For several years, two of Chicago's greatest sportsmen wore number 23: Michael
Jordan of the Bulls and the Cubs' Ryne Sandberg.
Both retired at a young age, both made brief comebacks and then quit for good,
at an age when many of their contemporaries were still playing every day.
Like Michael Jordan, Sandberg was an all-out competitor.
When Jordan, observed Sandberg, decided he was "mentally tired out getting to
that level [of intensity] every time out, he walked away." And, added Ryne,
"in that sense, so did I."
What a legacy Sandberg left behind! What Billy Herman was to Chicago in the
first half of the century, Sandberg was to the latter-day Cubs: a brilliant
second baseman who could doit all. His .285 lifetime batting average and 282
homers tell only half the story.
Sandberg was one of the all-time great fielders at second base. He once played
123 consecutive games without an error, and he shares the big league record
for the highest fielding percentage by a second baseman (.989).
Sandberg, a native of Spokane, Washington, came to the Cubs from the Phillies
in January 1982 along with Larry Bowa for Ivan DeJesus.
It's hard to believe now but, when Ryne came to Chicago he was a man without a
position. Sandberg had signed with Philadelphia as a shortstop and had also
played third and second in the minors.
The Cubs had Bowa at short, Ken Reitz at third, and Bump Wills at second.
During his first Spring Training with the Cubs, Sandberg spent time at each of
those positions, and in center field as well. "I had three different gloves in
my locker," he recalled, "and I didn't know what to think."
Toward the end of spring camp, manager Lee Elia gave Sandberg the word: Reitz
was going to be released, and Sandberg was now the Cubs' third baseman.
Ryne responded with a .271 average. He fielded beyond expectations, making
just 11 errors all year.
In September, however, general manager Dallas Green abruptly informed Sandberg
he was moving to second base.
Sandberg took a crash course on how to play second base from an unlikely tutor: Cubs pitching coach Billy Connors. Despite his job description and
portly build, Connors proved to be a capable teacher.
"He showed me, with that bad body of his, how to turn the double play and then
jump afterward," says Sandberg.
Sandberg's biggest problem was trying to hold a straight face every time
Connors tried to turn a pivot in less-than-balletic movement.
While Connors didn't look like the ideal infield instructor, he turned out to
be an excellent teacher. Just a few days after the fielding lesson, Pete Rose
of the Phillies observed Sandberg's work around the bag and predicted Sandberg
would be an All-Star at second base.
Sandberg turned out to be even better than that, earning the N.L. MVP in 1984.
That year he batted .314 with 200 hits, including 36 doubles, 19 triples, 19
home runs, and 32 stolen bases. He barely missed becoming the first big leaguer to collect 200 hits, 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 homers, and 20 stolen bases.
Until 1984, Sandberg saw himself as a singles hitter. It was Jim Fry, who
managed the Cubs from 1984 to 1986, who convinced him he could be a power
"I just thought he had too much talent not to take advantage of it, too much
talent to remain a line-drive hitter," says Frey, who claims he had no quarrel
with Ryne's hitting style.
Frey just wanted Sandberg to know that he had the potential, at 6'2" and with
ample body strength, to be a line drive hitter with power.
"I wasn't trying to make him a home run hitter," insists Frey. "What I told
him was that on certain pitches I knew he could handle, he should be looking
to drive the ball for extra bases, instead of just settling for singles."
Sandberg listened to Frey's suggestion, and doubled his extra-base hit
production from 37 in 1983 to 74 in 1984.
During the summer of 1969, the year Sandberg celebrated his 10th birthday, he
would head for Fairgrounds Park in his native Spokane to watch the local
Indians of the Pacific Coast League. Spokane was the Triple-A affiliate of the
Dodgers, and 19-year-old Bill Buckner was a highly-regarded outfielder-first
Thirteen years later, following the trade with the Phillies, Sandberg and
Buckner became teammates.
"I never let Buckner forget that I used to watch him play when I was a kid,"
In 1970, Sandberg began following the career of Larry Bowa, then a rookie
shortstop with the Phillies. The youthful Sandberg idolized Bowa, and became
his teammate when he joined Philadelphia in 1981.
Bowa was traded to Chicago with Sandberg prior to the 1982 season. Playing
third for the Cubs that season, Sandberg found himself in the same infield
with two of his boyhood heroes: Buckner on first and Bowa at short.
Sandberg's first year with the Cubs started out like a nigsource.htmare. The
youngster had just one hit in his first 32 at-bats. He hung in there, however,
and finished at .271.
Throughout Sandberg's ordeal, Bowa never lost faith in his infield partner.
The veteran kept telling the other Cubs that Sandberg would be able to do
everything that Mike Schmidt could do, except hit with Schmidt's awesome
Sandberg's toughness in the face of his early-season adversity really
"No knock on Schmitty," Bowa said, "but he might have panicked if he'd gone
though anything like that as a rookie. Ryne Sandberg never came close to
Derwent Sandberg, Ryne's father, was a real baseball fan. Ryne claims he was
named after Ryne Duren, a hard-throwing Yankee relief pitcher in the late
1950s and early '60s.
"My dad had taken my mother to . . . see the Yankees play when she was
pregnant with me," says Sandberg ". . . and the name just stuck."
According to Sandberg, his brother Del was named for former big league
outfielder Del Ennis.
"Yeah," Sandberg says with a grin, "my dad was quite a baseball fan."
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From Tales from the Cubs Dugout by Pete Cava.
Copyright © 2000 by Pete Cava. Reprinted with permission.