By: Will Wetzel
Lee R. Jackson Field remained undisturbed and untouched for three years. It’s loneliness amidst the other facilities on the Lee R. Jackson Sports Complex was noticeable. Due to budget constraints, the Akron Zips baseball team ceased playing on their home field for three seasons. Following the 2015 season, the Akron Zips team folded, removed from the docket of university athletic programs, allowing its players to transfer elsewhere to continue playing.
It was an unfortunate decision that impacted many. Despite the best efforts of university alumni, the program remained suspended in a void—in a state of purgatory that was rendered necessary by school officials. The transition from active to inactive resulted in 36 players searching for new schools and countless others looking for new career opportunities.
“While we as Akron Baseball Alumni work towards our long-term goal of returning the baseball program, we know that many families are now dealing with far greater concerns as a result of lost jobs and uncertain futures,” the University of Akron Alumni said in a statement to Cleveland.com.
Uncertain is a nice way to put it. Tossed aside seems more accurate. For Akron baseball, money spoke louder than the enthusiasm for the program, drowning out the continued expressed support for the program to continue. At an operating cost of about $700,000 a year, the Akron baseball team only covered 2% of the university’s athletics budget. $700,000 is a lot of money but compared to what the university hemorrhaged money on, it was peanuts.
That is why September 19th, 2017, was a monumental day in the University of Akron’s history. It was the day baseball was brought back to Akron and Lee R. Jackson Field will once again be played on.
The fight may have been won but not the battle. The University of Akron now has to rebuild a program that was capable of competing with the other teams in their division. Their first priority is constructing their team, and that started with them hiring Chris Sabo as their head coach.
Chris Sabo’s resume does not include managerial experience at the collegiate level. But he is Akron’s best chance at rebuilding a program that had been brought back to life. The University’s Athletics Director Larry Williams certainly thinks so.
“We are excited to welcome Chris Sabo to the University of Akron,” Director of Athletics Larry Williams said in a statement. “His illustrious playing career demonstrates his mastery of the fine details of the game. He also has extraordinary leadership skills and the proven ability to teach, coach, and motivate young athletes. His work ethic, drive, and commitment to excellence made him the perfect fit to lead the Zips’ baseball program.”
Chris Sabo may have not been a flashy player, but he did obtain numerous accomplishments during his nine-year MLB career. He was the 1988 National League Rookie of the Year and a World Series Champion in 1990. He was well-known for his gritty style of play as a fielder, which led to him being the top defensive third baseman in 1988 and 1990.
From a coaching perspective, Sabo was a coach with the Reds from 2003-07 and has been involved with the University of Cincinnati, Michigan, and Xavier. He was also the manager of the IMG Academy from 2014-18 when 10 of his players were drafted by major-league organizations.
“The Akron community, in general, was missing an element of their identity,” Williams said to Ohio.com. “I heard over the course of my first six months here many different opinions and displeasures. I attempted to listen to every single person, but in the background of all that, many conversations continued to occur and much deliberation continued to occur, such that we arrived at a place where we’re excited to bring baseball back in a manner that values the university.”
Chris Sabo will be tasked with leading a program that hopes to represent the university well. To honor this mission, Sabo highlighted two things what he wants to do immediately: build his coaching staff quickly and recruit athletes that excel both on and off the field.
“I want to get [my coaching staff] in as quick as possible to start recruiting,” Sabo said to Ohio.com. “We still have another year. Really, we’re not going to start practicing until September. The quicker we can get this thing going, the better.”
“We can build a good legacy here,” Sabo added to Ohio.com. “This is a team that is going to be starting anew. We’re giving 35 opportunities to kids that might not have had one. Those are 35 lives I can affect through baseball.”
So Chris Sabo now takes an unexpected journey, scouring the state and country for quality players that will be able to recapture the magic the old Zips baseball team had. Sabo is confident that the Zips, despite their hiatus, can attract top talent.
“I do not think we’ll have a problem getting quality players,” Sabo said to Ohio.com. “Just my time at IMG, I know how many quality players there are that don’t have spots. I look at these guys I know they can play D-I. I had 18-20 guys on my team that I knew were D-I players. I know they’re out there. I lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, close to 30 years. There are some good ballplayers here. We have to convince them that Akron is the place to be. This is going to be the Ohio baseball school.”
And in 2020, Lee R. Jackson Field will feel the touch of metal spikes from baseball cleats for the first time in years.