Phil Garner, Davey Lopes, Steve Sax, Glenn Hubbard, Tommy Herr, Bill Doran, Bobby Grich, Chico Lind, Manny Trillo, Willie Randolph, Damaso Garcia, Johnny Ray, Lou Whitaker, Frank White, Juan Samuel, Julio Franco, Harold Reynolds, Jose Oquendo
Running through these names is all that needs to be done to understand why Ryne Sandberg is a Hall of Famer, and should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. For a decade, Sandberg was unarguably the elite second baseman of the Major Leagues, both offensively and defensively.
From 1981 to 1997, Sandberg won nine Gold Gloves and seven Silver Sluggers. Only Roberto Alomar has won more Gold Gloves at Second Base, with ten (Bill Mazeroski and Frank White each have eight.) and Sandbergís .989 career fielding percentage is tied with Tommy Herr for first all-time among Second Basemen. No other second baseman has won more than four Silver Sluggers (Alomar, Biggio, Franco and Whitaker. Kent could score his fourth, this year.) Granted, the award came into existence in 1980. Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Jackie Robinson and Joe Morgan would have racked up a bunch, but the point here is to establish Sandbergís dominance relative to his peers, not to make a larger historical point.
Baseball people commonly talk about how Cal Ripken revolutionized the Shortstop position, turning it from a place reserved for defensive specialists who were not expected to hit above .230 or belt more than a couple home runs a year, into a power position. But less often do you hear it pointed out that Sandberg did the same thing for second basemen. Of the eighteen peers listed above, only Franco has a better lifetime average (.300 going into this year) and no one has a better slugging percentage. Whitaker, Grich, Samuel and Franco are the only players within fifty points of him. So basically, Sandberg had the glove, speed, and fundamentals of a ìclassicî all-time great Second Baseman, and hit in a way that only Morgan and Hornsby had ever hit there, before.
But enough of the statistical and historical comparisons, letís talk about the man, himself.
Sandberg was never my favorite player as a child. I always admired Sandberg, I even had a huge poster of him in my room for years, but he also was the only Cub player available in poster-form. He never quite made it to that boyhood pantheon of Heroes and Favorites. Instead, my Favorite Player was always the sluggerñ Cey, Durham ñ or the underdog ñ Cey (again), Dwight Smith, Doug Dascenzo, Derrek May.
If I saw The Sandberg Game, I canít remember it. So perhaps thatís part of the explanation for his non-favorite status. (Instead, I read about the game in Bob Loganís book on the 1984 Cubs, ìCubs Win,î which I read cover to cover every night in the winter of 1984-1985. He quotes Whitey Herzog as saying, before Sandberg stepped up for his last at bat, ìUh-oh, Here comes Baby Ruthî and later Herzog called him the best player he had ever seen.) Part of it, likely, comes from the fact that he was one of the players my Mom always dreamed about knocking on the door one day and whisking her away, and I wanted nothing to do with this line of thinking. But most likely, I guess I was just too young to appreciate how hard Sandberg worked or how effortless he made everything seem. I could not yet appreciate his skill as a fielder or a runner, his consistency from day to day and year to year. Jim Frey said of Sandberg, "He has the most consistent approach to the game I've ever seen. He's similar to (Al) Kaline. You could watch Kaline play for five years and look back and say 'I've never seen him mess up a play or make a mistake.' I know we use the word consistent a lot, but in Sandberg's case it applies."
Instead of appreciating all that, the thing that I appreciated Sandberg for, growing up, was that in a very literal sense, he gave me ìstreet cred.î Every day when me and my friends would gather to play baseball in the street, we would argue about whose team was best. Other than in 1984 and 1989, I never won any of those arguments. But Sandberg kept me from ever losing them, too. Whenever one kid would get on me for cheering for a bunch of losers, another kid would pipe in, before I ever had to say a word, with something like ìoh yeah? Well theyíve got Sandberg and heís AWESOME!î I also remember that one of my best friends who was part of the street-ball gang, Brandon, had a home-run stroke that sort of looked like Sandbergís, and we all thought that was really cool. So basically, with the exception of two glorious years, Sandberg (and for a while, Grace and Dawson) was the only thing that gave my team an aura of success or classiness or coolness. So maybe now is a good time to finally thank you, Ryne, for keeping me from being teased even more than I already was as a kid.
Much like myself, the media and the Hall of Fame voters have tended to overlook Sandberg. The man was famous for his shyness and humility, rarely seeking to draw attention to himself. In Carrie Muskatís oral history of the Cubs, Banks to Sandberg to Grace
, Rick Sutcliffe tells this story:
Ryno and I lived within 100 feet of each other. I remember one thing about Ryno. He was so shy. when I had my shoulder surgery, the team was on the road, and they got back and all of a sudden thereís a knock on the door. Robin [Rickís wife] says, ìRick, itís Ryno.î
I said, ìRyno, whatís up?î
He says, ìNothing.î
I said, ìDo you want to come in?î
And he says, ìSure.î
I said, ìYou want a cup of coffee?î
He says, ìSure.î
We talked about the team, and he drank his coffee and he left. I said to Robin, Iím not positive what that was all about. I think he just wanted to see how I was doing. He just couldnít say it.î
Thereíd be days when Iíd say Iím not talking first, and there would be times when weíd go to the park and there was nothing said. He was just quiet.î
After nearly two decades of letting his play speak for him, Sandberg gets to address Cooperstown. Iíll be listening to my New Favorite Cub.