Memories around the batting cage are etched in Chris Sabo’s brain, and one easily recalled involves current Indians manager Terry Francona and former Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose.
Although new University of Akron baseball coach Sabo and Francona were together during spring training in 1987 for a short time, Sabo said Rose loved Francona’s swing and used to call him “Tietsie.”
Rose had nicknames for everyone, and Francona’s had to be a takeoff from his father, Tito Francona, which the younger Francona goes by now.
A first baseman/outfielder, Terry Francona signed as a free agent with the Reds on March 23. Third baseman Sabo did not make the team, bound for his fifth minor-league season. But he and his road roommate of 13 years, Paul O’Neill, loved watching Rose watch Francona.
“Me and Paul used to laugh, ‘Pete loves that Francona guy,’ ” Sabo said during a Jan. 17 interview at UA. “Every time he got in there to hit, Pete would go crazy. ‘Swinging the magic wand,’ that’s what he would always say.
“Francona didn’t have any power, he was a base-hit hitter, sorta like Pete, that’s probably why he liked him. Terry would go the other way, hit it up the middle, pull some. He was a left-handed hitter.”
That season in Cincinnati, Francona batted .227, but struck out just 12 times in 207 at-bats. The following season, when Sabo made his major-league debut, Francona signed as a free agent with the Indians.
Sabo knows little about Northeast Ohio after living in Cincinnati for nearly 30 years. He didn’t realize how close Progressive Field is to Akron and said he would probably catch a few Tribe games.
“I don’t know if he’d even remember me,” Sabo said of Francona.
Sabo sees all-time hit king Rose once a year, when they sit next to each other for an autograph session during Reds Hall of Fame weekend. Banned from the game for life on Aug. 23, 1989, for betting on baseball when he was managing, Rose now lives in Las Vegas, Sabo said.
“When you sign, they always put me next to Pete — he likes talking to me,” Sabo said. “He’s the happiest dude I’ve ever known. All the stuff that’s gone on in his life, he’s always laughing. He cracks himself up with these terrible jokes. He’s the only guy that thinks it’s funny. He starts crying, he thinks it’s hilarious.
“He was always good to me. I was on the team when he went through all that gambling stuff. I didn’t know. If any player says they did, I don’t think they ... I was playing in those games, I didn’t see anything weird. We were trying to win. I didn’t see any like, ‘Why did you take that guy out?’ It was all normal to me. But who knows? It helped us out, we got Lou [Piniella] and we won a World Series. Not saying we wouldn’t have won it with Pete.”
Under Piniella in 1990, the Reds won their first nine games and went wire-to-wire, sweeping the Oakland A’s in the World Series as Sabo batted .563.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.