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Saturday November 26th

'Doubt into fuel': UNC's Aaron Sabato used those who questioned him as motivation

UNC first baseman Aaron Sabato poses for a portrait in Boshamer Stadium on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.
Buy Photos UNC first baseman Aaron Sabato poses for a portrait in Boshamer Stadium on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

During Aaron Sabato’s first year of high school, he took a trip to the doctor for a routine physical exam before the start of Brunswick School’s baseball season.

The physician, making small talk, asked Sabato what he planned to do with his life, and the Rye Brook, New York native answered that he planned to play professional baseball.

Once the doctor stopped laughing, Sabato says, the response was something along the lines of this:

“You should probably pick something more realistic,” he said. “That usually doesn’t work out.”

Doubts from others about just how far Sabato’s baseball talents could take him have followed him like a dark cloud for years. Perfect Game ranked him as the 172nd high school player in the class of 2018, despite the fact that he led Brunswick in almost every offensive statistical category during his junior year. 

He wasn’t selected to be on an East Coast Pro team, a nonprofit event run by MLB scouts designed to evaluate prospective players, before joining the Tar Heels. He missed the cut and a chance to compete against the best high school talent in the country when he unsuccessfully tried out for his Area Code team.

But once Sabato wrapped up one of the most impressive seasons by a first-year in UNC history, the accolades flooded in. The first baseman led the team in batting average (.343), hits (79), doubles (25), RBI (63) and slugging percentage (.696) and was named Collegiate Baseball’s Co-National Freshman of the Year.

“I went to college and played in the fall, and I made an impact in the fall as soon as I got here,” Sabato said. “Everybody’s like, ‘How did you not make those teams?’ and I know I didn’t change that much in a month. I feel like I was kind of overlooked in high school.”

Before he was cemented as a leader for the Tar Heels, a three-week slump at the start of last season saw his batting average dip as low as .148, prompting the same question that had been on the minds of all those doubters: Could Sabato be a contributor for an ACC squad or was there a hint of truth to those high school rankings?

Through all of the speculation, though, Sabato remained confident because he knew he had the drive to improve on the little things behind the scenes.

“Sitting in front of a mirror for 30 minutes to try to figure out your swing with no bat, going to the tee and taking dry swings,” Sabato said. “People just really don’t understand the work that goes into it.”

The faith his teammates had in him created a support system that bred success for the rest of the first baseman’s season.

“He’s not only talented, he’s driven to challenge himself,” Brunswick head coach Johnny Montañez said. “When you have a kid with that type of intrinsic motivation, he is going to be successful at whatever he puts his mind to.”

Fast-forward five years from that physical exam, and you’ll find Sabato entering his sophomore season with a chip the size of a mountain on his shoulder and a relentless work ethic that he refuses to let any of his competitors surpass, setting up a career in the big leagues as a legitimate possibility.

“People are always going to doubt you, no matter where you’re from, no matter what you do,” Sabato said. “I feel like if you can turn that doubt into fuel and fuel yourself and play with that chip on your shoulder, it can only help you.”

‘I wanted to be the guy’

Sabato’s competitiveness was instilled in him at a young age because of his tight-knit family.

Between four nights a week of dinners with extended Italian relatives, he grew up under the guidance of a policeman father who played baseball at Mercy College in New York and his mother who works as an accountant. His older brother, Teddy, pitched for the Tar Heels for a little more than a year before leaving for Manhattan College.

Whenever Sabato, his older brother or his father posed the question of, “What did you do today?” it served as an opportunity for the brothers to one-up each other.

“Mainly, I learned you can’t let anybody outwork you,” Sabato said. “Growing up with my brother, if my brother was working and I wasn’t, my dad would let me know and let me hear it.”

The two brothers have had a never-ending friendly competition centered around baseball since the younger Sabato was just five years old. The duo even dreamed of playing college baseball together, with North Carolina rising above every other school to be the only destination on their minds.

Although their UNC careers never overlapped once it became apparent that his older brother wouldn’t receive much time on the mound in Chapel Hill, Sabato never strayed from his commitment to the Tar Heels. North Carolina head coach Mike Fox matched Sabato’s enthusiasm when it came to recruiting the younger of the two brothers.

Fox was a fan of Sabato’s discipline at the plate and named him as the starting first baseman before the Tar Heels even played their first game of the 2019 season. But that competitive environment Sabato grew up in proved to be an obstacle to the start of his college career.

“I was kind of going out there like, ‘I wanna get a hit this time, I wanna get a hit this time,’” Sabato said. “And I was getting hits, but I’m swinging at terrible pitches, I’m popping up everywhere, I’m hitting the ball into the ground, I’m striking out a ton. I was just overly anxious because I wanted to be the guy that everybody relied on.”

That’s when future first-round draft pick Michael Busch entered the picture.

Before he was eventually selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2019 MLB Draft, Busch acted as an extension of Sabato’s already massive family, one of his “40 best friends” on the team.

In the middle of Sabato’s slump, the UNC junior stepped in to let his teammate know that he had to learn how to take walks if he wanted to hit .300 in the ACC. He reminded Sabato to stick with his approach and take what the pitcher gave him instead of always trying to be a hero.

“I’ve never told Michael to his face,” Sabato said. “But he has no idea the impact that he had on my life, baseball-wise and as a human being.”

And for the rest of that season, Sabato surpassed every childhood expectation he and his brother could’ve conjured up when they were playing with wiffle balls in the front yard.

‘Everything that coaches, parents, friends dream of’

Sabato burst out of his slump when he went 3-for-4 with two home runs against Miami en route to slashing .343/.453/.696 on the season in his first year at UNC. It seemed like he had accomplished exactly what he set out to in his rookie season at North Carolina, both on and off the diamond.

He became good friends with teammates Will Sandy and Joey Lancellotti, both of whom will be starting pitchers this season. The friend group moved in together, along with a couple of other teammates, before the start of the 2019-20 academic year.

“I could tell right away he was just a good dude, worked really hard,” Sandy said. “I love coming to practice with him. He’s just incredible.”

Sabato’s intense competitiveness doesn’t quite translate to his personal life in Chapel Hill. He’s just a guy who enjoys playing Xbox with his friends and watching TV while he hangs around the house. For the sophomore, there’s no fear of missing out by devoting so much of his time to baseball.

“He’s obviously an incredible baseball player, but he’s also just a great dude off the field,” Sandy said. “I spend every hour of the day with him. Off the field, he’s my best friend.”

And that sentiment is echoed by seemingly everyone that comes in contact with him. When he gets enough of a break from his hectic schedule to make a trip home, his first stop is always Brunswick School.

“He asks me about my family, he wants to see the kids, he asks about the program,” Montañez said. “He’s everything that coaches, parents, friends dream of because he’s just invested in everything he’s a part of.”

Looking ahead to the 2020 season, Sabato’s dedication will certainly fuel his attempt to build upon an already impressive college career before he becomes draft-eligible this summer.

And as always, Sabato will be using all of the doubt voiced by people like that doctor from his high school days to work on becoming an unstoppable force at the plate, while remaining the “gentle giant” off the field that his high school coach and family have come to know him as.

“You let your actions speak for yourself,” Sabato said. “You don’t need to have a personal message to them, it’s more just like turn on your TV, and you’re watching me, I’m not watching you.”

@McMastersJ

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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