Early one evening last week, Cub shortstop Larry Bowa was looking across the infield of Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium at his team's second baseman, Ryne Sandberg, who was taking ground balls. "The one guy we can't afford to lose is him," said Bowa. "As Sandberg goes, so go the Cubs. He's that valuable." And Chicago general manager Dallas Green marveled, "He just oozes ability."
But Sandberg dismisses such observations. "All it takes to play baseball is a strong arm, good speed and the coordination to hit the ball," he says. "That's it."
Would that it were that simple. Sandberg, 24, in only his third full big league season, may be too young to grasp the significance of who he is (an emerging star) and what he means to the traditionally woeful but suddenly wonderful Cubs (everything). Indeed, last week the Cubs reclaimed first place in the National League East for the fifth time this year, thanks in large measure to Sandberg.
Nothing and nobody symbolizes the rebirth of the Cubs like Ryne Sandberg, the son of a Spokane mortician. It's burned in every Cubbie's mind that the team hasn't been to the World Series since 1945 and that Chicago has finished as high as third in its division only once in the last 11 years. Not only is Sandberg a big hitter (.325), but he's also error-proof (48 straight games without a muff).
He had been primarily a shortstop as he climbed through the Phillie organization. Then, before the 1982 season, Philadelphia traded him, along with Bowa, to the Cubs for Ivan DeJesus. Sandberg was switched abruptly to third, which he'd never played in the majors. He started there most of his rookie season and made only 11 errors—only one more than Atlanta's Bob Horner's league-low 10. After the Cubs acquired third baseman Ron Cey for 1983, Sandberg was moved to second, which he had played, but for only 24 games. "I thought I was a pretty good shortstop," says Sandberg, "but I also wanted to play in the major leagues." Simple.
Over at second, Sandberg was merely brilliant. Proof: He won a Gold Glove as the best fielder at his position with a league-leading .986 and only 13 errors, a figure made even more impressive by his league-leading 914 chances. That made him the first Cub to win the award since shortstop Don Kessinger in 1970 and the first player in the National League ever to win a Gold Glove in his first year at a new position. Sandberg is embarrassed to admit he can't even remember his last error. In fact, it was last Sept. 21 against the Pirates, when a ball hit by Mike Easler slipped from his grasp.
And, get this, Sandberg doesn't field properly. Says third base coach Don Zimmer, "He's kind of a jabber at fielding balls, and usually you associate that with stiff hands. So for him to field like he does, he must have outstanding—outstanding—hands." The book says that infielders should gently gather up a ball in toward the body; Sandberg proves that the book is fiction. But Zimmer also mentions another jabber, Jackie Robinson.
The evidence of ability, as always, is in the numbers. In 1982, Bump Wills and Junior Kennedy shared second base and participated in 70 double plays; in '83, Sandberg played in 157 games at second and was in on 126 double plays. To put it another way: Bowa was involved in 64 double plays in 1982, and in '83, with Sandberg, he took part in 102. Concentrate on Sandberg and watch him handle weird hops, short hops, line shots, dribblers, poor throws. There goes a hit to center by the Reds' Dave Parker that will drive in a run; nope, Sandberg gets it. Later there's a 6-4-3 double play, then here comes another. Simple. "To make the pivot," says Sandberg, "you catch the ball, throw and jump, in that order. 'Jump' is the key word." He gives Bowa enormous credit for his development, but Bowa, himself a two-time Gold Glover with Philadelphia, downplays his mentor role. "Whether Ryne had known me or not," Bowa says, "he was, is and will be a great player."
Which wasn't the way it all started in the spring of '82 when Sandberg was named third baseman. He promptly hit 1 for 32 to open the season. Says Green, "A slump like that would've crushed a lot of young players, but we knew with his inner strength that it wouldn't crush him." Sandberg finished the year hitting a strong .271.
But manager Jim Frey had bigger dreams for Sandberg. Says Frey, "He seemed to view himself as a hit-and-run player—advance the runner, keep an inning going. I felt he was capable of much more." Translation: Frey wanted power.
So four times during spring training at Mesa, Ariz. this year, Frey casually took Sandberg down under the stands to a secluded batting cage for 20-minute sessions. He tossed soft underhand throws and talked about the nuances of hitting. Since Frey has had similar conversations with the likes of George Brett and Darryl Strawberry, Sandberg says he was "all ears." Frey told him, "You have the speed and ability to hit 35 to 40 doubles a year, eight to 10 triples and, in time, to begin hitting some home runs. You look like you're just trying to meet the ball, and I think you can drive the ball." In the first week of the season, Sandberg blasted two home runs.
Continuing to do everything his manager said, Sandberg then watched his batting average dwindle to .208 a month ago. Depressed? "No, no," he says. "You don't get hits if you're depressed." That was when he went on an 18-game, .421 hitting streak—including seven doubles and three triples—and was named the league's Player of the Week for May 7-13. The streak ended last Thursday in Cincinnati, but Sandberg waved it off, saying, "I'm disappointed, but relieved." Not to worry. So far he has five triples and 11 doubles.
Says Green, "His main fault is he's too nice." Not so nice, however, that during his Gold Glove year he wouldn't accept the $180,000 salary from the Cubs. And not so nice that he wouldn't accept a six-year deal offered this year for $3.98 million. Still, nice enough so that the first thing he did with his money was purchase 25 season tickets to Cub games (cost: $10,125) for the underprivileged of all ages. Says Sandberg, "I just appreciated so much the contract they gave me, and I wanted to give something back to the Cubs' organization."
It has been a starry climb from Spokane, where as a kid he played all sports and was all-everything. In 1978 he had signed to play quarterback for Washington State but changed his mind four days later when, despite being drafted deep (21st round) by the Phillies, he was offered a $30,000 bonus and $500 a month.
Not long before Ryne was born, his parents saw the wild and wacky Ryne Duren pitch for the Yankees. Ergo the name. (Duren's given name was Rinold, shortened to the nickname Ryne.) Similarities, however, begin and end with the name. Ryne Sandberg works, listens, plays baseball and keeps his mouth shut. Simple. Says his agent, Richie Bry, "He's every manager's dream." And, maybe, the answer to every Cub fan's prayers.
With Frey's tutoring, Sandberg's becoming a slugger.