Now, of course, every start of every season will be weighed against the dream. Dick Howser, the Kansas City manager, knows it. Walter Mitty himself knows it.
“This is something where I’ve got to say to myself, ‘Don’t worry about what everybody else thinks,’ ” Bret Saberhagen, who created the dream, was saying Thursday.
“If I lose, if I give up 12 runs . . . well, people may expect me to win every game I pitch, to be superhuman, but it’s not that way.
“I’ve just got to do my job and not worry about what other people think or expect.”
At 21, just three years removed from a 9-0 senior season at Reseda’s Cleveland High School, Saberhagen wins 20 of 26 decisions for the Royals and ultimately becomes the youngest player to win the American League’s Cy Young Award.
The 20-6 record does not include a six-hit complete-game victory over St. Louis in Game 3 of the World Series. Nor does it include a five-hit shutout in Game 7, ending a 36-hour span in which Saberhagen becomes the youngest recipient of the Series MVP award while a nation shares in the celebration surrounding the birth of Drew William Saberhagen--the first child for Bret and wife Janeane, his high school sweetheart.
Then, in the off-season, after Saberhagen and the Royals are unable to come to contract terms, an arbitrator awards Saberhagen his request for a $950,000 salary. The $800,000 raise seems generous even for a dream, but has there ever been a more rewarding couple? Has there ever been a young athlete with better feel for community and charity involvement?
Now, in the first week of a new season, the question is: Will the dream live? Can Saberhagen, who turns 22 today and who handled the pressure so admirably last fall, carry the new expectations?
“When I go out to pitch, the only thing I’m ever thinking about is pitching,” he said.
“Everyone has an opinion of you no matter who you are. I can’t worry about it. I can’t even let myself think about it.”
Saberhagen had just made his first start of 1986. He normally would have done it in the showcase of opening day, but the combination of a sore shoulder and persistent flu restricted his spring work to 12 innings, setting him back to the finale of a three-game series with the New York Yankees.
The Bronx afternoon was gray and cold--46 at game time--but Saberhagen displayed the stuff of dreams--and more. For a while, at least.
He did not allow a hit through four innings. He led, 5-2, through the top of the sixth.
Then, during a strange home half in which both Saberhagen and the Royals were victimized by a series of suspect calls, the Yankees reduced the deficit to 5-4 and forced Saberhagen to leave with two outs.
Last season, during the dream, Saberhagen pitched six innings or more in 30 of 32 starts and allowed three runs or fewer in 24.
In the 5 innings of this first start of a new season, he was charged with four runs, five hits and three walks. There was no solace in the suspicion that the umpiring calls distorted his final figures, or that he was free of shoulder stiffness.
The bottom line was that the Yankees finally won in the 10th, 6-5.
How often does a Kansas City pitcher get five runs? How often is Saberhagen unable to hold a 5-0 lead? Forget that the loss went to Al Hargesheimer, that Saberhagen is still 0-0.
“I’m real pleased that the shoulder wasn’t bothering me at all, but I still think it’s a terrible day when you give up a five-run lead,” he said.
“I mean, it’s tough to win when you don’t get the calls, but there’s no excuse for losing that kind of cushion. I loosened up easily, had one of the best sliders I’ve had in a long time and did what I was supposed to do for four innings.
“Unfortunately, it takes nine to win a game and I didn’t come close. It tees me off.”
Considering that he went in unsure of how many innings or pitches he could make after his incomplete spring, Saberhagen seemed to be hard on himself. That may be part of the dream’s legacy.
It was by throwing too hard too soon this spring that he developed his shoulder problem.
Howser said he knew it was coming because he knew the type of person and competitor that Saberhagen is.
“People look at the money he’s making now and ask if he’ll be spoiled, if he can handle it,” Howser said.
“I have to laugh at that because the problem with guys like Sabes and (Mark) Gubicza and (Danny) Jackson isn’t complacency or overconfidence; it’s just the opposite. They’re so competitive that the problem is getting them to back off, to understand that spring training is six weeks for a reason, and that’s to get your arm in shape slowly.
“I talked to Sabes about it, but here’s a Cy Young winner whose credentials were announced every time he went out to pitch (in the spring) and who reacted to every good swing by trying to throw that much harder. I knew it was coming, but I’d rather have it that way. I’d rather have to back ‘em off than crank ‘em up.”
Saberhagen finished the spring with reassuring performances against the White Sox and Cardinals, then held the Yankees hitless until Ken Griffey singled to lead off the Yankee fifth. Mike Pagliarulo, the left-handed half of New York’s third-base platoon and the ensuing hitter, hammered a hanging change-up for a home run.
It was still 5-2 when Willie Randolph opened the Yankee sixth with a grounder wide of third, where George Brett momentarily bobbled it. The replay showed Brett’s throw beating Randolph to first base, but umpire Dale Ford ruled otherwise.
Saberhagen responded by striking out Don Mattingly. Then Dave Winfield laced a triple to center on which third base umpire Greg Kosc said Winfield beat the relay to third. It was another call that was unsubstantiated by TV and infuriated Howser to the point that he later said Kosc didn’t belong in the majors.
Mike Easler then singled, scoring the second run of an inning that should have been scoreless. Saberhagen ultimately departed when he issued a two-out walk to Pagliarulo after throwing a 2-and-2 slider that seemed to nail the outside corner but was called a ball by umpire Rick Reed.
Said Howser: “He didn’t get much help (from the umpires), but I feel good about the way he threw. He was so good in the early innings that it was scary. Then I think he ran out of gas. His pitches started to come up. He should keep getting stronger now.”
Saberhagen hadn’t gone beyond 4 innings or 67 pitches in the spring. He said he is still taking it a game at a time but added, “I don’t know what stage I’m at or how many innings I should expect, but I expect to win when I have a 5-0 lead.”
In sustaining the dream, of course, he must now also cope with the expectations of others.