After spending the past four years as the manager at IMG Academy (Florida), Chris Sabo was named the 17th head coach of Akron baseball on October 23, 2018. At IMG, Sabo’s teams were ranked among the top five in the country, and ten of his former players were chosen in the MLB Draft.
A Detroit native, Sabo was a three-sport star (hockey, golf, baseball) at Detroit Central Catholic High School and attended the University of Michigan (1981-1983), where he helped lead the Wolverines to a third place finish in the 1983 College World Series. He was named a first-team All-American and was chosen in the second round of the 1983 MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds.
In 1988, Sabo was named the National League Rookie of the Year, kickstarting a career that would span nine MLB seasons and include three All-Star nods and a 1990 World Series title. He was inducted into the Cincinnati Reds’ Hall of Fame in 2010.
Prior to IMG, Sabo coached in the Reds organization, managed the Green Bay Bullfrogs in the Northwoods League, and assisted the programs at Xavier University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Cincinnati.
What were the factors that led to your decision to pursue a Division I head coaching job?
I was pretty content down at IMG in Florida with the lifestyle and the weather when I was approached with this opportunity. I felt like I was ready for a new challenge, I’m at that age where it feels like there’s one more big challenge before I really retired. This has never happened before at the Division I level, where a team has disbanded and then come back, and I believe in the Mid-American Conference, you can win here; Kent State went to the College World Series a few years ago. This will be a great legacy for that first class we bring in; they’ll go down in University of Akron lore as the 35 guys that brought us back.
What was your upbringing like as a three-sport athlete?
I grew up in Detroit, I was a hockey player that played baseball and golf. Obviously you don’t play that much baseball in the Spring. I played at Detroit Catholic Central, and it was a great place, I have great memories of Detroit. I’d always wanted to go to the University of Michigan, and I was fortunate to have that opportunity. I was drafted out of high school with the Expos, but I’d always wanted to go to the University of Michigan. The Reds drafted me out of college and I guess you could say the rest is history.
I couldn’t have concentrated on just one sport. Growing up, I loved hockey, golf and baseball equally. Each of those sports contributed a different skill set and when you combined everything, you’d have a total athlete. Sports specialization seems to be what it is now, I think it’s crazy, but if that’s what you want to do, go for it. You’re just putting all of your eggs in one basket- I used to think the variety of everything was awesome, I was always looking forward to that next sport being around the corner. I was always in good shape and I didn’t have any time to get in trouble!
Were there any skills that you thought transferred well between those sports?
I always had really good hand-eye coordination. I would go into tremendous slumps hitting, but I could always field. That’s obviously very important in hockey too, just like it is with playing third base. Once I retired, golf was the one thing I could really be competitive in, but it’s different. You can really hustle and yell and scream in baseball and in hockey, but all of that is directed inside of you in golf. I’ll tell you what, the pressure is the same trying to sink that three-footer when you compare it to trying to drive a guy in from third in the World Series.
How about some coaching skills that you have found that have been useful as a high school, college and professional coach?
You have to be positive, that’s the key in sports. I think I’ve always done that in my coaching career; the worst thing you can say to a kid is ‘you can’t hit,’ that’s ridiculous. I believe in that positive approach that gives players confidence. I went to bat thousands of times, and there was never one time I walked up to the plate and I didn’t think I was going to get a hit. I was ready to go, I really looked forward to those moments.
Obviously at the pro level you’re dealing with better players who might pick up things and adjust a little quicker than a high school player, although we had some pretty high-level guys like that at IMG. I expect the guys we bring in at Akron to be pretty good ball players, with a couple future pros down the road.
I don’t change the way I coach; I do the same thing with the boys at IMG as I did with Joey Votto when I coached them in pro ball. You’ve got to work hard and perfect what you have, Votto, Jay Bruce, Justin Turner- those guys were relentless with the way they worked.
How do you go about implementing the fundamentals with your players?
When I was at the University of Michigan, we ran all of the Cincinnati Reds’ plays, ironically. That was considered to be the standard when it came to baseball. That was almost 40 years ago, and I still run the same stuff- pickoffs, team defenses, sign systems- and they work! I’m a fundamentals guy when it comes down to it- perfect repetition and perfect what you’re doing and once it’s engrained in your mind and your body, you just have to react in the game. If I took a ground ball now, I could still do it the right way with how to approach it, what side of your body you field it on, how you hold your fingers, that kind of stuff. It’s not fancy, it’s nothing crazy, but it’s a tried and true method that I’ve always relied on.
How do you evaluate coaching success?
I’m not too much into wins and losses. I’m more about developing kids. Chances are most of these guys aren’t going to make much real money playing pro ball, so it’s about getting them a good education, make them good people, good workers, husbands, fathers. We’ll get better, that’s the easy part. From day one to the day you leave, you’ll become a better ballplayer here, but if I can help them become better people and give them some lessons that will help them when their careers are over, that’s more important to me. It really makes me feel good when former players reach out and thank me for something I did or said during my time with them. Even though I can’t play anymore, I can still have a good influence on people. At this stage in my life, I probably don’t really need to do this, I could stay at IMG and play golf, but that’s not my mindset. I just like to be competitive.
After we get this thing up and going for 2020, if we can somehow be competitive in MAC play, that would be a success for me, whether we win or lose.