Bret Saberhagen suggested that if he hadn't won the Cy Young Award in 1985, he might have been pitching in the minor leagues in 1986.
"I'm not really sure that's true," the Kansas City Royal right-hander said when he was reminded of the remark last week, "but I was trying to say something. I was trying to dramatize that I was having a bad year."
He dramatized it last week by going on the 15-day disabled list with a sore shoulder, becoming the latest victim of the American League's Cy Young jinx. In 1985 at age 21, Saberhagen became the youngest player to win the AL Cy Young, with a 20-6 record and 2.87 earned run average. He won two games to lead the Royals to a world championship and was named Most Valuable Player of the World Series. In his second season in the majors, Saberhagen was at the top of his profession.
With only one way to go.
"This definitely hasn't been a very exciting season," he said. "It definitely hasn't been very interesting. You can only hope you learn from it and come back."
When he went on the disabled list, Saberhagen was 6-10 with a 4.30 ERA. After 20 appearances and a bothersome shoulder, he was moved into the bullpen for three games before making a start on Aug. 9 against the New York Yankees. He lasted only 1 innings, giving up two runs on two hits and two walks before his arm gave out. That was his last time out.
"Velocity-wise, he's as good as he was last year," Royal pitching coach Gary Blaylock said. "He just wasn't hitting the spots the way he used to. And we couldn't even work with him on the side between starts because of the stiffness in his arm."
Royals interim manager Mike Ferraro echoed what others on the club already had said. He is worried.
"It's all location with him, and I think he's been bothered by that shoulder all year," Ferraro said. "He has tenderness through the whole arm, and it's weighing on him. He's got to be thinking about it. Of course, it's a cause for some concern."
Saberhagen's arm problems began in spring training. He missed some spring starts with shoulder stiffness, then was unable to pitch on opening day. Although the Royals have not detailed Saberhagen's injury any more than to call it soreness, it is no secret they are concerned about a possible rotator-cuff injury.
"We know it's the shoulder area," Royal trainer Mickey Cobb said before Saberhagen went on the disabled list. "But I don't know if it's the rotator cuff. He had rotator tendinitis before, but I'm not sure tendinitis is his real problem."
After Saberhagen was disabled, Cobb said: "When a guy says his arm aches, we take him out. He wasn't in pain, but he was uncomfortable. We'd rather not let it go any further to the danger zone. Maybe he just needs a rest. It could be short-lived, or it could be longer."
Of the six Cy Young winners in this decade, three have come down with serious arm injuries the season after winning. Steve Stone of Baltimore won 25 games and a Cy Young in 1980, then went 4-7 in his final season, 1981, the victim of a rotator cuff injury.
Rollie Fingers won the Cy Young for Milwaukee in 1981, then injured his arm at the end of the next season. He missed the 1983 season entirely. Another Milwaukee pitcher, Pete Vuckovich, won the Cy Young in 1982, then injured his rotator cuff in 1983. He didn't play again until this season when his comeback failed.
LaMarr Hoyt fell from 24-10 in his 1983 Cy Young season with Chicago to 13-18 the next season, but there was no serious injury.
Only Willie Hernandez of Detroit has avoided the jinx, winning the Cy Young with 32 saves and a 1.92 ERA in 1984, then coming back in 1985 with 31 saves and a 2.70 ERA.
Although not given to hyperbole, Saberhagen is very upset with his situation.
"It hurts when I start. It hurts in the bullpen. I couldn't even go five or six innings the way the arm is now," he said. "I don't know what's in store."
What probably troubled Saberhagen most as he struggled was his inconsistency.
"It seems that just when something positive was about to start for me, the arm would act up again," he said. "After the All-Star Game, I came out and beat Cleveland. I pitched eight innings, and my fastball had good velocity.
"Then, my next game (July 22), I pitched against Baltimore, and my arm felt horrible," he said. "They had to take me out after five innings (during which he gave up four runs on four hits)."
That's when the Royals sent Saberhagen to the bullpen, and there came the realization that this was going to be a dismal season.