Sabes? Yoo-hoo, Sabes? Don't go to sleep yet. Let those eyes close now and cloud nine might just—poof!—vaporize and send you plummeting out of the stratosphere, down-down-down into the world of 4 a.m. feedings and messy diapers and ear infections and croup and waaaaaiiillling night and day and.... Sabes? Just a little longer, fella. Miles to go and all that. Then tomorrow you meet the President—Jim Quisenberry's biggest fan—and on Monday a new car. After that, maybe the Cy Young. And your contract! My heavens, just think about the seven-figure contract you'll be signing. And then...Sabes? Oh, Saaabes....
The lids over Bret Saberhagen's pale-blue eyes were half-mast and sinking. Every few seconds they would hit bottom and then blink open again in a flurry of confusion and embarrassment, like skirts caught in a gust of wind. "I'm so sleepy," he yawned, snuggling his lean 6'1" body into the backseat of the rented four-door sedan as it hummed along 1-35, past ponds and cornfields and the young shoots of winter wheat between Wichita and Kansas City. Hogging the seat beside him was a giant stuffed bear named Polar, grinning idiotically as it took Sabes into its arms. Sabes and Polar were heading home from a charity golf tournament, an event so cold and miserable that the highlight for Saberhagen came on the 15th wind-chilled hole of The Tallgrass Club in Wichita when crusty old Hank Bauer—who once hit in 17 straight World Series games—came steaming over the rise on a golf cart bearing coffee and Kahlua. "I'm getting pneumonia out here," said Saberhagen.
"You old enough to drink yet?" chided Royals trainer Mickey Cobb, brandishing the Kahlua.
"He's old enough to do any bleeping thing he wants to after his year," said Bauer as he filled the cup to the rim—with vim.
November 11, 1985
And what Sabes wanted right now was sleep...just sleep...then home to 4-day-old Drew William and Janeane. You remember them. Not-so-little Drew, who, but for a few chromosomal X's and Y's, would have been Brittany—Britt Saberhagen, oh, that's nice. And fair Janeane, Sabes's 20-year-old wife, to whom he signaled through your living room television as if she were sitting right there beside you, for goodness' sake, patting his tummy expectantly in the process of pitching the Kansas City Royals—Motherhood's Team—back into the Show Me World Series.
Not yet, Bret. Twenty-one-year-olds don't need sleep. Not when they're living a dream that keeps getting better the longer it lasts. The question is not, When will it end? It is, When did it begin? The 20th victory of your season? A 3-1 five-hitter over California's John Candelaria that halted a three-game Royals skid and lifted K.C. into a tie with the Angels with six games left on the schedule? The seventh game of the AL playoffs? The start of the Series? Game 3 of the Series? The birth of Drew? The conception of Drew? The conception of you? Just when exactly was it that reality became suspended and the magic kicked in?
Sabes, heavy-lidded, laid his head against Polar's white, willing shoulder. "I go back to the first Series game we won," he says.
The third game of the World Series was, obviously, essential to the Royals' cause. K.C. had lost the first two games at home, and no team in Series history had come back from a 3-0 deficit. The Royals—as fine a comeback team as they proved to be—would not have become the first. Not the way John Tudor, who would start Games 4 and 7 for the Cardinals, was pitching. Saberhagen had to beat Joaquin Andujar, or St. Louis, in all probability, would have swept the Series and the Royals would have remained what, in the eyes of most observers, they had always been: merely the strongest of the weak sisters of the American League West.
Saberhagen had not exactly been Mr. October up till then. Since winning his 20th game on Sept. 30, Sabes had been knocked out of the box by Oakland in K.C.'s next-to-last game of the season—the eventual division clincher when the Royals overcame a four-run Oakland lead—and by Toronto in Game 3 of the AL playoffs. Against the Blue Jays he was hit on the foot by a line shot and ended up surrendering five runs on nine hits in just 4‚Öì innings. "I wasn't busting them enough inside," says Saberhagen, who throws fastballs on about 75% of his pitches—a heater that averages about 90 mph, but, on occasion, has been clocked as high as 94. He came back to start Game 7 against the Blue Jays, but left after three scoreless innings, having been struck on the palm of his pitching hand by another line drive. The Royals had been winning—and losing—without their ace. Saberhagen had a lot left to prove in postseason play.
So what was he thinking about before this critical Game 3, with his team on the ropes and his wife on the couch back home, great with child? His curveball? Willie McGee? Lamaze? Nope. His batting. Taking his cuts. "I was extremely excited at the idea of hitting in the major leagues," says Saberhagen, a .400 hitter in high school who had been, till two weeks ago, deprived of the pleasures of striking out, missing signs and failing to sacrifice runners along because of the AL's designated-hitter rule. "I was talking more about that before the game than pitching. I pitch every five days. It's almost old hat."
Old hat? The fifth-youngest pitcher ever to start a World Series game describing the experience as old hat? Is this guy for real? But he meant it. Saberhagen knew what he could do on the mound. He felt strong, and his hand was fully recovered from the line drive. He would do all right out there, and if he didn't, well, the sun would rise tomorrow. What he didn't know was whether he could hit big league pitching, and what former high school hitting star doesn't long for a chance to learn? So Sabes stood around the batting cage before the game with his good friend George Brett, getting tips on his swing from the master. Brett and Saberhagen, a pair of Southern California transplants who are cut from the same loose cloth according to nearly everyone's assessment, including Saberhagen's. "Aside from the obvious difference that he's single and I'm married, we're a lot alike," says Saberhagen, who lived with Brett at the start and finish of the 1984 season, his rookie year. "We're both practical jokers, enjoy the outdoors, like the same kinds of sports. And we're the same way about being there in the big situation. George wants to drive in the game-winning run, and I like to get the last out."
"The kid has no fear," Bob Saberhagen, Bret's father, has said. "Never did."
The elder Saberhagen, 41, is now a computer executive out of Chatsworth, Calif., but a few years ago he ran a private aviation firm in the San Fernando Valley. His son was always hanging around the office, so Father arranged for the 11-year-old Sabes to take flying lessons. After several sessions, Bob called them off. "I was worried for him," Bob recalled recently. "Most people have some healthy fear of flying—it's just a prudent caution—but Bret had none of that. He saw flying the way he sees a hitter like Reggie Jackson or Dave Win-field at the plate: as just something to beat. That's a bad thing for a pilot."
But a great thing for a pitcher. If Sabes had been the least bit cautious he would never have thrown the pitch that changed the Royals' fortunes in the 1985 Series. It came in the bottom of the first inning of that third game, with Cardinal base runners on first and second and one out. Cleanup hitter Jack Clark was batting, and the count was full. The momentum was all St. Louis's—two-games-to-zero lead, home fans giddy with the smell of Royal blood, and the memory of the four ninth-inning runs that had won Game 2 fresh in everyone's mind. Clark fouled off two fastballs.
The runners, McGee and Tommy Herr, were running on the pitch—Cardinal baseball, guys; the heat is on!—so on Saberhagen's third 3-2 delivery he held the ball a moment longer, freezing McGee at second. Then he broke off a slider that caught Clark looking, and Royals catcher Jim Sundberg nailed McGee at third to complete the double play. A slider on the inside corner, no less, despite the fact that all the Royals' scouting reports had said to pitch Clark away. Saberhagen doesn't know why he threw it there. He just did. "He's almost like a piano player who sits down and plays and has never taken a lesson," says Royals pitching coach Gary Blaylock. "It's like he's resurrected. The pitch that he threw to Jack Clark was pure instinct. I will probably remember it for as long as I live."
Cards manager Whitey Herzog was still muttering about the pitch three hours later, after the Royals had completed the 6-1 win. "I've never seen a better young pitcher," he said of Saberhagen. "He's phenomenal. [Dwightl Gooden is more overpowering, but when he gets behind 2-0, Gooden's going to come at you with the fastball. This kid can surprise you. He got a couple of strikeouts on changeups that I would never have thought possible for someone so young."
Saberhagen gave up just six singles and a walk in throwing the complete game, striking out eight. (He also did fine at the plate, hitting a hard line foul in the third and laying down a perfect sacrifice bunt in the fourth.) But if his performance on the mound convinced the Cards that they were up against someone special, his performance in the dugout convinced the American public. As the Royals batted in the top of the eighth inning, Sabes, egged on by an ABC cameraman, sent his eloquent message over the airwaves to Janeane. You O.K.? Hold on, I'll be home soon, but I'm having one hell of a time till I get there. This final note was sent via the most infectious grin captured on television since—when?—the members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team climbed up to collect their gold medals? It meshed innocence and happiness and all those other things that show so keenly at 21. Fresh-faced and trusting as a puppy, Saberhagen proved a nice change from the sour and dour Cards, and there were suddenly about 40 million Royals fans out there in Don't-Bother-To-Show-Me Land.
"Bret? Wake up, Bret." It was 6:30 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 26. Saberhagen had been asleep for only about four hours when he heard, "My water broke."
Those three words have thrown more panic into more American men than any other three words in the English language, with the possible exception of those three little words that can lead to this state. Your water broke?—oh, God. Are you all right? Are you thirsty? Are you wet? Am I wet? Where, for heaven's sake, and who's going to clean it all up?
You can go to all the Lamaze classes that you like—and the Saberhagens went to three two-hour sessions—but there is no way to fully prepare yourself for the experience of natural childbirth. Most fathers-to-be stand around cluelessly, minds turning to goo as the situation deteriorates disgustingly around them. Your water broke? Where are my shoes? Where are my keys? Where's the car? Where's the hospital?
Saberhagen did extremely well. He forgot only his watch and his wallet in driving Janeane to St. Luke's, a high-speed 10-minute tear from their home. When Dr. Francis Ferns first examined Janeane, he assured her she would have the baby by that night's Game 6. Like most Missourians, the doctor intended to watch it. Then they all settled in for that phase of labor called Timing the Contractions, three hours of mounting misery in which Saberhagen alternately watched Saturday morning cartoons—Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner—and coached Janeane in breathing techniques designed to ease her pain. It went something like this: At the peak of a contraction, Saberhagen would politely suggest that Janeane breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth. Sniff; puff. Sniff; puff. This is sometimes called the Sniff-Puff Technique. It is a tremendous morale booster for the husband, but as any mother can tell you, Sniff-Puff doesn't work.
When things get really uncomfortable—the hard labor phase, which in Janeane's case lasted two hours—the method of breathing becomes a doglike pant. Saberhagen would hyperventilate along with Janeane between contractions—pant-pant-pant-pant-rest—a breathing technique that has sent more than one father-to-be reeling to the floor in a swoon. "I didn't say too much overall," recalls Saberhagen. "I could tell by the reactions of the doctor and nurses that things were going well, so mostly I stood by and let Janeane crush my hands."
Greater love hath no pitcher. At 11:15, shortly after Janeane had vowed that this child would be her last—women say all sorts of crazy things during a phase called Transition, occasionally resorting to profanities toward their loving, supportive husbands—the doctor informed her that she would have the baby by 11:30. "No. Let's have it by 11:15," said Janeane. Natural childbirth is a wonderful experience, but the general reviews suggest that it lasts too long.
At 11:38 the baby was born: nine pounds, three ounces and 20¼ inches. The head came out, then the doctor unwrapped the umbilical cord from around its neck, then the rest of Drew William followed. "A lot of people told me that the baby would be purple and yucky looking," Saberhagen says now. "But it wasn't as bad as I expected. My first thoughts were, Is it really mine? He's so little. He's got a long way to go. It's fascinating to see a baby come out of somebody's body."
Janeane's first words? "You're eight minutes late." Then she smiled, and the radiance of the smile made Bret burst into tears.
"Want to cut the umbilical cord?" the doctor asked him.
Oh sure. Oh great. Is there a discount involved? Shall I circumcise him while I'm at it? That's what a lot of fathers would have said—sensible men who recognize-their limitations. Not Sabes. He calmly snipped the cord, then tested the limits of human endurance by watching the exit of the placenta, a Technicolor extravaganza that should be viewed with all the precautions of a total eclipse of the sun—polarized glasses, mirrors, cardboard boxes, air-sickness bags, the works. "It really didn't gross me out," said Sabes. "It was kind of interesting. Like watching a health course."
The man with no fear. Saberhagen stayed with his new family till 3:00 p.m., made a bunch of phone calls, bought some cigars and "It's a boy" lollipops, then headed to the ball park to "play the proud daddy." It didn't take much acting. He did everything but bounce off the outfield walls while passing out the goodies. Saberhagen is popular with his teammates—genuinely liked by the entire club—so they shared in his ebullience. It probably helped relax them as they went into Game 6. This was not do or die. Saberhagen had just been through do or die, and he was absolutely clear about the difference. Asked if he would be disappointed if he didn't get a chance to pitch Game 7, Saberhagen replied, "How could I be disappointed about anything? We've had a great season and I've had a great season and I'm a father."
If the team lost, he had already made plans to spend the night in the hospital with Janeane and Drew. So he settled down to watch the game from the dugout, the Royals' No. 1 cheerleader, as always. Only something happened around the fifth inning. He started to get nervous. Nervous that the Royals might lose. And suddenly he realized he would be disappointed if he didn't pitch Game 7. "I wanted to throw," he says now. And when Sundberg made his headfirst ninth-inning slide home to force the seventh and deciding game, you know who was on the lead of the mob out to congratulate him? Of course you do. Sabes.
Through the miracle of exhaustion Saberhagen got a good 10 hours of sleep Saturday night. He was just too tired to lie awake worrying about the game. The seventh game. So what if he would be the youngest pitcher ever to start one: 21 years, 6 months, 16 days.
His opponent was the southpaw Tudor, a testy New Englander with all the charisma of a Massachusetts state trooper. Already 2-0 in the Series, Tudor had been the winningest pitcher in baseball since May 29, with a 23-2 record including postseason play. Saberhagen had been almost as hot: 19-3 since May 7. It was the first matchup of 20-game winners in the seventh game of the Series since 1962, and in many ways this was a meeting of opposites.
As much as Sabes had enjoyed his World Series and brightened it for those around him, Tudor had despised his. Unaccustomed to the media crush that accompanies such world championship events, Tudor took every inconvenience personally. He would just as soon have been elsewhere. Saberhagen, of course, would not have been anywhere else. On the eve of the game, about the time that Saberhagen was hurrying back to St. Luke's hospital to bid good night to Janeane, Tudor told Peter Gammons of The Boston Globe, "There's something in me that would love to pitch this game. But as I sit here, I'd rather not pitch it...there's always that feeling deep down inside that if I should lose it would ruin the whole season, personally.... I keep thinking that sometime I'm going to go out there and not have good stuff, that all this is going to come to an end."
Confidence tempered by a good healthy fear of reality. Tudor would have made a good pilot. And in the seventh game it did come to an end, none too prettily, either. Tudor, unable to hit the strike zone, lasted 2‚Öì innings, his shortest stint of the season, allowing the first five runs of the Royals' 11-0 rout. Saberhagen breezed. Oh, sure, he was nervous—"The most nervous I've ever seen him before a game," says Blaylock—but to any man who has just gone face-to-face with a placenta, a first inning of Ozzie Smith, McGee and Herr looks like a walk in the park. Throwing virtually nothing but fastballs—Saberhagen delivered only 14 or 15 off-speed pitches the entire game—he got 18 Cardinals to either pop up or fly out. "They couldn't catch up to his fastball," says Sundberg. "He's like Catfish Hunter—you have to get him in the first couple of innings, or you're not going to get him at all."
Saberhagen gave up five singles and no walks. He went to three balls on a hitter only twice, both times after the Royals had chalked up the 11-run lead. Saberhagen's control is the cornerstone of his success—he walked only 38 batters in 235‚Öì innings during the season—and his control had never been better than in this, the biggest game of his life. "Every time I missed, I missed high or low or wide," he said afterward. "Never into the middle of the plate."
Standing on its own, it was a masterful performance—the first shutout thrown in a seventh game since Sandy Koufax did so in 1965. Given the events of the day before, the adrenaline he had burned and the emotions he had spent, the performance rises to a once-in-a-lifetime plateau. Unfortunately, in many ways Saberhagen's masterpiece was overshadowed by the Cardinals' disgrace under pressure and the lopsided nature of the score. Not that Saberhagen objected. Hell, a laugher was right up his alley. You know what Sabes was thinking about in those last few innings, when the game was so out of hand that the fat lady had left the ball park in disgust? He was hoping the Royals would get two more runs to make the final score 13-0, the same score as in his last high school game, when he pitched a no-hitter for Cleveland High of Reseda to win the 1982 Los Angeles city championship in Dodger Stadium. It was the only no-hitter in the 44-year history of the event. You don't think he thrives on big games? And it would have been a perfect game, too, except his second baseman booted a grounder. Superhagen his teammates called him after that.
But history wouldn't repeat. The Royals didn't want two more runs. They wanted to get the fool game over with. So did the Cardinals. In the last three innings, every time one of the Royals made an out, he was hailed back at the dugout with cheers. "Way to go, Frank! Way to go, George!" "They wanted to start celebrating," says Saberhagen. "It wasn't just a matter of waiting all year for this moment. Some of those guys had been waiting for a championship for 12, 13 years. Hal McRae. Frank White. They wanted the last out to hurry up and get there."
And when that moment was finally at hand—two outs in the ninth—Brett went over to the mound and told Saberhagen, "Don't you run away and forget about me after this out."
Sabes delivered to the Cards' Andy Van Slyke, who lofted a deep fly to right. Saberhagen drifted toward third, Brett toward the mound. Saberhagen made a move for Brett. "Not yet," said Brett. There they were, a few inches apart, watching the flight of the ball.
Now. As rightfielder Darryl Motley caught the final out, the two happy-go-lucky Californians leaped into each other's arms. The good guys had won. No one, anywhere—including St. Louis—doubted it.
"You're too young!" utility infielder Greg Pryor shouted to Saberhagen during the clubhouse celebration, spraying Sabes with a faceful of champagne.
"I'm too young!" Sabes agreed. Darn near every Royal came over to congratulate him on his MVP selection. World Series hero. "What more can I ask for?" he wondered. "It's like the world's at my feet."
SWEET DREAMS, SABY
Saberhagen went directly to the hospital from the park, arriving in time for Drew's 2 a.m. feeding and keeping Janeane up until four carrying on about the game, the Royals' comeback, the birth. It was the first chance they had really had to talk. She finally booted him out of there so she could get some rest, and he went home for a shower and a change. Then it was back to the ball park at 5 a.m., so he could make the rounds on the morning news shows. After that he returned to the hospital, a camera crew in tow; then back again to the ball park, so he could catch the 10:30 bus to the downtown ticker-tape parade.
That was about as much fun as natural childbirth. About 225,000 people armed with 60,000 pounds of shredded paper lined the two-mile route—the biggest parade in Kansas City since Truman's inaugural parade. No ropes, no barricades—this was open season on heroes. As the Royals inched through the throng in open, antique cars, their loyal fans slam-dunked them in the kissers with basketball-size clumps of ticker tape. How's Drew doing, Sabes? (Thwack!) How's Janeane? (Fwump!) You guys are just the greatest!
It went on for two hours like that. The shredded paper got caught under the exhaust pipes of the overheated cars, burst into flames and sent players and spectators fleeing for their lives. Miraculously, no one was hurt. But six vehicles were burned and a police motorcycle destroyed amid the gaiety.
Saberhagen, perched on a maroon '49 Packard, sniff-puffing his way through the pain of confetti whiplash, never lost his smile. What the hell were 300,000 rowdy people to a man who had done successful battle with an umbilical cord? He returned to the hospital after the parade, packed up flowers, held baby Drew with practiced ease and checked the family out at 3:55 p.m. "He looks like a chubby Bret," Linda Saberhagen, Bret's mother, said of her new grandson, who had already started slimming down, having lost three ounces since entering the world.
No one from Rainbows United, a center for mentally handicapped children, would have blamed Saberhagen for skipping its auction and golf tournament the next two days. Very few even guessed he would come. But Saberhagen had said he would be there, so the next morning he and other members of the Royals family climbed aboard the buses for Wichita. "Is Janeane mad you're here?" matronly Kansas women asked him as he struggled around 18 holes of cold, artless golf. Or in an affectionately scolding tone they said, "You should be home."
"I'll be home soon," he would answer earnestly. "Janeane's got her mother with her."
"But you should be home."
He was everyone's favorite: polite, affable, a whiz with names. And he had just the hint of the devil in him. One father introduced himself and said, "You're 21 years old, the Most Valuable Player of the World Series. You're going to meet the President, and you've got a healthy son." He shrugged. "What do you do for an encore?"
It was a question Saberhagen had been asked by the media about 50 times already. He answered with his high-voltage smile. The man smiled back. "It's just that I've got a 21-year-old son who hasn't done anything yet."
That's the problem with living a dream: You can't get out of it by waking up. Everyone expects you to follow it up with something. Sabes? Saa-abes? Yoo-hoo. Here's a toothpick for those eyelids. Just a little longer. Only 17 miles to Kansas City.
"It shouldn't have gotten dark," he said, yawning, squirming deeper into the arms of Polar, the faithful bear with the demented smile that he was bringing home to Drew. Sabes rubbed his fingers over his mustache, an inconspicuous growth that he had been working on, he claimed, for 21 years. "If you think it's bad now, you should have seen it three years ago," he said. He yawned again. "Somebody called about doing a Pampers commercial. And there might be a movie or something. My agent's from Beverly Hills. And we're building a house in Leawood, Kansas. On a golf course. A lot of the guys live around there—Bud Black, Dan Quisenberry, Charlie Leibrandt, Joe Beckwith."
He closed his eyes. It was pitch-black in the fields beyond the highway. Tomorrow he would meet the President of the United States, and he was wondering what clothes to wear.
Sabes? One last thing. Something you said after Game 7, something that should give all the fathers in America pause. Mothers, too. After you won Game 7 of the World Series, after being named MVP and all the rest of it, you said that the birth of your son was still your greatest thrill. Did you mean that? Now that you have had a few days to come back down to earth? Sabes was looking out the window. He thought awhile. "Don't get me wrong," he said. "It's pretty close. Maybe I should have listed them as 1A and 1B. But, yeah, Drew was the biggest thrill, the World Series the second biggest."
A lot of folks will like that answer. Now get some rest, Sabes. And sweet dreams to you, Saby's baby.