Profile co-written by BCB reader TheBeerBaron and Al; the personal references within are TheBeerBaron's
To many baseball fans outside of the Chicago area, a player with a career hitting line of .285/.344/.452 (.796 OPS) would be regarded as slightly above average -- not really a player worthy of enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. To fans of the Chicago Cubs, this line represents one of the greatest players to ever grace the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and a modern day baseball legend -- Ryne Sandberg.
The fondest memories of my early childhood predominately revolve around the Cubs' most notable second baseman. Ironically enough, the then not-very-notable January 27, 1982 trade of Ivan DeJesus to the Phillies for Sandberg and Larry Bowa occurred less than six months before my exact date of birth. My own personal affliction for the Chicago Cubs began courtesy of Ryne Sandberg. Nearing my fifth birthday in May of 1987, I became aware of Sandberg simply because of the similarities in our first names -- Ryne and Ryan. Due to this personal revelation of sorts, Ryne Sandberg instantaneously became my childhood hero -- along with several characters from Sesame Street, of course. From that time on, I loyally followed the Chicago Cubs and the career of Sandberg in particular, extensively and thoroughly.
For over a decade, Ryne Sandberg was the face of the Cubs franchise. Number 23 provided a legion of dedicated followers a glimmer of hope that one day soon, their years of futility and suffering would end. His time on the North Side failed to provide a much-coveted World Series title -- or even a National League pennant -- to the Cubs' faithful. However, due in large part to the emergence of "Ryno" during the 1984 season, the Cubs participated in their first post-season series in 39 years.
Ryne Dee Sandberg was born in Spokane, Washington, on September 18, 1959, to a father who was, of all things, a baseball fan with a sense of humor. He named his sons after his favorite players -- Ryne after Ryne Duren, a hard-throwing relief pitcher (and maybe it's a good thing Sandberg's father only knew the short version of Duren's name; his given name was "Rinold"), and Ryne's older brother was named Del, after 1950's era Phillies slugger Del Ennis.
Sandberg was a three-sport star in high school -- basketball, football and baseball -- and had been a highly recruited HS quarterback prospect. He had committed, in fact, to attend Washington State University when the Phillies drafted him in the twentieth round of the 1978 June amateur draft.
As Cubs fans, we can only be forever thankful that Ryne Sandberg passed up what likely, due to his great athletic talent, could have been a successful career as a NFL quarterback, to sign with the Phillies and start riding the minor-league buses in the Pioneer League, for their affiliate in Helena, Montana.
His minor league statistics are far from notable, though he did lead each of his minor leagues in OBA, and showed some speed; he hit twelve triples and stole 32 bases for the Double-A Reading Phillies in 1980.
Just before he turned 22 in September 1981, Sandberg was called up to the Phillies, with Dallas Green being his field manager. That team, the defending world champions, didn't have much space for a skinny shortstop, so his month in their red pinstripes consisted primarily of pinch-running and being a defensive replacement. But on September 27, 1981, ironically enough at Wrigley Field, Sandberg was sent in to play the last five innings of the second game of a doubleheader, a game the Cubs (a horrid team that year) were inexplicably winning 13-0 after five innings. In the eighth inning, with two out and a runner on first, Sandberg hit a little flare into short right field off Mike Krukow, his first major league hit and the only one he hit in a Phillies uniform.
Speaking of which, here's a rare photo of our hero in said uniform:
After the season, Green was hired as Cubs GM, and knew of Sandberg's potential and talent, so he set out to acquire him, without letting on how badly he desired him. Green also wanted Larry Bowa's veteran leadership for a young Cubs team, so he arranged a swap of shortstops, Bowa for Ivan DeJesus, a younger, faster man. But Green insisted on Sandberg as a "throw-in", and wouldn't do the deal without him. Eventually the Phillies agreed.
It was one of the best deals in Cubs history. Bowa gave the Cubs three decent years, and was the starting SS for the 1984 division champs. DeJesus fizzled out, and you all know about Sandberg.
Green had also acquired Bump Wills to play second base, so with 2B and SS covered, Sandberg was installed at third base to begin the 1982 season. He promptly went 1-for-32; other managers would have given up on "the kid", but to Lee Elia's credit, he stuck with him -- in the next nine games he would go 14-for-41 (.341), with his first two major league homers. His 1982 season finished capably, with a .271/.312/.372 line and 32 stolen bases.
In the ensuing offseason the Cubs signed veteran Ron Cey to play third base, and with Wills departing to play in Japan, Sandberg relocated to second base. As a full-time starting second baseman for the Cubs in 1983, Ryno was awarded the first of his nine consecutive Gold Gloves. While his defensive prowess earned him national recognition, Ryno's offensive skills failed to flourish as quickly. From his Major League debut in late 1981 through the 1983 season, Ryne only managed a .265 batting average with an on base percentage (OBP) of 312. The Cubs finished their 1983 season with a 71-91 record--fifth in the National League Eastern Division.
Although that bittersweet season of 1984 occurred merely 2 years after my birth, any Cub fan can tell you that this was the season that the baseball world discovered Ryne Sandberg. In large part that was due to the patient coaching of new manager Jim Frey, who had been a batting coach for many years. He worked with Sandberg in spring training, convincing him that he could hit for more power without sacrificing batting average.
And on June 23, 1984, Ryno's status changed from rising Cubs superstar to baseball legend.
Heading into the bottom half of the ninth inning, the Cubs trailed divisional rival St. Louis by a score of 9-8. Baseball's most dominant closing pitcher at that time, future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, was on the mound. Sutter was in the midst of arguably his greatest season. In 1984, Sutter finished the year with a 1.54 ERA and a career best 45 saves. According to broadcaster Bob Costas, the game had ended. As Sandberg approached the plate, Costas prematurely named St. Louis' Willie McGee Player of the Game. Immediately following Costas' praise of the Cardinals' outfielder, Ryno proceeded to extend the game with a solo home run to left field. In heroic fashion, Sandberg extended the game further in the tenth inning with a two-run shot, after Bob Dernier had extended the Cubs' chances with a walk drawn on a 3-2 pitch that might very well have been a strike, once again off Sutter -- finishing the day 5 for 6 with 2 home runs and 7 RBI. From that day forward, June 23, 1984 will forever be remembered by Cubs fans as "The Sandberg Game". A great trivia question, incidentally, is "Who got the game-winning hit in the "Sandberg Game?" It was reserve infielder Dave Owen, who singled with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eleventh. After the game, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog paid Sandberg the ultimate compliment, terming him "Baby Ruth" and calling him "the greatest player I've ever seen".
Ryno finished the 1984 season posting a line of .314/.367/.520 with 19 home runs, 19 triples. 36 doubles, 84 RBI, 32 stolen bases and 200 hits -- winning the National League's Most Valuable Player award. Although the Cubs lost to the San Diego Padres in the National League Championship Series, Sandberg's season is forever immortalized in Chicago as one of the greatest seasons ever by a Cub.
In 1985, Sandberg's speed and power numbers increased greatly upon the previous years totals. Although the team regressed--finishing in 4th place in the NL East with a 77-84 record--Ryno stole a career best 54 bases (the first Cub to steal fifty or more bases in a season since Frank Chance stole 57 in 1906) and hit 26 home runs. From 1985 through 1988, the Cubs failed to win more than 77 games -- despite the addition of Andre Dawson via free agency from the Montreal Expos. During this stretch, the Cubs changed managers five times. Jim Frey, John Vukovich, Gene Michael, Frank Lucchesi and Don Zimmer all spent time -- albeit brief -- managing on the North Side in the late 1980's.
The 1989 Chicago Cubs team rebounded from a terrible three year stretch, winning the NL East with a record of 93-69. Ryno continued to flourish offensively posting a line of .290/.356/.497 with his first 30 home run season as the Cubs reached the NLCS for the second time in five years, and he finished fourth in MVP voting. Despite an incredible offensive effort by Sandberg in the NLCS--hitting .400/.458/.800 with a home run, 4 RBI and 6 runs scored--the Cubs suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Will Clark and the San Francisco Giants. This post-season series would be Ryno's final chance to win a World Series.
Sandberg continued to hit well in 1990 -- he had his only forty-homer season (leading the league) and drove in 100 runs (something he would repeat in 1991) and again finished fourth in the MVP balloting, despite the Cubs having yet another losing season.
During spring training in 1993, Sandberg was hit in the hand by a pitch from the Giants' Mike Jackson; the resulting broken bone caused him to miss the first month of the season, and robbed him of much of his power. Though he hit .309, he hit only nine home runs, his lowest total in ten seasons, and he shut it down in mid-September, playing in only 117 games, his fewest in a non-strike season. He was never really the same after this injury.
Sandberg remained the Cubs' second baseman into the 1994 season; off to a poor start (.238/.312/.390), he decided to retire from baseball, a decision that surprised almost everyone. He held a bizarre press conference at which his wife Cindy appeared wearing what was immortalized forever as the "corncob dress":
At the press conference, he was asked why he was retiring at the relatively young age of 34:
From his first season with the Cubs in 1982 through the first 57 games into the 1994 season, Ryno played 1866 games (7378 at bats), hitting .289/.349 with 2132 hits, 245 home runs (including the aforementioned National League best 40 in 1990), 905 RBI, 1179 runs, 325 stolen bases and 349 doubles.
Although Sandberg put forth the notion that his retirement was simply due to his fading desire to play the game and to spend more time with his children, it is hardly a secret that some personal problems factored into his decision. According to many sources, Cindy, his high school sweetheart and wife of fifteen years, was unfaithful. Rumors circulated for years that Cindy's promiscuous behavior played a large role in the decision by management to trade both Dave Martinez and Rafael Palmeiro (Palmeiro's trade was more likely due in large part to his lack of power at the time and the fact that management envisioned Mark Grace as their future first baseman) -- just a couple of the players with whom Cindy Sandberg reportedly maintained an intimate affair. Only ten days after the retirement announcement, Cindy filed for divorce.
In the midst of his retirement, Sandberg met his second -- and current -- wife, Margaret Koehnemann. She and her family were Ryne's neighbors in the Phoenix area, and they married and blended their families, five children in all. Late in the 1995 season, Ryne and Margaret were attending a game at Wrigley Field as guests of the Cubs. Margaret would later report that Ryne had "that look in his eyes" and asked him if he wanted to play again. Knowing that his new bride would approve of his return to the Cubs, on October 31, 1995 Ryne Sandberg had another press conference, announcing that he would return to the Cubs for the 1996 season.
Despite hitting 25 home runs and 92 RBI, Sandberg was clearly past his prime. In 1996, Ryno only posted a .244 batting average -- his lowest average for in a full season. After struggling offensively again in 1997, he decided to retire for good. On September 20, 1997, Ryne Sandberg officially played in his final game at Wrigley Field, another dismal loss in a dismal season. Coincidentally, his long time friend in broadcaster Harry Caray performed his last rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" that day -- Caray passed away in February 1998.
Broadcaster Joe Morgan has often criticized Sandberg on the air, but in my opinion, Ryne Sandberg is the greatest second baseman to grace the diamond. He won nine consecutive Gold Gloves, appeared in 10 consecutive All-Star Games -- winning the 1990 All Star Game's Home Run Derby at Wrigley Field. He won eight Silver Slugger Awards and still possesses the third-highest career fielding percentage for second basemen (.989). In 2164 games, Ryno accumulated 2,386 hits (8385 at bats) with 403 doubles, 76 triples, 282 home runs, 344 stolen bases, 1318 runs and 1061 RBI. The 344 SB are the most for any Cub in the "modern" era (post-deadball), and fourth on the all-time team list. His other Cub rankings include: third in runs, fourth in hits, fourth in doubles, and fifth in total bases and home runs.
In 2004, his third year of voting eligibility, Sandberg earned proper recognition for his career achievements, as he was inducted as the 17th second baseman in Baseball's Hall of Fame -- receiving 393 votes out of 516 ballots (76.2%).
Ryno's critically acclaimed induction speech provided a revitalizing message for every baseball fan, reminding us why the game we love remains one of our national treasures. In an age consumed with astronomical power numbers, many times we fail to realize the fundamental aspects of the game. Sandberg's speech reminded us that laying a perfect sacrifice bunt or turning a simple double play are equally as important as the home run. In a veiled swipe at the players accused of bulking up with steroids, Sandberg said in his induction speech:
This speech reminds every single one of us that while at times fans are lost in the "glitz and glamour" of the modern era's power surge, we should never forget the way the game was supposed to be played -- the way Ryne Sandberg played it.
This past offseason has perhaps opened a new chapter in Sandberg's relationship with the Cubs. After several years in retirement in Arizona, Sandberg threw his hat in the ring to become the Cubs' new manager. GM Jim Hendry preferred the experienced Lou Piniella, but offered Sandberg a managerial slot in the Cubs' farm system, telling him that after some experience, he could work his way up toward a major league coaching or managing job. Sandberg accepted and in 2007, at age 47, will be the manager of the low-A Peoria Chiefs this summer, once again riding the buses in the minor leagues. Given his quiet determination, it would not at all be a surprise to see Ryne Sandberg in a Cubs uniform again, someday managing the club at Wrigley Field.