When Ryne Sandberg came into his own in the Windy City in 1984, the classic baseball film "The Natural" was a hit -- as were the Cubs, who played their way into the post-season for the first time since 1945. As a result, Chicago Cub fans knew Sandberg as "Kid Natural" before the name "Ryno" caught on. Sandberg quickly became their new champion -- a hard-working ballplayer who could do no wrong on the field.
The consummate ball-playing gentleman, Sandberg was a natural star without the usual ego. Like Tony Gwynn, Sandberg did his job well and played out a long term with his team. Unfortunately, like Ernie Banks and Billy Williams before him, he was a future Hall-of-Famer unlucky enough to play with the Cubs. With Sandberg at second, the Cubs won two division titles but failed to reach the World Series. Sandberg himself always played well in the clutch, hitting .385 in the playoffs for his career. Defensively, Sandberg ranks as one of the best second basemen of all time. He once had a streak of 123 errorless games (an NL record) and went four years without a single throwing error. At the end of 1989 he broke Manny Trillo's second base record of 89 consecutive errorless games, with manager Don Zimmer playing him for only one inning in each of the last three games of the season. Upon retirement, his career fielding percentage of .989 tied Tommy Herr's all-time record at the position. Named after relief pitcher Ryne Duren, who was on the mound for the Yankees as Sandberg's parents tried to pick a name for their son, Sandberg was an outstanding high school athlete. He was heavily scouted by major football programs after being named All-American starting quaterback by Parade magazine, but after being drafted in the 20th round by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1978 the young infielder decided to pursue a baseball career. Sandberg spent nearly three years in the Phillies' minor league organization as a shortstop and despite defensive struggles he quickly matured into a "can't miss" prospect. After a brief stint with the big-league club at the end of the 1981 season (collecting his first big-league hit off Mike Krukow) he was dealt along with shortstop Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs for Ivan DeJesus. The Phillies hoped to clear the way for infield prospects Julio Franco and Juan Samuel, while the Cubs desperately needed infielders with pop in their bats. In 1981, Bill Buckner had been the only infield regular with a batting average above .200. With Bowa at short and Bump Wills (acquired from Texas during spring training) slated as the new second baseman, Sandberg worked out in center field and third before finally being assigned to the hot corner. After a slow start at the plate the future Hall of Famer finished strong with a .271 average, 103 runs scored and 33 steals.
Sandberg was shifted to second base full-time after Wills left for Japan and the Cubs acquired veteran third baseman Ron Cey from Los Angeles during the off-season. He proved to be a natural at the position, promptly winning the first of his nine Golden Gloves with a league-leading .986 fielding percentage. But 1984 was his breakout season at the plate. Hitting .314 with 19 homers and 114 RBI for the division champs, Sandberg nearly became the first player in baseball history to rack up 200 hits and 20 doubles, triples, home runs, and steals in a single year. He would have achieved the remarkable feat had he hit just one more homer and one more triple. In arguably his best game of the season, Sandberg drove in seven runs against the Cardinals on June 23, winning the game for the Cubs 12-11 with consecutive homers off Bruce Sutter in the ninth and tenth innings. St. Louis manager Whitey Herzog said of him after the game, "One day I think he was one of the best players in the NL. The next day I think he's one of the best players I've ever seen." Fellow All-Star George Brett made a point of never missing an opportunity to watch Sandberg play. From 1984 through 1993, Sandberg sealed his reputation with ten consecutive All-Star appearances; he was the NL's starting second baseman in all but one of those games. In 1989 Sandberg hit 30 home runs for the first time in his career. The following year, he hit 40 -- the first time a second baseman had reached the 40-homer mark since Rogers Hornsby did it in 1922 -- and drove in a career-high 116. He became the first player to have both a 40-homer season and a 50-stolen base season over the course of his career and one of a select few to reach 25 homers and 50 stolen bases in the same year. In 1994, at the age of 35, Sandberg announced his retirement from baseball. He attributed his decision to a lack of motivation and his waning numbers; the move cost Sandberg over ten million dollars in salary for the next two seasons. At the time he said: "I am not the type of person who can be satisfied with anything less than my very best effort and my very top performance. I am not the type of person who can leave my game at the ballpark and feel comfortable that my future is set regardless of my performance. And I am certainly not the type of person who can ask the Cubs organization and Chicago Cubs fans to pay my salary when I am not happy with my mental approach and my performance." Then like Roy Hobbs -- his Redford counterpart in "The Natural" -- Sandberg made a comeback in 1996. His batting average was down during his comeback year but he showed impressive power at the plate and his defensive wizardry was still evident. When he finally retired for good in 1997 his last hurrah had pushed him over the 1,000 RBI mark and past Joe Morgan's all-time record for career home runs by a second baseman. (RK)