Sabo vs. Monster: stranger than science fiction

June 11, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

BOSTON -- Three hours before the game, the Orioles lineup went up on the big, creaky door leading from the clubhouse to the field. One by one, the players filed in, took a look -- and took a second look.

"Carl Yastrzemski!" shouted Mike Mussina, invoking the name of the famous Red Sox left fielder.

Chris Sabo, the Orioles' designated Yaz, at least for a night, was one step ahead of them. He was already walking around wearing a batting helmet with a big, round hole cut in the ear flap, as Yaz did.

Sabo meets the Green Monster.

Sounds like sci-fi.

Just plain "sigh" would be more like it.

The sigh of a manager desperate enough to try anything -- and we're talking anything -- to kick-start his spluttering offense.

"Have you ever played the outfield?" someone asked Sabo before batting practice.

"Never," Sabo said.

"Not even in high school?"

"Never. Not once."

Johnny Oates just shrugged after posting a lineup that had Sabo playing left and batting second at Fenway Park.

"I've got to get him some at-bats somewhere," said the Orioles manager, meaning somewhere other than at third base, Sabo's normal position, which is occupied these days by Leo Gomez, the man who refuses to cool off.

Sabo, of course, has been going around stomping and fussing and asking the Orioles to trade him -- "I've said all I have to say about that; nothing has changed," he said -- but he is a competent major-league hitter riding the bench on a team ranked next-to-last in the American League in runs and batting average, which doesn't really make sense when you think about it.

With Brady Anderson more suited to Fenway's roomy right field, Jack Voigt hanging around .240 and Sabo about to spontaneously combust if he didn't get to play at least a little, Oates said "the time was just right" to play the sci-fi option.

Sabo, seeing Fenway Park for the first time, was happy for the first time in weeks. "This is great place, a lot like Wrigley Field," he said. (For the record, his grousing has caused not a whit of dissension in the clubhouse. He isn't mad at Gomez. Gomez isn't mad at him. No one is mad at him for wanting to play. It is no factor. A hundred other things are more important.)

The upside of the move was Sabo's presence in the batting order. As if to confirm it, he singled in his first at-bat.

The downside was throwing him to the Green Monster, which was sort of like asking Patrick Ewing to play point guard or Garth Brooks to sing opera. ("They must really be mad at him," said one Boston writer.) Playing a new position is hard enough without having to deal with the shallow, 37-foot wall that makes Fenway's left field one of baseball's most eccentric territories.

"You have to have a knack for playing it," Anderson said. "It's sort of tricky." And Frank Thomas can sort of hit.

Left field in Fenway means playing balls bouncing crazily off the wall and hand-operated scoreboard. Left field in Fenway means knowing when to stop chasing a line drive and start retreating to play for the bounce. Left field in Fenway means no foul ground. All sorts of weird stuff.

"Is that door open during the game?" Sabo asked, watching the scoreboard operator emerge from the wall and fill the board during batting practice.

He prepared for his big night by taking fungoes in the outfield for a few days, soliciting advice from Orioles coaches Davey Lopes and Don Buford and spending yesterday's batting practice playing every ball hit off the wall. "I'm just going to try to have fun," Sabo said. "I won't be trying to screw up."

Did he have the tools to play such a tricky position?

"He's got two hands and two feet," Lopes said. "What other tools do you need?"

He got his first chance in the bottom of the first, when the Red Sox's John Valentin banged a Jamie Moyer pitch off the wall. Sabo played it well, if somewhat less than gracefully; he caught the ball bare-handed on the hop, turned, almost stumbled and threw to second, holding Valentin to a single.

He proceeded to play a handful of balls without incident. Then came the Red Sox seventh.

With the score tied at 6-6 and the Sox's Scott Cooper on second, Carlos Rodriguez singled sharply to left off the Orioles' Mike Oquist. Cooper rounded third as Sabo picked up the ball on one hop in shallow left and, ever the third baseman, got rid of it quickly. Sox third base coach Gary Allenson sent Cooper home, challenging Sabo's arm.

Sabo threw a perfect strike to catcher Chris Hoiles. Cooper was out by 10 feet.

Yaz lives!

The Sox still scored a run in the inning to take a 7-6 lead, but the Orioles rallied in the eighth. Brady Anderson doubled in a run to tie the score with one out. Up came Sabo. Ken Ryan's first two pitches were balls. After a visit from the pitching coach, Ryan threw a fastball that drifted out over the plate. Sabo swung and connected. The ball soared high and deep into the cool night air, and landed in the Sox bullpen.

The Orioles won the game, 10-7.

Sci-fi, indeed.

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