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Saberhagen Is Unaffected by Life in Fast Lane : Royals’ Young Ace, 21, Handles His Rapid Rise to Stardom Like a Veteran

Times Staff Writer

In mid-October, Bret Saberhagen will become a father. Never mind that he looks more like somebody’s son than anybody’s father. He’s ready for this.

Fatherhood will just be the latest in a series of recent events in Saberhagen’s life. The past few years have been something of a whirlwind, but he seems to be holding up all right.

The whirlwind:

--In June, 1982, he became a 19th-round pick of the Kansas City Royals in baseball’s amateur draft. That same month, he concluded his career at Cleveland High School in Reseda by pitching a no-hitter in a 13-0 win over Palisades in the City championship game at Dodger Stadium. He missed a perfect game because of a first-inning error. He was chosen City Section Player of the Year.

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--In the spring of 1983, about a month before his 19th birthday, he began his first season of professional baseball. He recorded a 16-7 record and 2.55 earned-run average while splitting time in Class-A and Double-A. He stamped himself as a hot prospect.

--The Royals were looking for starting pitching in 1984, and Saberhagen suddenly found himself on a major league roster. On April 4, a week before his 20th birthday, he became the youngest Royal to appear in a major league game. He finished the ’84 season with a 10-11 record and 3.48 ERA.

--In December, 1984, he married his high school sweetheart.

Which brings us to 1985, another memorable year. Not only is Saberhagen’s wife, Janeane, expecting the couple’s first child, but Bret William Saberhagen, 21, has emerged as a legitimate candidate for the American League Cy Young Award.

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It may all seem like enough to make a guy want the world to slow down a little so he can catch up, but Saberhagen doesn’t seem affected by it all.

“I just kind of take things one day at a time,” Saberhagen said. “It’s been happening fast, but I’ve kind of put it in perspective. I’ve been able to enjoy each thing that’s happened to me.”

There has been much to enjoy this baseball season. Saberhagen was chased by the Angels Monday night, but that was a rare lapse on his part. He has become one of the most effective starting pitchers in the major leagues. He is 17-6 with a 2.81 ERA and 123 strikeouts. He has walked only 29 batters in 195 innings. He is 9-2 in his last 11 starts and has given up only 14 walks and 26 earned runs over 87 innings in that span.

“I think he would have to be in consideration,” Royal Manager Dick Howser said of Saberhagen’s Cy Young Award chances. “But there’s another month left to play. He’ll probably get another five or six starts. But if you look at his numbers right now, he deserves consideration. I’d certainly vote for him. And I’m sure Billy Martin would do the same for (Yankee pitcher Ron) Guidry.”

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And what does Saberhagen think of all this attention? Of being a contender for the highest award a pitcher can earn?

“Some of my friends came out (to Anaheim Stadium) Monday night and said, ‘Hey, you’re a superstar now.’ ” Saberhagen said. “And I said, ‘But I don’t feel like a superstar.’ I’m the same old Bret Saberhagen that I was in high school. I really don’t feel like I’ve changed that much.

“I don’t know . . . it’s really strange being labled a star. It’s something I guess I’ll have to live with.”

John Schuerholz, the Royals’ general manager, has watched this story unfold since a scout persuaded the organization to draft Saberhagen despite arm trouble that slowed him during his senior year.

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“The fact that he was a 19th-round draft choice is a little bit misleading, because he was a fine player during his junior year,” Schuerholz said. “Then he hurt his arm. The scout that recommended him had seen him as a junior, and he really stuck with him.

“He’s a remarkable young man. He’s got great make-up, he’s got great composure, he’s got great competitive spirit, and he’s also blessed with a lot of ability. That’s an awfully rare combination for somebody who’s 21 years old.”

Saberhagen wasn’t particularly pleased to learn that he hadn’t been drafted until the 19th round. Doctors who examined his right arm never determined whether he was sufferring from tendinitis or a pulled muscle in his shoulder. The injury wasn’t severe, but it was enough to keep some of the scouts away.

“But as it’s turned out, I wasn’t labled a bonus baby, the can’t-miss type,” Saberhagen said. “I think that’s helped me out a little bit.”

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It allowed Saberhagen to quietly enter the minor leagues, where it didn’t take him long to attract major league attention.

“I remember looking at his minor league numbers and they were: 9 innings, 5 hits, 7 strikeouts, 1 walk,” Howser said. “That would be a typical game for him. And everywhere he pitched, the numbers were the same.”

It just so happened that Saberhagen’s swift climb through the minor leagues coincided with the decline of the Royals’ starting rotation. The call went out.

“There was an opening for him here,” Howser said. “There was a chance for him to make this club. We made a decision after ’83 that our starting pitching was not strong enough for us to be a contender. We had to do something about it, and you have to try your own people first. That’s the organization’s philosophy, and I like it. Why not give them a chance?

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“And they’ve all been able to handle it, Saberhagen better than any of them because he has that poise and maturity you look for. He almost looks like a guy who’s pitched in the big leagues for five or six years.”

Saberhagen’s success, Howser said, has been a blend of an above-average fastball with a decent curve and changeup, and the ability to put those pitches pretty much wherever he wants them. He is also a leading candidate for the Gold Glove among American League pitchers.

“He doesn’t have a real weakness,” Howser said. “He fields his position well, he holds runners, he doesn’t walk hitters. Look at his strikeouts vs. walks. It’s probably the best in the American League. You put those kinds of numbers together, why shouldn’t he be a good pitcher?”

All of this has made Bob Saberhagen one very proud father. “I couldn’t begin to tell you how proud,” he said. “I think you get more out of your kids’ successes than you get out of your own.”

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Bob Saberhagen sat next to his son in the visitors’ dugout Monday night at Anaheim Stadium, an hour before Bret was to take the mound against the Angels. The elder Saberhagen has become a regular visitor in the Royals’ clubhouse, both at home and on the road. He is recognized by his son’s teammates. It’s almost as if he’s one of the guys, and he’s enjoying every minute of it.

Watching Bret pitch has been much more enjoyable for Bob this season. “There was a time when I lived and died with every pitch,” he said. “But lately, it hasn’t been too bad.”

Though he’s certainly not an impartial observer, Bob Saberhagen doesn’t expect his son to be adversely affected by hype surrounding the Cy Young Award.

“Bret’s always performed real well in pressure situations,” he said. “When he was a youngster, we hung up a tire with a 13-inch hole in the backyard. We’d gamble on the number of pitches that we could throw through that hole. He seemed to perform better when there was something significant at stake--like the money he earned from his paper routes.

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“He performs best when there’s something significant on the line. The Cy Young just gives him a little more impetus to bear down a little harder and reach back a little more.”

Bret Saberhagen modestly said that all this talk about the Cy Young Award is nice, but he’s more concerned with helping his team beat the Angels in the race in the A.L. West. Let those personal achievements take care of themselves, he says.

You want to believe him. He has one of those innocent, baby faces you want to trust. And apparently all of that innocence hasn’t been lost in the whirlwind of the last few years.


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