Chris Sabo made goggles cool 

Happy 60th birthday to the Reds cult legend

January 18th, 2022

Like all good ideas, it originated with his mother. Yes, Chris Sabo, the Reds third baseman with the iconic rec specs who gave hope to every nearsighted Little Leaguer (myself included), first got the idea to get his eyes checked from his mom.

"I was in Triple-A and I was having a little bit of a problem seeing during games at night. Daytime I was fine," Sabo, now the head baseball coach at the University of Akron, said in a recent phone call. We talked on the eve of his 60th birthday and our conversation was peppered with the sound of gloves popping and bats ringing as freezing temperatures forced the Zips' practice inside for the day.

"I really never got my eyes checked that much, to be honest with you," Sabo explained. "They suggested if I tried glasses, I'd see a little bit better, probably improve my performance. And I did. I had a great year, my last year in Triple-A. I just kept wearing them."

With the rec specs on, Sabo lit up Triple-A Nashville in 1987. He hit .292 that season and drew 37 walks compared to just 25 strikeouts. With the frames in place, he was ready to take on the Major Leagues the next year.

After beating out Buddy Bell to earn the starting third base job in Spring Training, Sabo took the field on Opening Day in 1988 to face Joe Magrane and the Cardinals. After starting the day an anxiety-ridden 0-for-2, Sabo laced a single in his third at-bat. In a taste of what was to come that year, Sabo then stole second base and came around to score the tying run that would ultimately force extra innings in the Reds' eventual 5-4 victory.

Two weeks later, Sabo hit his first big league home run off Mike Krukow. Not surprisingly for Sabo, who was known for his relentless competitiveness and focus on team success above all else, he has no memory of the dinger.

Sabo stayed hot that rookie season. He hit .271, smashed 11 home runs, stole 46 bases and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award over Cubs first baseman Mark Grace. He was even named to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati that summer, earning a thunderous ovation when he was announced next to his Reds teammate, Barry Larkin.

"I'm sure Sabo never expected [being elected to the All-Star Game], and he was really embarrassed when the Cincinnati fans kept chanting for [National League manager] Whitey Herzog to put Chris in the game,'' manager Pete Rose told the Christian Science Monitor later that summer. "I mean, this kid didn't think he belonged on the same field with guys like Bobby Bonilla and Vance Law. To me, his attitude is refreshing.''

With his flat-top buzz cut earning him the nickname "Spuds MacKenzie" for his resemblance to the beer commercial character, Sabo immediately became a fan favorite for his solid defense, aggressive approach at the plate and on the bases and win-at-all-costs mentality. He went from the self-described "worst fielder ever" to a three-time All-Star seemingly by will.

"I love competing in everything -- ping pong, pool, you name it, I like doing it," Sabo said. "I was always either shooting pucks, or hitting golf balls, throwing balls, hitting rocks with sticks. I just love to do everything athletic."

It also meant that Sabo didn't pay much mind to the attention he -- and his trademark specs -- started to receive.

"I really didn't have a reaction. I had to wear [the goggles] for a reason: So I could see," Sabo said about his role as an unwitting fashion icon. "At that time, I couldn't wear contacts, because I had to wear hard ones. And I used to slide headfirst all the time and they wouldn't stay in, so it really wasn't feasible. I tried regular glasses, and they moved around too much. So I saw this thing about rec specs at an eyewear place. I tried them on. I go, 'Hey, these work pretty good.' They were kind of goofy, but they worked for me."

The bespectacled third baseman struggled with injuries in 1989, missing nearly half the season, but he bounced back the next year to hit 25 home runs and help the Reds sweep the A's in the World Series. Sabo led the way in the Fall Classic, going 9-for-16 against Oakland with a two-homer performance in Game 3.

"I could hit fastballs. They threw me fastballs -- which surprised me -- and I said, 'Thank you very much,'" Sabo said with a laugh. "They gave me those fastballs and I crushed them."

That led to perhaps the least-Sabo moment of his career. Called to the stage during the Reds' World Series parade, Sabo took the mic and announced, "We've got the rings, we've got the money, we've got everything!"

"I didn't know people were gonna talk," Sabo explained. "We just went up on the big stage and the emcee called some of the players up. He asked me to come say a few words. So, it was just totally spur of the moment."

With all the talent in the world, it seemed like the Reds might be a dynasty to start the '90s. It wasn't to be.

The Reds slumped the following season, dropping to 74-88, despite Sabo's best Major League campaign. The third baseman hit .301 with 26 home runs and 19 steals. After that, injuries and struggles at the plate started to mount for Sabo. He bounced between three teams in 1994-95 before returning to Cincinnati for his final big league season in 1996.

"We all came up in the Minor Leagues together, and we won quite a few championships in the Minor Leagues. So, we were used to winning," Sabo said. "Back then the Reds were a lot of homegrown guys. And so it was awesome because I had played with these players in A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A and now we're in the big leagues. It's all cool. I mean, we had a good team. I'll be quite honest, I thought we were gonna win more [World Series titles]."

Though Sabo is flattered by the attention he still receives and often returns to Cincinnati to help with charity events, his focus is now on building the Akron baseball program. He hopes to pass down the knowledge that he gleaned from people like Pete Rose, Tony Perez and Johnny Bench and pass it down to a new generation of players.

"I was smart enough to listen. I didn't think I knew more," Sabo said. "I respected guys that had been successful. I try to coach the same way and hopefully I say something, they take it to heart. Because I don't try to coach and make you worse."

The Zips have some growing pains to deal with first. Sabo was put in charge of restarting the program in 2020 before the pandemic canceled most of that first season back. Last year they went just 15-36 in their first full campaign, though there are about a dozen new players joining the team for the 2022 season. It may take some time before Akron is competing for titles, but that's not how Sabo views it.

"I'm an optimist," Sabo said. "Every year I ever played any sport, I thought we would win the highest title in whatever league I was in. I've always thought that way. Every time I went up to home plate. I was 100% sure I was going to get a hit. Obviously, I hope we win the MAC, get to the MAC tournament, win the Mid-American Conference Championship and move on to the regionals. And that's the way I operate."

Perhaps the best example of this mindset comes from a moment in Sabo's career that he thinks of fondly. No, it's not a big hit in a crucial moment or a diving catch to seal a win. Rather, it's what a retiring scout told him before one Reds game.

"I used to love watching you come from the batter's on-deck circle up to the plate," the scout said. "You look like the most confident guy in the world. You weren't the best hitter I've seen, but you walked up there like Ted Williams."

Sabo pauses for a moment to reflect.

"Well, I was very confident," Sabo said. "I always thought of that as one of the ultimate compliments."