He reminds me of me when I was that age -- the way he plays the game, I mean. He can't wait to get to offense. He can't wait to get to defense and after the game, he's probably mad 'cause he's got to wait 'til tomorrow to play again.
- Pete Rose
Born in Detroit, Mich., on Jan. 19, 1962, Chris Sabo grew up in the blue-collar Rosedale Park section of the city. His father was a plumber and his mother a waitress, and each instilled in Sabo an ethos he would carry with him throughout his athletic career: Hard work and production will be rewarded, and giving your best should be an assumed approach to any endeavor. Sabo took this message to heart and applied it religiously to all of his activities. He knew early that he would never be the most talented player on the field, but he also knew that talent was only one part of the equation. What he may have lacked in natural ability, he more than made up for in desire, drive and old-fashioned effort.
In high school, Sabo demonstrated skill as both a hockey goalie and a golfer in addition to being one of the better baseball players in the area. As graduation approached, Sabo was torn between pursuing a hockey career or a baseball career, ultimately choosing baseball and a scholarship to the University of Michigan. A third baseman, Sabo was a key component on a strong Michigan club that finished third in the College World Series in 1983, a season in which Sabo was joined by future Reds teammate Barry Larkin in the Wolverines infield. Selected by the Reds in the second round of the June Draft, Sabo methodically worked his way up the Minor League ladder, twice being named the Most Valuable Player of his club.
Despite his impressive Minor League credentials, Sabo was given little chance of making the Reds out of Spring Training in 1988. In the outside chance that he did make the club, with former All-Star and Gold Glove winner Buddy Bell ensconced at third base, it would be as a utility player. Almost immediately, Sabo's performance and attitude began to change minds. Manager Pete Rose took particular note of the confident, hustling Sabo. "He reminds me of me when I was that age -- the way he plays the game, I mean," Rose said. "He can't wait to get to offense. He can't wait to get to defense and after the game, he's probably mad 'cause he's got to wait 'til tomorrow to play again." From his hustling style of play to his flattop haircut (almost a carbon copy of Pete's circa 1963 cut) Sabo was, in many ways, a mirror image of his manager, traits that would soon endear him to Reds fans.
Sabo's signature flattop was one of several pieces of Sabo lore that captured the imagination. He traced the origin of the old-fashioned haircut to a lengthy slump he was in two years before. He went to get a haircut in the midst of the slump and opted for the Marine-style look. He immediately started to hit again and had maintained the "slump-busting" cut ever since. Another Sabo signature, his goggles, also was tied to his on-field play. Needed to correct his poor vision, Sabo preferred the goggles over standard glasses or contacts because they better protected his eyes when he slid headfirst, a common practice for him. And the soon-to-be-famous story of Chris Sabo, McDonald's crew member, also came to light during this eventful spring. It seems that Sabo, bored with off-field life in Tampa while playing in the instructional league several years earlier, decided that he could make better use of his time (and make a little extra money) by, in his words, "flipping burgers" when he was away from the park. Topping everything off was Rose's conclusion that Sabo bore an uncanny resemblance to Spuds Mackenzie, a bull terrier that was the star of a very popular advertising campaign for Bud Light beer. In short order, "Spuds" Sabo would be a household name to baseball fans everywhere.
Not given much of a chance to make the club at the start of Spring Training, Sabo forced his way on to the team. Quirks notwithstanding, it was Sabo's evident desire to win at virtually any cost that convinced the Reds to take Sabo north with them. A blunt Sabo agreed with their assessment: "There is no doubt I'm one of the best 24 players in this locker room," he said. "I'll kill people for a run. I mean that. The only time people know you is if you win, so I'll do anything. Anything." A knee injury suffered by incumbent third baseman Buddy Bell resulted in Sabo not only making the Reds but starting for the team at third base on Opening Day. Batting eighth, Sabo collected his first hit, stolen base and run scored in the seventh inning and made a run-saving play on defense in the Reds' 5-4, 12-inning victory. In the season's second game, Sabo collected another hit, scored another run and tied a Major League record for third basemen by being credited with 11 assists.
Sabo's first two games were but a prelude to the spectacular first half he would enjoy. By the All-Star break, Sabo was among the National League's leaders in batting average, doubles and stolen bases and had played an exceptional third base. Fans were fascinated by the Reds third baseman, impressed as much by his all-out approach to the game as they were with his blue-collar, "time to go to work" attitude off the field. Since Sabo was not even expected to be a Major Leaguer in 1988, his name was nowhere to be found on that year's All-Star ballot. Sabo fans were not to be deterred. He received more write-in votes than any other player and NL manager White Herzog rewarded this support by selecting Sabo for the team. Cincinanti played host to the All-Star Game, and in keeping with the theme that had been set in motion in the spring, it was Sabo who provided the game's most memorable moment. Inserted as a pinch-runner in the seventh inning, Sabo successfully stole second base, sliding in headfirst ahead of the tag and prompting the loudest cheer of the night from the 55,000-plus fans packed into Riverfront Stadium. Until the game ended, a chorus of "Say-bo, Say-bo" echoed through the stadium as Reds fans acknowledged the injection of excitement Sabo had provided in an otherwise forgettable, 2-1 American League victory.
The All-Star game represented a high point for Sabo in 1988. A national audience was given a good look at the player that many fans had become so enamored of. He was featured on the cover of Baseball America and The Sporting News and was the subject of a feature article in Sports Illustrated. Sabo-fever continued unabated through the end of the season, culminating in Sabo's selection as the NL's Rookie of the Year.
The 1988 season ensured that Sabo would forever be remembered by Reds fans, but it was his play over the balance of his career that earned him a place among the elite players in the club's history. After an injury-shortened 1989 season, Sabo embraced the hitting instruction of new manager Lou Piniella and became a formidable power threat in the Reds' wire-to-wire 1990 world championship season, leading the club in home runs and earning his second All-Star selection, this time the by the overwhelming vote of the fans. In the Reds' stunning sweep of the heavily-favored A's in the 1990 World Series, Sabo hit .563 with a key hit in the Reds' 10th-inning rally in Game 2 and two home runs in Cincinnati's 8-3 win in Game 3. And it was Sabo who put it best during the Reds' Fountain Square victory celebration when he grabbed the microphone and bellowed to the cheering crowd, "We've got the rings, we've got the money, we've got everything!"
Sabo produced another All-Star season in 1991 and after an injury-shortened campaign in 1992, compiled another strong year in 1993, his last full season in a Reds uniform. Departing as a free agent after the 1993 season, Sabo returned to Cincinnati in 1996, his last in a big league uniform, ending his Major League odyssey where it all began, so unexpectedly, eight years before. His career statistics place him the Reds' top 25 in home runs and doubles and in the club's top 50 in games played, at-bats, hits, RBIs, runs scored, stolen bases, walks, slugging percentage and total bases.
But Chris Sabo was always about much more than numbers. What made him memorable, what made Reds fans gravitate to him and hold on tightly was the way in which Sabo went about compiling those numbers He was a well-paid Major League baseball player who actually seemed to appreciate how fortunate he was. He drove a Ford Escort with 200,000 miles on it. He shopped for clothes at Kmart and relished a good deal on Bugle Boy jeans. He worked hard for what he had and never forgot lessons learned long before fame and money came his way.
In 2010, Sabo joins Bill Werber (Class of 1961) and Heinie Groh (Class of 1963) as the only third basemen inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame. Appropriately, Sabo was selected for induction by the fans, a clear reminder that more than a decade after he last donned his goggles and stormed onto the field, the impact of Chris Sabo is still reverberating in the collective memory of those fans lucky enough to see him play and is also being felt by a new generation of fans who, upon learning of his exploits, regret that they were not there to be a part of it all.