Ryne Sandberg quit baseball while still at his peak; he returned to the game after a year and a half like he had never missed an inning. On June 13, 1994, Sandberg announced he was retiring because "I am certainly not the type of person who can ask the Cubs organization and the Chicago Cubs fans to pay my salary when I am not happy with my mental approach and my performance."
"Ryno" missed the 1994 strike and sat out the abbreviated 1995 season as well. When he went to Wrigley Field to see the knock-down, drag-out final series of the year between the Cubs and the Houston Astros, he knew his place was still on the field, not in the stands.
By spring training 1996, Sandberg had signed on again with the Cubs and was back to business as usual. He regained the power stroke that made him one of the greatest slugging second basemen in history: He hit 25 home runs and drove in 92 runs while also remaining one of the great fielders in the history of the position with just six errors in 1,234 innings. At age 37, he played more games and more innings than any other Cub except outfielder Brian McRae.
Born in Spokane, Wash., in 1959, Ryne D. Sandberg was destined for the baseball diamond. Sandberg's parents were watching a New York Yankees game on the same June afternoon that they were trying to agree on a name for their soon-to-arrive fourth child. When New York brought in a young relief pitcher named Ryne Duren, their choice was made.
Duren's athletically gifted namesake became an all-state high school baseball, basketball and football star in Spokane. Parade magazine named Sandberg the starting quarterback on its all-America team. Before he graduated in 1978, several universities recruited him to throw the pigskin, but Sandberg chose baseball instead. "I knew it would be a lot easier on my body than football," he said.
Sandberg's signing didn't make headlines. The Philadelphia Phillies quietly chose the teen-age infielder in the 20th round and shipped him straight to Helena, Mont., for some seasoning in the Rookie League, the bottom rung of baseball's ladder. By 1980, Sandberg had worked his way up to Class-AA ball. Sandberg batted .310 for the Reading, Pa., farm club; led the league's shortstops in fielding percentage (.964), assists (386) and double plays (81); and was named to the Eastern League all-star team. The following September he got his first taste of the majors.
Sandberg appeared in 13 games for the Phillies that September and committed no errors. His lone hit in six at-bats was a single off Cubs pitcher Mike Krukow.
In January 1982, the Phillies traded shortstop Larry Bowa to Chicago for shortstop Ivan DeJesus and tossed Sandberg in as part of the deal, a move the Phillies would deeply regret. But at the time, Sandberg was just another rookie infielder. The Chicago Tribune's scouting report, "good speed but a light bat," seemed prophetic when the 22-year-old Sandberg managed only one hit in his first 32 trips to the plate. However, he redeemed himself in what was to become true Sandberg style, finishing the 1982 season with a .271 batting average and leading the team in stolen bases (32) and runs scored (103). Despite his offensive production, the single most important event in his rookie season was the defensive switch that moved Sandberg from third to second base on Sept. 4.
Among baseball aficionados, Sandberg is widely considered the best second baseman of his era and arguably the best ever. This is no small compliment, considering a lineup of second sackers that includes baseball legends Rogers Hornsby, Nellie Fox and Rod Carew. But Sandberg deserves the praise.
He is the only second baseman in major-league history to claim nine Gold Gloves. He played four entire seasons in which he did not make a single throwing error. His career fielding percentage of .989 is the best mark by a second baseman in major-league history.
Sandberg's competitive drive and awesome talent him into the spotlight. In 1984, his third season in the majors, Sandberg and the Cubs had a fairy-tale year. He batted a career-high .314, belted 19 home runs, stole 32 bases and led the majors in runs scored with 114. With a 61-game errorless streak, he won his second straight Gold Glove committing only six errors all season and earned his first start in an All-Star Game.
It took one 1984 (June 23) afternoon for Sandberg to make everyone in baseball remember his name. During a nationally televised game at Wrigley Field, Sandberg tied the Cardinals with homers in both the ninth and 10th innings against Bruce Sutter. His 5-for-6 afternoon with seven RBI in a contest the Cubs eventually won 12-11 caused Cards manager Whitey Herzog to say: "One day I thought he was one of the best players in the N.L.. The next day I think he's one of the best players I've ever seen."
Sandberg's heroics with bat and glove propelled the Cubs into the postseason for the first time since 1945. He was named National League MVP, becoming the first Cub to win the award since Hall-of-Fame shortstop Ernie Banks in 1959 the year Sandberg was born.
He gives the credit for his remarkable 1984 season, and indeed for his entire career, to then-Cubs manager Jim Frey. "I didn't feel that I belonged, that I was good enough to play," recalls Sandberg. At the start of the 1984 season, Frey took his insecure second baseman aside and advised him to just relax and start swinging for the fences. "Jim Frey gave me confidence," says Sandberg, whose subsequent success made him the center of a media circus the likes of which he had never known. "When I was first called up by the Phillies, I was surrounded by Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Steve Carlton I mean, you're talking an All-Star team. I was afraid to go into the locker room. So out of respect, I didn't go around talking."
Sandberg has always let his bat, and his glove, do most of his talking. He hit 30 home runs for the first time in 1989, when the Cubs reached the postseason for the second time in five years. Although the Cubs failed to reach the World Series both times, Sandberg batted .385 with six RBI, five doubles and nine runs scored in two N.L. Championship Series.
In 1990, he led the league in runs scored for the second consecutive year (116) and also led the N.L. with 40 home runs (the first time a second baseman had done that since Rogers Hornsby in 1925). And Sandberg, the first player to win a Gold Glove after changing positions, also set the record for most consecutive errorless games at second base (123).
Sandberg had his second straight .300 season in 1993 (and third in four years), but the 1994 season started out slowly for the 34-year-old slugger. He endured a 1-for-28 slump early in the season and by mid-June was hitting .238, some 50 points below his major-league average. No one in the Cubs organization had any inkling that Sandberg planned to quit during the 1994 season, but few expected Sandberg to come back in 1996, either.
He holds all-time home run record for second basemen and amoung the Cubs all-time leaders Sandberg ranks third in runs scored (1,316)and extra-base hits (761); fourth in doubles (403), hits (2,385), games (2,151), at-bats (8,379), total bases (3,786), stolen bases (344) and singles (1,624); fifth in home runs (282); sixth in RBI (1,061); and eighth in walks (761).