January 04, 2005

Sandberg enters Hall with grace and dignity

He did not have a unique batting style or stance that Little Leaguers could mimic, didn't grip a bat in an unorthodox manner the way Ernie Banks did, didn't swing fluidly and gracefully the way Billy Williams did, didn't dig in and rip from the heels as Sammy Sosa does.

He was not immortalized in verse the way Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance were, wasn't a screwball like Dizzy Dean, a flake like Rube Waddell, a bigot like Cap Anson, a boozer like Grover Cleveland Alexander or a freak of nature like Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown.

He is not known for knocking in runs as Hack Wilson is, for astronomical batting averages as Rogers Hornsby is, for a deadly accurate throwing arm as Gabby Hartnett is, for cunning baserunning as Lou Brock is.

No, not Ryne Sandberg.

Unlike these other Hall of Famers who once played for the Cubs_or Sosa, who can be expected to join him in enshrinement some day_Sandberg's identity, what makes him extraordinary, what sets him apart, remains unclear to this day to even his most ardent and attentive fans.

Was he the strongest, the swiftest, the most spectacular? No, no and definitely not. Did he play the longest? No, and, in fact, he even took a sabbatical while still in his prime.

Did he captivate the public with the force of his personality? Sweet-talk you a la Ernie? Click his heels for you like Ron Santo? Growl and roar at you like Leo Durocher? No way, to the extent that many a lifelong Cubs fan could hear Sandberg's voice on a radio and not be able to identify who was speaking.

If this second baseman, who Tuesday made it to Cooperstown on his third try, had a defining characteristic, it was a rock-steady consistency. He gloved the ball. He threw the guy out. He made the play. He got the hit. He played the game hard. He played it smart.

This was no wild man. He didn't charge at the game like, OK, a rhino. Sandberg wasn't about raw aggression or swashbuckling pizzazz. He didn't stampede toward you helmet-first like Pete Rose or do back flips like Ozzie Smith. He didn't swagger like Reggie Jackson or strut like Jim Palmer.

He simply played the game.

Played it as it was meant to be played_with dedication and determination and a highly becoming modesty. With a textbook skill that involved blocking a ground ball with your body to keep it in front of you or taking a pitch even when a coach has given you a green light, arts lost on too many of today's strategically impaired stars.

Nondescript in style, Sandberg was a ballplayer's ballplayer, the kind to whom a Carl Yastrzemski or a Cal Ripken Jr. or a Tony Gwynn could relate, a workman punching a clock, putting in a solid eight-hour shift and going home without causing his employers a single minute's distress.

Like those honorable men, Sandberg also sided with one team, one town for most of his days in uniform. Doubtless he could have improved his odds of earning a diamond ring by defecting to another organization early in his career, but in the end, this was a true-blue Cub through and through.

When he renewed acquaintances with the Cubs in 1996 after reconsidering a Michael Jordan-like early retirement, a Los Angeles Times columnist_ahem_had the audacity to write: "On his Hall of Fame plaque at Cooperstown, under Sandberg's name, somebody is going to write: `Glutton for Punishment.'''

No, somebody won't.

Somebody instead is going to etch in bronze: "Ryne Dee Sandberg, 2B for Chicago Cubs, 1982-94 and 1996-97, National League MVP in 1984, retired with more home runs (277) than any second baseman, ranks No. 1 all-time for highest fielding percentage by a second baseman, nine Gold Gloves, 10-time All-Star."

Mr. Consistency.

That was his trademark. This is his legacy. Ryne Sandberg ... not the greatest this or the greatest that, but truly now, genuinely so, deservedly so, one of the greats.

Ryne Sandberg's career highlights
1984 NL MVP held career HR mark for second basemen

Ryne Sandberg was a star high school quarterback in Spokane, Wash., when the Philadelphia Phillies drafted him in the 20th round in 1978. He decided to pursue a baseball career but it wasn't as easy as he made it look.

Sandberg struggled at shortstop, and made his Major League debut on Sept. 2, 1981 for the Phillies.

Cubs general manager Dallas Green acquired Sandberg in a trade from the Phillies in January 1982. The young minor leaguer was dealt along with veteran shortstop Larry Bowa for Ivan DeJesus. Bowa started at short for the Cubs in 1982 and Bump Wills was at second, so Sandberg worked out in center field and at third. He played 133 games at third in his rookie season, batting .271 with 103 runs scored and 33 steals.

He moved to second full-time in '83 after Wills left for Japan and the Cubs acquired third baseman Ron Cey. It was a perfect fit for Sandberg.

In 1984, he batted .314 with 19 homers and 114 RBIs for the Cubs, and was just short of becoming the first player in baseball history to rack up 200 hits and 20 doubles, triples, home runs, and steals in a single year. He was one homer and one triple shy.

In 1989, Sandberg hit 30 home runs for the first time in his career and followed that with a 40-homer season. It marked the first time a second baseman had reached the 40-homer mark since Rogers Hornsby did so in 1922.

Sandberg's Career Highlights

June 1978: Bob Horner, the College Player of the Year, was selected first in the free agent draft by the Braves. Sandberg was selected by the Phillies in the 20th round.

Jan. 27, 1982: Philadelphia sends veteran shortstop Larry Bowa and minor league infielder Ryne Sandberg to the Cubs in exchange for shortstop Ivan DeJesus.

June 12, 1983: In the Cubs' 6-3 win over the Cardinals, Sandberg ties a Major League record with 12 assists.

June 23, 1984: At Wrigley Field, Sandberg goes 5-for-6 with game-tying home runs off Cardinals relief ace Bruce Sutter in both the ninth and 10th innings. He drives in seven runs to lead Chicago to a 12-11 win in 11 innings. It's the first time Sutter has given up two home runs to the same batter in the same game. Dave Owens hits a base-loaded RBI single to win the game.

Nov. 13, 1984: Sandberg wins the National League MVP Award, becoming the first Cub to do so since Ernie Banks in 1959. Sandberg hit .314 with 19 home runs and 32 stolen bases and led the NL in runs (114) and triples (19).

May 18, 1990: In a 7-0 loss to the Astros, Sandberg commits an error to end his Major League-record errorless streak at 123 games and 584 chances. Joe Morgan held the previous mark of 91 games.

Aug. 28, 1990: Sandberg homers in the Cubs' 5-2 win over the Astros to become the first second baseman ever to post back-to-back 30-home run seasons. He will finish the year with 40 home runs to become the first second baseman since Hornsby in 1925 to lead the league in that category.

March 2, 1992: Sandberg becomes the highest paid player in baseball history when he agrees to a four-year contract extension worth $28.4 million.

March 27, 1993: The Cubs put Sandberg (broken hand) and shortstop Shawon Dunston (lower back) on the disabled list. The two will miss Opening Day for the first time in nine years together.

June 13, 1994: Sandberg announces his retirement, effective immediately. He leaves with 2 1/2 years remaining on his four-year, $28.4 million contract.

Oct. 31, 1995: Sandberg announces he will return for the 1996 season.

April 26, 1997: Sandberg hits his second home run of the year off Steve Cooke in the Cubs' 7-6 win over Pittsburgh. It is Sandberg's 267th homer as a second baseman, breaking the record held by Hall of Famer Morgan for most home runs at that position. Hornsby hit 301 homers, but 264 of those were as a second baseman.

Sept. 21, 1997: Sandberg, playing his final game at Wrigley, is 2-for-3 before leaving for a pinch-runner in the fifth. He makes a curtain call in the seventh when Harry Caray sings. The Cubs beat the Phils, 11-3, but Curt Schilling strikes out eight to match J.R. Richard for the most K's by a National League right-hander (313).

Ryno charges into Hall of Fame
Earns baseball's top honor on third try

CHICAGO -- Harry Caray called him the greatest second baseman he ever saw. Whitey Herzog dubbed him "Baby Ruth." Ryne Sandberg's teammates and opponents knew him as one of the most consistent players ever, and some labeled him "Kid Natural."
He can add a well-deserved name now. Ryne Sandberg is a Hall of Famer.

The third time was the charm for Sandberg, who was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his third year on the ballot. He received 393 votes (76.2%) in the balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, announced Tuesday. There were 516 votes cast, with 387 (75%) necessary for election.

"It was one of the more incredible phone calls I've ever received," said Sandberg. "It came a little earlier than I expected and it caught me a little off guard, but total elation set in shortly after that."

The second baseman, who played all but one of his 16 big league seasons with the Chicago Cubs, will be inducted into Cooperstown with Wade Boggs, who received 474 votes (91.9%).

In his first year on the ballot, Sandberg received 244 votes, or 49.2 percent. He garnered 309 votes, or 61.1 percent, last year.

He is the 15th second baseman elected and the eighth player elected into the Hall of Fame on the third try, joining Grover Cleveland Alexander, Carl Hubbell, Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, Juan Marichal, Mel Ott and Gaylord Perry.

Sandberg isn't bothered in the least about having to wait for the call.

"I learned a long time ago that there are no guarantees in baseball," said Sandberg. "There have been some tremendous, tremendous players that have waited longer than I had to wait to get into the Hall of Fame. I don't think it's ever too late, and it doesn't diminish the honor at all. You're either in the Hall of Fame or you're not, and I'm just very happy today."

Sandberg, 45, changed the way teams thought about second basemen, providing an all-around player who could not only belt 20-plus homers but win Gold Gloves. He was so consistent at his position that he was often taken for granted. Not by baseball people.

"I think defense had everything to do with me getting into the Hall of Fame. I think my defense was what helped me break into the Majors. I earned the everyday job at the age of 22 as the starting third baseman, and my defense kept me in. I started my rookie year, I think, 0-for-30 or 1-for-31. But my defense was solid, and it kept me in there.

"I always took pride in my defense and the Gold Glove in '83 set the tone for my play and helped me achieve one of my goals, which was to win a Gold Glove every year."

When Sandberg retired for a second time in 1997, then-San Francisco manager Dusty Baker called him "one of the class guys in the game. There are guys who showboat or talk a lot of stuff. He just plays."

That's one of the reasons Baker invited Sandberg to the Cubs' Spring Training camp when he took over the Chicago job. Baker likes that link to history, especially when it involves a quality player like Sandberg.

Sandberg has nine Gold Gloves, seven Silver Slugger awards and a National League MVP trophy, which he won in 1984. He enters the Hall with a .285 career batting average, 282 home runs and 1,061 RBIs. When he retired in 1997, he was the all-time home run leader among second basemen with 277. Jeff Kent surpassed that mark in 2004.

On June 23, 1984, in what is known as "The Sandberg Game," he went 5-for-6 and drove in seven runs in the Cubs' 12-11 win over St. Louis, hitting consecutive game-tying homers off Bruce Sutter in the ninth and 10th innings. Willie McGee hit for the cycle in a losing effort.

"[That game] ranks right up at the very top along with winning the Eastern Division in '84 and '89," said Sandberg. "That particular game catapulted me and let me know I could play at a different level than I thought I could play at.

"Being a nationally televised game, I knew I was No. 2 in the All-Star voting when the game was going on. A week later, that number shot up and I was voted to play in my first All-Star Game. To do that off a pitcher the caliber of Bruce Sutter makes that story that much more magnifying. And of course in my book, Bruce Sutter is a Hall of Famer."

"One day I think he's one of the best players in the National League," said Herzog, then the Cardinals manager. "The next day, I think he's one of the best players I've ever seen."

In 1990, Sandberg led the National League with 40 home runs and 116 runs. He played a Major League-record 123 games without an error at second, and compiled 12 errorless streaks of at least 40 games.

He led National League second basemen in assists in seven seasons, had nine seasons of eight or fewer errors, five years with a batting average of at least .300, and four as the NL's top fielding second baseman.

"Second base was home for me," Sandberg said in an earlier interview. "Once the game started, those were the best three hours of the day for me."

A 20th-round draft pick, Sandberg had to work hard and religiously took grounders at second every day. He had no ego, wasn't flashy, but got the job done. And while a favorite of fans at Wrigley Field, Sandberg returns that affection to the Friendly Confines and to those who support him.

"From the moment I got to the ballpark," he said, "I knew that all my games would be on WGN-TV, Harry Caray and Steve Stone would be doing the games, all my relatives, family and friends would have a chance to watch me every day that I played and that was a huge lift for me.

"I don't think there's a better atmosphere for a baseball player on a daily basis than Wrigley Field. The crowd's into it and I enjoyed day baseball. I could always see the ball really well. I knew that when there was a home game at Wrigley, if I was struggling, I could turn things around in that game because I loved to play there."

"He is what you see," Sandberg's former teammate and current Cubs coach Gary Matthews once said. "He thrives on winning. He thrives on having fun when he plays the game. He was really consistent and really a clutch ballplayer during the years we were together. He played unselfishly. The main thing is that he was happy to play."

For Sandberg, the call to the Hall is joyous but it also provides him with a sense of closure on a splendid career.

"One of my goals for 20 years was to play in a World Series and win a World Series," said Sandberg. "Unfortunately, it didn't happen for me in Chicago. But [Tuesday] put the exclamation point and diminished that frustration I had for so many years.

"I'd call it some type of closure and tremendous satisfaction."

Sandberg redefined second base
Total package ushered in new era at position

The subject was second basemen, the time was Spring Training a few years ago. Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell was asked whether he thought Ryne Sandberg should be in the Hall of Fame.

Bagwell, who played against the former Chicago Cubs great and has played with one of the other great second basemen in teammate Craig Biggio, didn't hesitate with his answer that Sandberg should be in the Hall. More than just the statistics, Bagwell felt that Sandberg's case for induction was also rock solid for the simple fact that he "defined the position" during the 1980s.

Sandberg set a new standard at second base during his spectacular career and contributed to the way middle infield production would be viewed in subsequent years.

"He set the bar at a different level, he changed the position," Bagwell said.

Though it took three times on the ballot before Bagwell was proven correct, Sandberg has at last earned the recognition he deserves as one of the better second basemen in history and the best in the game during the 1980s. Sandberg received 393 of 516 votes (76.2%), with 387 needed to get to Cooperstown, in the balloting released Tuesday.

"I learned a long time ago there's no guarantees in baseball," Sandberg said. "There's been some tremendous, tremendous players that have waited longer than I had to wait to get into the Hall of Fame. I don't think it's ever too late, and it doesn't diminish the honor at all. You're either in or you're not and I'm just very happy today."

For a few months in 1993 Sandberg was the highest-paid player in baseball history, a claim no middle infielder would be able to make until Alex Rodriguez signed his record-setting contract with the Texas Rangers in 2000.

For those of us who can remember when offenses didn't dominate the game as they do today, when complete players who could beat you with the bat as well as the glove were precious commodities who often turned the tide in one-run games, Sandberg stood tall.

That he was the whole package and also played second base made Sandberg something extraordinary. The typical second baseman was defense first, whatever offense he could muster was often a bonus and power was a rarity. True sluggers were the province of corner infielders or outfielders, and the occasional catcher.

There have been multi-faceted second basemen before, of course, like Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, but you can count on one hand the number of second sackers with power and middle of the order skills to match their Gold Glove work. These type of cornerstone players, until Sandberg, rarely called the middle infield home.

Sandberg did, and his first 13 years in the Major Leagues (1981-94) represented an exceptional body of work.

The 1984 National League Most Valuable Player started 10 consecutive All-Star Games and won nine straight Gold Gloves. Until Jeff Kent broke the record this past season, Sandberg had retired with more home runs than any other second baseman in history with 277. In 1990 Sandberg led the league with 40 homers.

Sandberg also holds the all-time highest fielding percentage by a second baseman (.989) and shares the Major League record for most years with 500 or more assists by a second baseman (six). His 123 consecutive errorless games are the most by a second baseman in Major League history. He led NL second basemen in assists seven times and total chances four times.

"I think defense had everything to do with me getting into the Hall of Fame," Sandberg said. "I think my defense was what helped me break into the Majors. I earned the everyday job at the age of 22 as the starting third baseman, and defense kept me in. I started my rookie year, I think, 0-for-30 or 1-for-31. But my defense was solid, and it kept me in there.

"I always took pride in my defense and the Gold Glove in '83 set the tone for my play and helped me achieve one of my goals, which was to win a Gold Glove every year."

Sandberg retired abruptly after the 1994 season was wiped out because of the player strike. When he returned in 1996 as a 36-year-old, the skills had clearly eroded but Sandberg still hit 25 homers and drove in 92 runs. He stayed following the 1997 season, during which Sandberg hit .264 with 12 homers and 64 RBIs.

His performance following his last full season before he retired the first time may have hurt Sandberg in some voters' eyes. He hit only .250 from the end of the 1993 season until his retirement to drop his career average to .285.

"When I retired the first time, it was for personal reasons and having a chance to go into the Hall of Fame was never really a goal of mine," Sandberg said. "My goals as I was playing were to try to win a championship with the Chicago Cubs and be the best player I could be.

"When I left the first time it was for personal reasons, I wasn't playing at the level of baseball I knew I could play. When I came back, I decided I still had some baseball left and wanted a chance to play on a winner. So at the age of 37 and 38, I gave it another shot and it was all for the love of baseball and leaving on my own terms."

The delay in his eligibility as a result of his return meant more time would pass and fewer voters who saw Sandberg in his prime and understood the difference in eras would be voting.

The statistics in comparison to today's levels aren't as extraordinary as they were back in the 1980s. Even so Sandberg's numbers compared to his peers are certainly compelling.

But as Bagwell pointed out, Ryne Sandberg was always more than just the numbers.

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