coming of Lee Lacy.

The Orioles' free-agent class of 1985 -- Lacy, Fred Lynn and Don Aase -- came to represent everything that is wrong with quick-fix solutions. The Class of '94 -- Sabo, Rafael Palmeiro, Sid Fernandez, Lee Smith and Mark Eichhorn -- is proving a far better fit. Sabo is the disappointed outsider, the frustrated exception.

"Obviously, they [the Orioles] haven't done their homework," he said before sitting out last night's 6-2 loss to Chicago. "They should have done a lot more homework on my personality, how I play, how I get going. That's fine. It's just a one-year deal, anyway. That's all I had planned."

Wonderful -- Sabo has been an Oriole two months, and he's already preparing to depart. It's understandable that such an intense competitor is upset over even a temporary benching. But at the same time, it's difficult to sympathize with someone so utterly oblivious to the best interests of the team.

Sabo's hard-nosed play figured to make him the most popular addition in Baltimore, but Palmeiro, Fernandez and Smith are at the core of the Orioles' early success, and he is not. He has missed 22 of the club's first 45 games -- most of them due to his back problems, the rest due to Gomez's sudden resurgence.

Gomez was at it again last night, driving in the Orioles' only runs with a two-out, bases-loaded single. He has 10 RBIs in his past six games, yet Sabo said Friday that it was "ridiculous" he was starting at third -- a charge that seemed all-the-more bizarre, considering Sabo was in the lineup that night as a DH.

"You can't blame Johnny -- Johnny's trying to win games," said Sabo, who is batting .238 with nine RBIs, compared with Gomez's .318 and 20 RBIs. "Obviously, [he thinks] I'm not the best player for that position right now. I don't agree.

"I've never been replaced before by a guy who hit .190. It's kind of amusing. Where I come from, if you hit .190, you're lucky to be in the big leagues. It's nothing against Leo. Leo's a great guy. But let's face it, he's not Mike Schmidt.

"It's frustrating. Evidently, I've got to say more stuff publicly. That's what gets stuff done. The guys who said stuff in Cincinnati got long-term contracts. I never said anything, but I'm the one they didn't want. I'm the one they let go."

They let him go because they thought he was finished, and therein lies the rub. Sabo is only 32, but he spoke of retirement DTC earlier this season, when his back pain was most intense. He'd never admit it, but his latest remarks almost certainly stem from the fear that his career might soon be over.

Sabo never was a troublemaker in Cincinnati. In fact, he was just the opposite, a blue-collar type who played hard and kept his mouth shut. It's out of character for him to knock a teammate the way he's knocking Gomez. But after spending his entire career with the Reds, what does he know from Lay-o?

Yes, Gomez hit .197 last season, but for the hows and whys, Sabo should read the Orioles' media guide. Gomez led the Orioles in home runs as late as June 19. Then he descended into a 10-for-101 slump, underwent wrist surgery on July 8, and appeared in only one game after his return.

Sabo, the $2 million mercenary, doesn't want to hear it. That's the danger with free agents -- they don't always care about their new teams as much as themselves. The potential for selfishness only increases when a player signs for one year, enters a new league, then finds himself struggling.

The fact is, Sabo shouldn't even be worried. Oates hasn't suddenly become a Gomez fan -- he's merely staying with a hot hitter. The Orioles signed Sabo because they were dissatisfied with Gomez. One big month doesn't change that assessment, yet Sabo can't see the forest for the trees.

"I've always been an everyday player," Sabo said. "There's never been a time in my career when I've been healthy and haven't played. There's no reason for it. My track record is as good as any third baseman's in the game."

"I'm a grinder. I've had slower starts than this, believe me. I started out one year 2-for-48 and ended up hitting .300. I think I've been swinging the bat good since I've been back. I'm not a Harold Baines who can put up numbers with 300 at-bats. I've got to be in there every day."

For his own benefit, that is, not necessarily the Orioles'. Right now, Sabo doesn't understand the difference. "I won't be the backup the whole year," he said. "I'll either be here, or somewhere else." Trading Sabo to keep Lay-o? It would be too funny.

Ah, life with free agents.

One sourpuss out of five.

The Orioles should be grateful.

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