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Bret Saberhagen's Rise and Fall : Royal Ace Tries to Cope With Misfortune After the Fame

September 17, 1986|JIM McCURDIE | Times Staff Writer

Oh, to be Bret Saberhagen in the fall of 1985, the world is your oyster, and pearls are popping up everywhere you look.

World Series MVP. Cy Young Award winner. First-time father. And all before your 22nd birthday. It seemed too good to be true . . . as if Saberhagen were a product of some television producer's imagination.

Sports Fantasies, starring Bret Saberhagen as the man with the world in the palm of his pitching hand.

But reality has arrived in 1986, and it seems to have landed firmly on Saberhagen's chin. The youthful blond who charmed a national television audience with a wink and a wave to his wife, Janeane (perhaps sports television's first "Hi, Mom-to-be" shot), is finding out what it's like to be an average pitcher with average problems.

He has had shoulder problems, elbow problems, foot problems--problems from head to toe. It's all added up to a 6-10 record and 4.20 earned-run average that have prompted some to wonder is success has spoiled Saberhagen.

"Everybody's trying to come up with a solution or theory of what I could have done to change things," Saberhagen said before the Kansas City Royals met the Angels Tuesday night in Anaheim Stadium. "When you're not going as well as you should be, everybody shines the light at you and asks why."

The assorted aches and pains haven't helped. They have forced Saberhagen to think about his delivery, something he didn't have to do when everything was coming naturally.

And they have created speculation as to whether Saberhagen spent too much time enjoying the success of 1985 to prepare for 1986.

Before baseball was saddened that Royal Manager Dick Howser was discovered to have a malignant brain tumor, Howser had wondered aloud if Saberhagen had properly prepared himself to remain at or near the top of his field. John Schuerholz, the Royals' vice president and general manager, is still wondering.

"It's a normal phenomenon," Schuerholz said. "It's not terribly unexpected for someone at such a tender age who reaches the top of his profession to fall off the high wire. He's not the first person to have it happen to him. It's happened to a lot of people.

"The critical question is not so much why it happened but how the person and player involved analyzes what happened and, more important, what they can do to rectify what happened. The critical question is 'How will Bret respond?' "

Of course, part of the rub of having Saberhagen-like success is creating Saberhagen-like expectations. Saberhagen was 20-6 with a 2.87 ERA in 1985. He walked all of 35 batters in 235 innings. He pitched two complete games in the World Series, allowing only one earned run.

It wasn't difficult to figure out which pitcher would attract the most votes when it came time for postseason awards. Saberhagen became the youngest American League player ever to win the Cy Young. And with it, more expectations.

Saberhagen was seen playing catch with Royal reliever Dan Quisenberry before Tuesday's game. Angel third baseman Doug DeCinces seized the opportunity to get in some good-natured teasing of last season's Wunderkind.

"What's that Craig Nettles said?" DeCinces called out to Quisenberry. "Cy Young, then sayonara?"

Saberhagen just smiled the same smile he wore in the Royal dugout last fall when he said "Hi" to Janeane. He once seemed so unaffected by all the good things that were happening to him. Now, he doesn't seem to be letting misfortune make him bitter. He answered the "What's happened to Bret Saberhagen" question with the same soft politeness that he displayed from the top of the heap last year.

"I've never had a year like this," he said. "Things have really come easy for me throughout my baseball career . . . through Little League, Pony Colt, American Legion, and pro ball. This year, I've learned the hard part."

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