In one Nightmare season, Bret Saberhagen learned how fleeting fame can be. At the end of 1985 he was a 21-year-old, see-you-later-alligator California kid, the American League Cy Young Award winner, with a 20-6 record, who, in a span of 36 hours, became the World Series MVP, a first-time father and a bona fide national television star. Saberhagen had the stuff to sit on Johnny Carson's couch and to make the Kansas City Royals raise his pay from $100,000 for 1985 to $925,000 for 1986. Then came the crash.
He was 7-12 in '86 and, he says, "I hurt in so many places that I felt 37 and had no way to answer the people who thought it had all gone to—or through—my head. I'm the same person now that I was last year, and I was the same person last year that I was in '85. I've just learned a lot. I looked in the mirror and knew that when I got to spring training in '86, I wasn't prepared. I thought I was, but I found out that no longer could I just walk out and win. I knew I wasn't the flash in the pan people thought I was, but I also knew that winning was the only way to change people's minds."
Now Saberhagen, who went from Cy Young to die young, seems bent on becoming, at 23, perhaps the youngest player ever to qualify for the Comeback of the Year award. It took him only until May 25—nine starts—to surpass his win total for all of '86. After his 12-7 victory over Texas on Saturday he was the major leagues' leading winner at 9-1, and his 2.33 ERA was the best in the American League, 2.01 below the league ERA of 4.34. "With so many balls flying out of the park," says California Angels manager Gene Mauch, "it makes what Saberhagen is doing all the more remarkable."
"He hasn't just come back," says Royals catcher Jamie Quirk. "He has come back better. He's not only throwing harder than he did in '85, but much harder. He now dominates people, and he's doing for us what Roger Clemens did for the Red Sox last year." So, although George Brett is already doing his second stint on the disabled list, and Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson have started out a combined 5-11, the Royals left last weekend's series against Texas with a 2½-game lead in the American League West.
Twice in his first six starts, Saberhagen flirted with no-hitters. He held the Yankees hitless until the eighth inning on April 10 before finishing with a two-hitter, and went into the seventh with a perfect game in Cleveland on May 9. And five of Saberhagen's first seven wins followed Royals defeats. With his confidence restored, he is back to being Geisha Boy—the nickname Gubicza hung on him after a character in a Jerry Lewis movie—with his rolled-up jacket sleeves, turned-up collars and pastel colors. "A big part of his success comes from his confidence," says Quirk, "and he lost it last year. It's back. You can see it in his clothes."
As to where that confidence went, Saberhagen now realizes he did too much celebrating after his storybook season. The '85 postseason began with a trip to New York to receive the World Series MVP car. Then came the Today show, Good Morning America and a hop to L.A. for Carson. Then home to Kansas City. And back to Beverly Hills for a party given by his agent, Dennis (Go-Go) Gilbert. For various reasons he flew to Toronto, to New York, to Chicago. "Bret can't ever say no," says Gilbert. "One time he promised another player he'd play in his charity golf tournament, so after fulfilling an obligation in Kansas City, he jumped on a plane and flew all night to keep his promise. That's just the way he is."
"I learned the hard way," Saberhagen says. "I really didn't get any rest, mentally or physically. I had a chance to make what I thought was a lot of money. I didn't realize that if I'd stayed healthy and had another good year, I'd have made three or four times on the field what I made off it, and I ended up getting cut more than I made." Yes, after his $925,000 dud season, his '87 salary was cut to $740,000.
Says general manager John Schuerholz: "His agent had him running all over the country [after the '85 season]. I understand that he wanted to maximize Saberhagen's marketability while he could, but there has to be a limit to that sort of thing, and in this case there wasn't. Saberhagen wasn't ready when he got to camp, and it took its toll."
During the first week of '86 spring training, Saberhagen's right foot began bothering him. The injury went undiagnosed and untreated until it finally cleared itself up in November, but his foot ached all season. Next he got the flu. Then he hurt his shoulder. When the season started he had pitched only 12‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings, which forced manager Dick Howser to scratch him as the Opening Day starter. He had a shutout in his second start in Boston and some occasional glimmers of past glory, but Saberhagen knew he was no longer the World Series hero. By July he was 4-10 with a 4.51 ERA, and people were questioning his dedication. "It was extremely frustrating," he says. "There was a little doubt in some people's minds that I was hurt at all. When you're in that situation, people look for other reasons. They watch you like a hawk. They say that you're not taking the game seriously. When a guy's winning, he's 'loose' and 'nothing bothers him.' When he starts to go down, he's 'not serious.' Finally, come August, I was hurting, we were out of it and I said, 'Hey, why mess with my career?' " Saberhagen went on the disabled list and started only three games in September. He had a grand total of one victory after July.
He rested until Thanksgiving and then went to work, building a gym in his basement for daily workouts. "The year before, in the off-season, I threw in the cold in Kansas City without proper preparation, and I think it could have affected me," he says. So New Year's Day he packed up the family and moved in with his wife Janeane's family in Reseda, Calif. He threw six days a week at his old high school in Reseda, instead of the three days a week he had thrown the winter before. And he refused to make any public appearances after Christmas. "I got to Florida bigger and in better shape than I'd ever been," he says. "My arm was already strong, but I still concentrated on building it up. When we went north, I knew I was back." Billy Gardner, who replaced Howser as manager, had heard that Saberhagen was a bit of a free spirit but, he says, "From the first day, he went at his work as if he were a raw rookie trying to make the club."
Saberhagen made one other adjustment. He scrapped his slider and went with a fastball-curveball-changeup repertoire because, he says, "In trying to throw both a curve and slider I ended up having two lousy pitches instead of one good one." Says Quirk, "Bret doesn't need four pitches. People don't realize how hard he throws. He used to be around 90. Now he's being clocked at 93. People think of Gubicza or Jackson as power pitchers, but Sabes is easily the hardest thrower on the staff."
Saberhagen's easy motion requires little fine-tuning. "Everything's compact, and my mechanics were always natural," he says. "That is, until last year, when I was hurt. Last year was good for me in a lot of ways. I had a lot of time to think, and most of all I thought about what it takes to stay on top once you're there. I'd been up there, and then I was down there, and at 22 all I had to do was figure out how to get back up again."
He seems to have found the answer.