Aaron Sabato's hit baseball season ends with loss on and off field at UNC Chapel Hill

June 13, 2019 at 6:51 a.m.
Aaron Sabato's hit baseball season ends with loss on and off field at UNC Chapel Hill
Aaron Sabato's hit baseball season ends with loss on and off field at UNC Chapel Hill

By By Michael Iachetta- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

Win or lose, hit or miss, the final curtain came down on Rye Brook's Aaron Chance Sabato's extraordinary freshman year in baseball at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, this past Monday (6/10).

The season ended with a loss on and off the field.

The Tarheels lost in the crucial final game of the best two out of three series against Auburn 14-7 in the NCAA Super Regionals after Auburn took the first game 11-7 Saturday (6/8) and UNC bounced back to take the middle game 2-0 Sunday (7/9).

So Auburn will be one of the teams going on to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. June 25-26.

Wait till next year

And UNC and Sabato will have to wait until next year.

But what a year this has been for Sabato who went down swinging in the Super Regionals, including belting two home runs, the second a two-run shot that brought UNC close, but not close enough, in a finale that saw Auburn score 13 runs in a walk-filled first inning that put the game beyond reach.

But even in defeat, Sabato came through with one of the greatest seasons in Tarheel history—and not just in baseball although his statistics rank with the school's best.

Sabato will always remember his record-breaking year: 18 home runs, 63 RBIs, a .669.3 slugging percentage built around 74 hits including 23 doubles, a triple and 147 total bases. Those stats included two base hits to help UNC beat Tennessee for the regional championship after Aaron belted a two-run homer to lead the Tarheels to the Atlantic Coast Championship (ACC) over Georgia Tech.

Those gaudy numbers resulted in Sabato being named a first team All-American by the Collegiate Baseball site, the ACC Freshman of the Year, the NCAA national Co-Freshman of the Year and to the Sporting News’ third team All-America squad.

Lasting lifetime hit

Along the way, Sabato hit for the cycle in a 5-3 victory over rival NC State, recorded 21 multi-hit games and 16 multi-RBI games and made a lasting, lifetime hit with the late Brady Niles, age 7, who died of cancer in December not long after he met Aaron, the ballplayer he idolized and called Sabo.

Brady was named after the great New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and had the same fighting spirit. He became an inspiration to Aaron.

Sabato spotted him for the first time standing alone, an outsider on the fringe of a crowd of 20 kids from the UNC Hospitals for cancer and terminal patients. They were watching the Tarheels practice at Bryson Field at Boshamer Stadium. And something drew Aaron to Brady, a small kid with a small baseball glove and a UNC baseball cap pulled down over his head to hide the scars from his life-saving surgeries to remove a brain tumor.

Hit if off from outset

The kid from Rye Brook hit it off with Brady right off the bat and they wound up talking for close to two hours.

Brady kept on wisecracking, telling jokes, but in between the laughs and the gags Brady told Aaron about his two brain surgeries, 30 rounds of radiation, six months of chemotherapy, how he learned to play chess in the hospital and more before he had to leave with his family for their home in Graham, about 40 minutes from the Chapel Hill campus.

Aaron was awed by that profile in courage wrapped up in such a small body.

On an impulse, as the Niles family was leaving, Sabato ran after them and asked Brady for his autograph. Brady signed his name inside the band of Sabato's UNC baseball cap.

"He didn't have to do anything like that, that was just something special for Aaron to do, it was certainly something that was a highlight of Brady's life," Mike Niles, Brady's grandfather, said. "It was all he talked about on the way home. And he kept asking how many UNC games we could see so he could watch Aaron hit."

Time ran out

As it turned out, there weren't too many. Even as Aaron stayed in touch. As did Aaron's parents, Ted and Valerie, when they came to Chapel Hill to watch Aaron play. They became so close they were known as Brady's "Italian family" and Aaron was called Sabo, the blue collar Italian kid from Rye Brook whose family owns a gas station, whose father went to Mercy College on a baseball scholarship and taught his sons the game so well that both went to prep school in Connecticut on baseball scholarships. Young Ted, a pitcher, got a scholarship to UNC before switching from there to Manhattan College while Aaron also made it to UNC's Tobacco Road and has already become one of the Tarheel greats with a real shot at playing Major League Baseball.

When Niles took a downturn, the Niles family watched the UNC games on regional TV. And Sabo kept calling and praying. As did his parents.

Hatful of courage

It was during one of those phone calls when Aaron was home in Rye Brook over Thanksgiving that Sabo learned the worst. He was calling to check in to see when he could stop by to see Brady after his return to Chapel Hill. That's when he was told Brady had lost consciousness and might not come out of it.

He didn't. He died Dec. 5.

But Sabo keeps him in mind. Every day. In a very special way. He keeps the hat Niles signed on the top shelf of his locker at Chapel Hill, the baseball cap in Carolina blue with Brady's name in the headband.

"I want to take a part of him with me for the rest of my life," Sabato said. "He was and is an inspiration. And always will be. He is a continual reminder of how lucky I am and how much I have to be thankful for."


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