Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories about the University of Akron building its revived baseball program from scratch.
Chris Sabo hates what he calls “The Cave.”
The University of Akron's new baseball coach and nine-year major league third baseman praises many of the school’s athletic facilities, including InfoCision Stadium, which houses his office. But he hates working there, instead using Starbucks inside the student union as his base.
“It’s got light,” Sabo said, sipping on a coffee next to the floor-to-ceiling windows. “I bring recruits here and their families because this is a nice building. It’s a good presentation. My offices are in the football stadium and it’s a cave. It’s got no windows, it’s kind of depressing.”
Even if Sabo’s and his assistants’ desks are eventually moved, the location they were initially assigned is the perfect metaphor for the challenge they’ve accepted.
Former UA President Scott Scarborough eliminated baseball as a varsity sport in July 2015 as part of $40 million in budget cuts. When practice begins on Sept. 1, Sabo and assistants Jordon Banfield and Dan McKinney will lead UA baseball out of four years of darkness.
“I’ve been successful in anything I’ve ever done,” Sabo said during a recent interview. “I want to be when we play Kent State, it’s a tossup. Hopefully we’re neck and neck every year for the MAC championship. That’s my goal. If you don’t set your goals high, why have goals?”
Kent State went to the College World Series in 2012 and has five 40-win seasons in the past decade. But as Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer Sabo tries to build a Mid-American Conference program on par with the Golden Flashes, he is starting from scratch.
The Zips have nothing. No baseballs, no bats, no gloves, and no equipment deals for any of those. No practice uniforms, although they will come through the school’s contract with adidas. Virtually no players, with six or seven commitments, mainly pitchers and outfielders, in what will be a 30- to 35-man recruiting class.
The next priority is catchers, which Sabo said is his most important position because they are “the coach, the leader on the field. I need take-charge guys.” He hopes to get two from junior colleges so the Zips will have some experience when they begin play in the spring of 2020.
“I did a similar thing with the Florence Freedom, an independent professional team in northern Kentucky. I was the first manager,” Sabo said. “I had to find a field, I had to find portable dugouts. I designed the first uniforms, designed the hat. Had to get all the equipment. But that was close to 20 years ago.”
Having nothing is an issue as he tries to line up top talent. Sabo said UA is getting mock gloves and bats made up to show recruits they will have quality equipment.
“Trust me, kids nowadays are about the bling,” Sabo said.
When the program was shut down some of the equipment was sold through the state system and the rest was donated and might have gone as far as a program in the Dominican, according to George Van Horne, UA's senior associate athletics director.
The locker room will be in InfoCision Stadium, with windows looking out over the football field.
“It’s a nice locker room, real big,” Sabo said. “Once we get that set up, I can start taking recruits there. But we’re probably a few months away because track’s in there now. Then we can make it nice, put in a TV and a pingpong table, inspirational Akron quotes, good presentation for the kids.”
Field needs work
The albatross is the baseball field, part of the Lee R. Jackson Athletic Complex, which includes the softball and soccer fields and the track and field complex.
“It’s got to be nice, but it will be,” Sabo vowed. “Akron’s not stupid; I assume they’re not stupid. Every other facility is really nice. Soccer field, softball field, track, football stadium, fieldhouse. The only wart is the baseball field. We’ll fix that up as best we can and it will be fine come September.”
Ellet High School used the field last season, so it is not in total disrepair. This spring the grass will be torn out, the ground laser-graded and re-sodded. In stages, UA hopes to redo the bullpen, install a new outfield fence, scoreboard, seating, a press box and batting cages, or the ones used for softball will be expanded. The grassy area down the left-field line where spectators can sit will be retained.
“The long-term plan is to have Field Turf and a nice stadium. We’ve got plans, we just need the money,” Sabo said. “That’s part of our thing, going out and meeting potential donors. I’m glad there’s snow on [the field] right now so when I show recruits ... I don’t hide from it. I take ‘em over there, ‘This is what we’ve got.’ It’s a great location with that main street right there.”
Some of the Zips’ games will likely be played at Canal Park, home of the RubberDucks, the Indians’ Double-A affiliate, when the team’s schedules don’t conflict.
“It’s a beautiful stadium,” Sabo said. “I think we can play seven or eight games there. You have 20-25 home games, if you can play a third of them there, that would be great for recruiting.”
Sabo’s name should be another lure in recruiting, although it’s more the parents who recognize the three-time All-Star who celebrated his 57th birthday on Jan. 19.
“I’m sure that’s one of the reasons they hired me, to give a name to the program to get it going, maybe that would help out with fundraising,” he said. “They didn’t hire me for my experience as far as college.”
Sabo assumes players will be attracted by his major league success, which included winning the 1990 World Series. He also helped develop players like Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Justin Turner and Edwin Encarnacion while working in the Reds minor league system.
“There’s no one I ever worked with who didn’t get better baseball-wise. That’s the easy part,” Sabo said. “How much better I have no idea. That’s up to God and you. You have to be born with certain stuff to reach the highest level.”
More than sports
Sabo will also stress education, just as he did with his three daughters, all in their 20s.
“I told my girls, ‘You’ve got four years, that’s it, we’re not no 10-year plan. You’ll have no debt, you’ll get your degree and you’ll move on and get a job,’ ” he said. “They’ve done that, it’s been great.
“Most of the kids are interested because I guess Akron is really good in business and engineering. They can get a good degree, a great conference. When I was at Michigan, we went to the World Series every year and we’d always have to go through a Mid-American team, whether it was Miami, Eastern, Central was good there for a while. You can win and you can get drafted out of it. If you want to play pro ball, why not?”
Sabo said he works 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., saying, “You’d be surprised how much you get done between 4 and 8 in the morning.”
That schedule could go back to his days growing up in Detroit and playing junior league hockey, when his mother woke him at 4:30 a.m.
But Sabo’s tireless work ethic wasn’t the only attraction.
“He’s just a gritty guy whose baseball IQ is off the charts,” Van Horne said. “Every reference said, ‘We like to put young guys with him because he can communicate and help them develop them into a proper ballplayer and a proper major leaguer. It wasn’t just a job for him — he had a passion for these young men.’
“For most of these players, it’s not an opportunity to play in the major leagues. It’s going to be the opportunity to be leaders in their community and great in their work ethic in whatever they do professionally outside of sports.”
Sabo said there is plenty of interest from prospective recruits, and he’s visiting with players almost daily.
“We just need some of the better ones to believe the same things we do,” he said. “This has never been done at the D-I level, so you have a great chance to leave a great legacy at the University of Akron.”
The team’s page on UA’s athletics website gozips.com includes a countdown to first pitch, which was at 358 days as of Saturday. But Sabo says he feels no pressure.
“You get nervous,” he said. “Never felt pressure when I played or when I coached. You do the best you can. That’s all you can do."
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at www.ohio.com/zips. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.