So, I have a friend, a huge Cardinals fan, who is one of the most caring people I know. With that said, she has what even she will admit (on her better days) is an irrational sports-hatred (Clemenation) of Ryne Sandberg. She despises more or less all Cubs, but Sandberg is the 100-meter dash in her Olympics of Cubs Loathing. She abhors him, detests him, cannot stand him. She has never quite been able to express WHY she so thoroughly despises Sandberg other than to pin various traits to him that he may or may not exhibit.*
*I do not judge her. I have felt similarly about John Elway.
But I’ve always thought there was something else at work. See, my friend lives in mortal fear that someday the Chicago Cubs will actually win the World Series. She realizes this is a cruel thought and will concede (again, when the better angels of her nature take hold) that it’s wrong to feel that way, that many Cubs fans are good people, that they have suffered enough, that they really do deserve a World Series championship. But this generosity soon passes and she’s back to worrying that somehow the Cubs will win the World Series one day and end the one perfect record she has in her life.
Sandberg, I think, represents the closest thing the Cubs have had the last 40 or so years to a savior, a liberator, the kind of player who could actually break the spell and lead the Cubs across the desert and into the World Series. I think that’s what scared my friend about him. The Cubs have had numerous good players over the last 40 years, but none of them felt quite complete. None of them seemed likely to take the Cubs to the Promised Land.
Sammy Sosa was joyful (in his early years) and he smashed home runs all over the place and he had this great arm, but he grew less and less fun over time, and he more or less stopped fielding. Andre Dawson was great, but he wasn’t really a Cub — his best years were in Montreal. Mark Prior was dominant enough, but he could not stay healthy, and neither could Kerry Wood. Mark Grace could hit and he won some Gold Gloves but first basemen without home run power can test even the strongest fan’s patience
Sandberg came to the Cubs when they needed him most. The Cubs post World War II have had what I would call three utterly dreadful runs. In the late 1940s and for much of the 1950s, the Cubs had an astonishing run of awful scouting. This seemed purposeful in an odd way — Phil Wrigley, the team’s owner, did not believe that Major League teams should use minor league teams like their own personal stables. He believed that was bad for the game. It was an admirable stance, but terrible for business. The Cubs simply had no outlet to acquire players (other than the Negro Leagues where they found Ernie Banks, George Altman and others) and the team was dreadful year after year after year until Wrigley finally gave in and let the Cubs scout the way other teams did.
The second dreadful run was in the 1970s and early 1980s after the Cubs just made many, many bad decisions.
The third, well is what they’re going through now.
But back to the 1982 — the Cubs had not had a winning record in nine years. The good but doomed teams of Ernie Banks and Ron Santo and Billy Williams and others were tiny in the rear view mirror. The 1980 Cubs team were illustrative of the era — they lost 98 games and they seemed like a modern art representation of a baseball team. That team had four relievers in the bullpen who would have 30-save seasons: Bruce Sutter (who won a Cy Young and is in the Hall of Fame); Bill Caudill (who saved 36 games on year and was an All-Star); Willie Hernandez (who won the MVP award in 1984) and Lee Smith (who led the league in saves four times). And yet, their pitching staff was awful.
Meanwhile, despite playing half their games at Wrigley Field, their regular infielders hit 26 home runs. That’s all of them, total, and that includes their catcher. Dave Kingman, who had led the league with 48 homers for the Cubs in 1979 and was the closest thing to a star on the team, was hurt and surly and the Cubs traded him after the year ended. It was like that — the team didn’t just lose, they lost with a hopelessness that left fans drinking in the bleachers.
The Cubs made one of baseball’s all-time steals when they traded shortstop Ivan de Jesus to the Phillies for Larry Bowa and Sandberg. This trade has never made any sense on any level for the Phillies. First, Philadelphia GM Paul Owens apparently wanted to shed Bowa — who was turning 36 — for a “young shortstop.” OK, I can get behind that. But de Jesus was 29 already, not exactly a kid. What’s more, he was coming off a season where he hit .194/.276/.233. So that made zero sense.
The other bit of faulty logic was that the Phillies clearly did not get Sandberg. He was a superior athlete — he had been an All-American quarterback in high school — who hit .310/.403/.469 with blossoming power and speed in Class AA. He was only slightly less effective in Class AAA. He was only 21. He was a major prospect, something that the Cubs — a team that was not exactly known for their shrewdness in player evaluation — saw clearly. The Phillies reportedly made some negligible attempts to get the Cubs to take a different prospect, but the Cubs insisted on Sandberg and apparently a couple of Phillies scouts shrugged and said that Sandberg would never be more than a utility infielder anyway.
Well, maybe it does make sense. Maybe a team that sees Ivan de Jesus as a young shortstop would see Sandberg as a utility infielder. The Phillies would soon go through a stretch of 12 losing seasons in 13 years.
Sandberg played third base for the Cubs his rookie year — a solid rookie year — then in 1983 he moves to second base where he promptly won a Gold Glove. In 1984, he hit .314, slugged .520, led the league with 114 runs and 19 triples, stole 32 bases and won another Gold Glove. For that, he was named league MVP.
That’s also the year the Cubs reached the postseason — first time in 39 years. Sandberg wasn’t the only player to have a great season, of course. It’s never one guy. Rick Sutcliffe came over in a trade from Cleveland, and the Cubs won 17 of his 19 starts, including 15 in a row. Dennis Eckersley and Steve Trout and Scott Sanderson all pitched solid baseball. Ron Cey at age 36 popped 25 homers, Leon the Bull Durham hit 23 more, Bobby Dernier got on base and stole 45, The Sarge Gary Mathews scored 101 runs. The Cubs led the National League in runs scored.
But the centerpiece was Sandberg, always Sandberg, getting things started, getting into the middle of rallies, changing what the Cubs were as a team. He hit .362/.420/.619 in high leverage situations that year, if you would like the quantify the point, but really it’s not about those numbers. There was this sense that something fundamental had shifted with the Cubs. They were no longer the clownish team with the shirtless fans in the stadium without lights. Ryno had made them respectable.
I think, at the heart of things, that’s why my friend really despises him. For a while it looked like the Cubs, with Ryne Sandberg, would win a World Series.
Sandberg did everything but walk in his somewhat short but brilliant career. Those relative lack of walks (his carer OBP was .344) — and the way he was helped by the hitting comfort of Wrigley Field — might put him behind other middle infielders like Barry Larkin and Robbie Alomar on many people’s greatest players lists. That’s fair. But the way I see it, Sandberg also played in a low-scoring era (which more or less balances his Wrigley advantage) and, at his best, he was the better player. Alomar and Larkin, great as they were, never had a season as good as Sandberg in ’84 and maybe not as good as Sandberg’s 1992 (when Larkin hit .304/.371/.510 with 32 doubles, 26 homers, 22 stolen bases, a 145 OPS+, and a Gold Glove). Sandberg hit with more power, could really run and his defensive numbers more or less back up his nine Gold Gloves (he may not have deserved ALL of them, but he deserved most of them). There aren’t many middle infielders in the history of baseball who could do all that.
And he really did change the character of a franchise, at least for a while. Of course the Cubs never got to the World Series with Ryno, but they got close. He did all he could. He hit .385/.457/.641 in the two losing playoff series. Close is better than the usual when it comes to the Cubbies.