When Chris Sabo burst onto the scene in Cincinnati at the start of the 1988 season, the Reds were a team on the verge of disaster, even if no one knew it yet.
The next season, in 1989, the team would tumble in the standings after a four-year run of contention that ended with runner-up status all four times. Even worse, of course, Pete Rose would bring an ugly, unwanted spotlight to the club courtesy of the betting scandal that would get him banned, maybe forever.
But in April of 1988, we didn’t know any of that would transpire.
For Reds fans, like me, it was an exciting time.
Not only were the Reds coming off their third straight winning season, they also had young standouts like Eric Davis, Kal Daniels, Paul O’Neill, Tom Browning, Barry Larkin, and a slew of others ready to lead the team to even greater heights, and for a long time to come.
And it was all glued together with Rose’s enthusiasm and hard-nosed hustle that ingratiated the team to young and old fans alike.
Sabo fit right in that mold.
A small, scrappy third baseman who wore goggles that made him look like a cross between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Snoopy, Sabo had clawed his way to the majors over five long years in the minors after the Reds drafted him in the second round back in 1983.
At 26, Sabo could hardly be considered a prospect, but Rose liked his hustle and gave him a shot after a strong spring showing.
Sabo started the Reds first four games and twenty times total in April, hitting .263 with four homers and nine steals over that span.
That was enough to push 1987 starter Buddy Bell into a reserve role, and Sabo’s hustle started to gain some national attention. Before long, someone (allegedly Rose) made the visual connection — Cincy’s third baseman looked like Spuds MacKenzie.
Thus, “Spuds” was born.
It stuck, and so did Sabo’s success — by season’s end, he had hit .271 with 11 home runs and 44 RBI, along with a disruptive 46 stolen bases.
That performance scored the National League Rookie of the Year award, and Sabo was on top of the world.
The next season didn’t go so well, though, as the 27-year-old made it into just 82 games while his team fell to pieces in all sorts of ways.
In the offseason between 1989 and 1990, with Reds faithful wondering what was next and if the mini-revival was dead before it led anywhere, Lou Piniella signed on to manage the team.
That worked out pretty well, of course, as the Reds led the NL West from wire-to-wire before taking the NLCS and sweeping the World Series. Part of that success owed to Sabo himself, who rebounded to hit .270 with 25 dingers, 71 RBI, and 25 stolen bases.
Spuds reached even a bit higher in 1991, but the Reds slid back to fifth, making his 5-WAR performance an afterthought for most fans. A rough, injury-filled 1992 was followed by another rebound, though more modest, in 1993, and then, when he was 31, the Reds released him.
Free agent deals with the Orioles and White Sox followed, and Chicago released him in June 1995. A few days later, Sabo caught on with the Cardinals, but they, too, cut him loose before season’s end.
And so it was that Chris Sabo, a national phenomenon at the end of the previous decade and an All-Star just four years earlier, found himself at a crossroads in the winter of 1995.
Would he hang on to the dream a little longer, or was it time to hang up his spikes?
That question would be answered before the new year dawned, as Sabo found a new home — and an old home — with the Cincinnati Reds.
Cincy was coming off a shortened season (thanks to the 1994-95 strike) that saw them win their first National League Central title ever, with designs on advancing past the NLCS in 1996 (the Braves swept them there in 1995).
Back on the Riverfront at age 34, Spuds was a part-time player, backing up starter Willie Greene at third base and hitting .256 with three homers and 16 RBI in 145 plate appearances over 54 games.
And the Reds?
After firing manager Davey Johnson and replacing him with Ray Knight, Cincinnati slid to 81-81, a third-place finish, and out of the playoffs.
It was a big pot of mediocre, and, when Sabo became a free agent in November, the Reds let him go.
So did the rest of baseball, and Sabo was done.
But while he was back home in Cincinnati, a few folks took the opportunity to commemorate the event in cardboard.
At the national level, Fleer graced the hobby with Ultra and Update cards of Spuds.
But it was local meat-maker Kahn’s who captured the essence of the thing.
From 1987 through 2000 (and then a few more times), Kahn’s issued team sets for the Reds, generally given out to fans at the stadium on a specific night each season.
Like the other Kahn’s sets, the 1996 issue featured red (Red?) borders that perfectly complemented the Reds uniforms, like the pinstripe beauty you see here on card number 17:
Find Chris Sabo cards on eBay (affiliate link)
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That’s Chris Sabo, in case you can’t tell, one last shot of Spuds and his specs, digging in for the Reds.
Just like it was meant to be.
After he hung up his spikes, Spud … well, put on the spikes again, as a coach (among doing a lot of other things). One of those stops was in Billings, as evidenced by this jersey …
The Mustangs were an Advanced Rookie affiliate of the Reds through 2020, and the seller lists this as a game-used Sabo jersey from 2004.
Check out the complete listing on eBay right here (affiliate link).
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