THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Whatever worldly innocence that was left in the Saberhagen household was pretty much lost in the early evening of Dec. 11. That's when all of the many telephones took to ringing in their very new, very palatial home on a hillside overlooking the Sherwood Country Club in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles. Janeane Saberhagen answered the nearest one.
After a moment's pause, she passed the handset to her husband, Bret, 27-year-old major-league pitcher, two-time Cy Young Award winner and, until that very moment, a loyal, dedicated and naive member of the Kansas City Royals family. "Herk Robinson's on the phone," Janeane said to her husband.
Hearing the name of the Royals' general manager and suspecting the call was not in search of an eggnog recipe, Bret walked toward the phone and said to his wife, "Must mean we got traded."
"Knock it off," said Janeane.
"No, really," said Bret. "I'm serious."
Sure enough. This was a big chance to get some hitting, Robinson told Saberhagen. Had to do what was best for the Royals, he said. Wish you all the best, of course. By which time he might just as well have been talking to a stone. Saberhagen was catatonic. His wife was crying. The kids were hungry.
As soon as the phone was free, Janeane Saberhagen called Lisa Gubicza, her best friend and the wife of Bret's best friend, Mark Gubicza of the Royals. They both had a good cry before turning the phones over to the husbands. "He told me he was traded to the Mets and I thought he was putting one over on me," Gubicza said. "He's been known to do things like that. I just didn't think it was possible. I wasn't even sure until I zipped through CNN Headline News and ESPN SportsCenter and heard them talking about it. I was sure Bret would finish his career with the Royals."
Before the night was over, Saberhagen called George Brett and Bud Black. Talked old times with the former and new leagues with the latter, a former teammate now with the San Francisco Giants. The next morning, Gubicza, who lives 20 minutes away in the San Fernando Valley, visited. The two old Royals walked around Saberhagen's home, the one that was finished just before Thanksgiving. They used to do this every winter, talking about what had to look forward to in the spring. Now one is a "we" and the other a "they."
"He was dazed," Gubicza said. "We always talked about our team, what additions we'd made. My personal opinion is that it won't sink in until he gets to spring training."
Dan Quisenberry, Saberhagen's teammate and friend for five years (1984-88), said, "Every player wants control over his own future. Bret's was decided for him."
A month and two days after the trade, which sent the New York Mets' Gregg Jefferies, Kevin McReynolds and Keith Miller to the Royals for Saberhagen and infielder Bill Pecota, Saberhagen scrambles about, scooping up loose baseballs in a custom-made underground bunker. The tunnel-shaped room has a mound at one end and, at the other, a mechanical box that "catches" him and "throws" the balls back to him. Pretty neat. The mechanical catcher has a black square drawn on it, simulating a strike zone.
Saberhagen throws. It misses the black box high and to the right. "Brushback," he says. Then he laughs.
He is wearing a Mets hat and a T-shirt that says "Twenty-something" on the front. The outfit makes two points: that he is, after all, only 27 years old (28 on April 11) and he is a Met. You read about trades every day in your local transactions column and think nothing of them. So Saberhagen is getting used to the idea of pitching with Dwight Gooden and his old Kansas City pal, David Cone. Even getting to like it.
But the whole idea. . . . "First one is always the toughest," Quisenberry said. The professional part is easiest. Saberhagen brings to the Mets a live arm with 110 career victories and a 3.21 ERA. He was 13-8 and 3.07 last season, but has twice won 20 games, including a 23-6, 2.16 Cy Young season in '89. He's had a couple of episodes of shoulder soreness and one surgery, in 1990, to remove bone chips from his right elbow. As major-league pitchers with 1,660 innings go, he's in fair working order. . . . "Unless the Royals know something I don't," he said.
As to competitiveness, consider this story: When Saberhagen was an 18-year-old senior at Cleveland High School in Reseda, Calif., he pitched a seven-inning complete game to send his team into the semifinals of the Los Angeles city championship tournament. Two days later, Saberhagen's team gave up five runs to Banning High in the bottom of the first. None out. Bases loaded.
"I go out to the mound," said Cleveland coach Marty Siegel. "Bret comes over from shortstop and says, 'Give me the ball.' I tell him, 'You pitched seven innings two days ago.' He says, 'I don't care. If I don't pitch, this is the last game of my life [high school is so apocalyptic]. Give me the ball.' So he gives up a sacrifice fly and it's 6-0. Then he pitches seven shutout innings and we win it, 7-6, on a home run in the seventh."
Epilogue: Five days later Saberhagen pitched a no-hitter in the city championship game at Dodger Stadium.
So games are just games. Kansas City or New York.
The effect of the trade, and the big, deep void of uncertainty that goes with sudden change, won't leave the house. "The Mets' stadium, that's in a better area than Yankee Stadium, isn't it?" Janeane Saberhagen asked a visitor from New York.
"I don't know if you'd call it a two-headed coin or what," Bret said. "On one side it says you're really not wanted anymore, but on the other side the Mets really want you. Kind of being wanted and not really being wanted." This is exacerbated by the Royals' tradition of keeping their best players for long periods (Brett, Willie Wilson, Frank White, Gubicza).
"I've been doing a lot of thinking about it since it happened," Saberhagen said. "At first, I wasn't thrilled with the idea. Nine years I was with Kansas City. I had a lot of ties there. But I think I should thank the Royals for trading me to the Mets, because they have -- have -- a great ballclub. It looks like I'll be back in the postseason again."