Sun Belt College League

Former D’Backs pitcher Erik Sabel impacts Sun Belt League’s Speedway Gamblers in many ways

Erik Sabel is a Midwestern transplant whose baseball existence brought him to Tucson almost a quarter-century ago with the Triple-A Sidewinders, before any of the players he manages now in the Sun Belt College League were born.

Sabel manages the Speedway Gamblers, many of whom did not know he was part of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2001 World Series team when they first met early last month at the Kino Sports Complex.

“At first, they’re kind of like, ‘Whoa.’ They don’t know what to think,” Sabel said of the players realizing his background. “As I get to know them, they open up a little bit more. They’re starting to open up a little bit and then I see their personalities and stuff. So it’s pretty cool.”

Erik Sabel talks with some of his Speedway Gamblers players (Javier Morales/

Sabel is part of the coaching staff of the Sonora All-Stars team that will play the Kino All-Stars in the SBCL All-Star Game at Kino Stadium on Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

Sabel, a right-hander during his playing days, also has the distinction of being the first Diamondbacks draftee who was promoted to the parent club in 1999 in his fourth year of professional baseball, second with the Sidewinders.

The West Lafayette, Ind., product was drafted in the 42nd round of the 1996 draft out of Tennessee Tech.

The players he manages now have the same aspirations he had 26 years ago. They view him as an example of their dreams becoming realized following their college eligibility.

“He told us about how he was with D’backs, drafted by the D’backs and won the World Series with the D’backs and all those like crazy stories. Pretty cool dude,” said Gamblers right-hander Alex Urias-Calvillo, instrumental in Walden Grove advancing deep into the 4A state tournament this year.

“His mindset is really different compared to other coaches that I’ve had. He really has like that major-league mindset of the pitcher rotation, how the defense should be played and stuff like that. Very interesting to be part of that.”

Speedway’s Isaac Silva, a hard-throwing right-hander at Eastern Arizona College, is appreciative of Sabel’s coaching ability as one of the top pitchers of the SBCL with a 0.30 ERA in 30 innings. He has struck out 57 batters (including 16 in one game) with only 12 walks. He has allowed only 14 hits.

“He’s helped me on my grips, how to throw them,” Silva said of Sabel. “He points out to make sure to attack the bottom of the lineup with fastballs because they’re going to be behind, things like that.”

Silva said his favorite pitcher is Randy Johnson, a teammate of Sabel’s when Sabel pitched in 49 games in 1999 and 2001 with the Diamondbacks. Sabel was promoted to Arizona from the Sidewinders in their World Series year of 2001 after compiling a 2.95 ERA in 18 appearances (39 2/3 innings) with 32 strikeouts and seven walks.

Erik Sabel while with the Diamondbacks in 1999 and 2001

Sabel pitched in 42 games with the Diamondbacks in 2001, mostly in middle relief with a 4.38 ERA in 51 1/3 innings. He did not get the opportunity to pitch in the World Series against the New York Yankees, but he was with the team and earned the championship ring.

“He’s not really like a loud manager,” Silva said of Sabel’s managing style. “He gets his point across, lets us know if we did something wrong and tells us what we need to do to fix it, including being more aggressive — good feedback like that.”

Sabel, 47, is also beneficial to his players for knowing a network of coaches and scouts with his baseball background.

After his major-league career ended in 2002 with a brief stint with the Detroit Tigers, Sabel lived in West Lafayette for seven years while serving as a minor-league pitching coach in the Diamondbacks’ farm system.

Sabel, who was with the Sidewinders part of six different seasons from 1998 to 2003, returned to Tucson in 2011 to be with his daughters here. He served as Mountain View’s head coach in 2011 before going into private business. He coached a 12-and-under club team last summer. He continues to coach young pitchers as a personal instructor.

Kino Baseball League president Bill Leith, who operates the SBCL, has approached Sabel in the past about managing a team in the league and Sabel agreed to the opportunity this summer.

“I’ve known Bill for about 10 years or so now,” Sabel said. “It just didn’t work out when he has asked me before, but it did this year. I love baseball. I love coaching. I love helping these kids as much as I can get to where they want to go. It’s a perfect opportunity that opened up for me.”

Sabel’s network of baseball contacts continues to grow.

In 2019, he became the director of addiction services with the Association of Professional Ball Players of America — another symbolizing way to be a positive influence on the Speedway Gamblers.

“I’ll get calls now and then from college coaches and scouts asking about the players,” Sabel said. “I think I’ve worked pretty hard to keep my credibility level pretty high. Hopefully (the coaches and scouts) trust me.

“When you get a phone call like that, they have to trust who they’re talking to because if you’re a guy that just says your players are always the greatest, they don’t know what to believe. I keep things straightforward like I’ve always been.”

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FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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