Blond-haired and blue-eyed, Saberhagen is part Norwegian, part Danish and all confident. "He has amazing self-assurance," says his father, Bob. "When he was playing T-ball, he was the kid who had to cover the whole infield and half the outfield. When he was 10 or 11 and I was driving him somewhere, he would say, 'I'd like to try that.' So I let him drive. I caught a little heat for that."
As a 6'1", 150-pound basketball guard at Cleveland High School in Reseda, Calif., Saberhagen caught a lot of heat from his coach for constantly trying to dunk. In his senior year he played on Cleveland's Los Angeles city-championship team with current DePaul star Kevin Holmes. Because of the basketball playoffs, Saberhagen got a late start in baseball and soon injured his arm. When his fastball dropped from 88 mph into the 70s, the Major League Scouting Bureau, fearing rotator-cuff trouble, wrote him off as a non-prospect. The Royals drafted him on the 19th round only because scout Guy Hansen, who had been watching Saberhagen since Little League, insisted he could play shortstop. Bret's trouble proved to be only tendinitis.
In 1983 he had a combined 16-7 record for Fort Myers and Jacksonville, and followed that with an 0.19 ERA in 49 innings at the Instructional League. In 1984 Saberhagen arrived at spring training as a non-roster player and made the team. Splitting his rookie season between the rotation and the bullpen, Saberhagen won 10 games, walked 36 batters in 157? innings and acted anything but amazed. Before stopping the then 9-0 Tigers 5-2 in his first big league start, he said, "I'll beat them. I'm pitching good and nobody told me they were unbeatable." He helped the Royals win the AL West by throwing 17 shutout innings against the Angels in September. "I know their hitters from growing up in California and seeing them on television," he said. Then he became the youngest starter in the history of the league championship series, throwing eight strong innings in a game the Tigers won in 11. "I'm surprised I'm among the league leaders," he says now, "but not that I'm a winner."
Off the field Saberhagen's meticulous Dr. Jekyll becomes a mischievous Mr. Hyde, as leftfielder Lonnie Smith occasionally discovers when he picks up a telephone receiver and gets an earful of shaving cream. "How would I describe Sabes?" says Quisenberry, remembering the time Saberhagen filled his mouth with 15 sticks of gum and half a pack of chewing tobacco and then slobbered the mixture all over his shirt. "Not Bob Hope. Not Eddie Murphy. Jerry Lewis."
But Saberhagen's behavior suits his teammates fine. "Sabes is free, he lets his spirits slide and he laughs a little," says Brett. "Too many young players get tight. Baseball isn't a door-die situation for Sabes, and that's the key to his success."
And, yes, a key to Kansas City's success.