© 2005 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
01/05/05 7:07 PM ET
Sandberg unretires into immortality
Second go-round likely landed him in Cooperstown
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- If he hadn't become a born-again Major Leaguer, Ryne Sandberg understands, he wouldn't be on the verge of becoming immortal. Unretiring in 1996 and playing two additional seasons with the Chicago Cubs added 37 home runs to his resume, which pushed him past Joe Morgan's record of 266 home runs by a second baseman. That distinction raised him over the top in the minds of many Hall of Fame voters, who on Tuesday elected him to Cooperstown. But that was not the lure back into the game for Sandberg, who, beset by family issues and their affect on his declining performance, had abruptly walked away in mid-1994. A Hall of Fame rally was the furthest thing from his mind. "I felt the Cubs were on the verge of having a championship team, and the only remaining goal I had was to play in a World Series," Sandberg said. "So, I came back. "The reflexes were a little slower," added Sandberg, who was 36 when he dusted off his legendary mitt. "But I wanted one more chance to get to the World Series."
Sandberg spoke early Wednesday afternoon in a Waldorf-Astoria ballroom at his, and Wade Boggs', formal unveiling as the Hall of Fame's Class of '05. This was a different Sandberg from the Ryno fans recall as the Cubs' cover-boy spark plug of the '80s and '90s.
The hair was somewhat stubbier, definitely grayer. Although the half-cocked smile could still brighten a dark day.
Another thing that has not changed about Sandberg is that World Series hole. He never did get there; it's a Cubs thing, Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins and Billy Williams also forever being viewed through the prism of their World Series quarantine.
Sandberg now becomes the first position player elected to the Hall of Fame without a World Series presence since Rod Carew, in 1991.
"I don't think I ever got over that. That's what you play for. These last two days," Sandberg said, referring to Cooperstown's embrace, "have taken some of the sting away. But every year, I still imagine what it must feel like.
"To reach a World Series ... that would have been the pinnacle."
Perhaps the highest pinnacle, because it would've taken an entire team to scale it. Maybe the most satisfying pinnacle. But Sandberg can't portray it as the pinnancle, because he had so many of them.
Few players even in the Hall have had a career of comparable diversity and consistency. At a time baseball was becoming a game of specialists -- thunder or lightning -- he packed both.
In addition to the career record for homers at his position (since claimed by Jeff Kent), Sandberg in 1990 became the first second baseman to reach 40 homers since Rogers Hornsby, 68 years earlier. The year before, he became only the second Cub to homer in five consecutive games, matching Hack Wilson's 1928 feat.
Not only could he steal bases (344), he did so efficiently, being caught only 107 times.
And even with all that, his ace was defense. Nine consecutive Gold Gloves, all manner of records for assists and fielding percentage. In one six-year stretch, he had only 37 errors, even while consistently leading at his position in total chances.
As former manager Jim Frey once saluted him, "He has the most consistent approach to the game I've ever seen. I know we use the word 'consistent' a lot, but in Sandberg's case it applies."
A prep football stud who had scholarship-waving college coaches on his tail, Sandberg bit when the Philadelphia Phillies made him a 20th-round choice in the 1978 First-Year Player Draft.
For someone growing up in rural Washington state, baseball had always represented a unique beacon.
"During a family trip when I was 9, we went to a game in Fenway Park," Sandberg said. "On the way home, we stopped at the old [Metropolitan] Stadium in Minneapolis. The third Major League game I ever saw, I was in uniform with the Phillies as a September callup [in 1981]."
Sandberg began his professional baseball career with modest aspirations.
"In Double- and Triple-A," Sandberg said Wednesday, "my goal was to make it as a utility infielder with the Phillies."
Instead, he became Willie Mays.
Dealt to Chicago in January 1982, Sandberg immediately moved in as the Cubs' regular third baseman ... and promptly opened the season going 1-for-31.
Part of the Mays legend is his 1-for-25 start as a New York Giants rookie in 1951, with manager Leo Durocher having to talk him out of requesting a return to the minors.
Mays and Sandberg both turned out OK.
So has Ryno's long-distance fascination with a certain hit-hoarding left-handed hitter who liked chicken. Their mutual Hall of Fame induction will create a bond Sandberg and Boggs haven't had before. Trurth is, they hardly know each other.
Sandberg's Cubs trained in Arizona and all three of Boggs' clubs -- the Red Sox, Yankees, Devil Rays -- camped in Florida. In an era prior to Interleague Play, the two traveled divergent roads.
"But I'd always pick up the paper to see how many hits he got -- three or four?" Sandberg said, nodding to the man on his left. "There was Tony Gwynn in our league, and Wade Boggs in the other.
"I followed him, and tried to keep up with him."
On a dais in a Manhattan hotel, in a room adorned with Hall of Fame logos, he finally pulled abreast of him.
| 2005 Hall of Fame
The complete vote (516 ballots, 387 to gain election, 26 to remain on ballot):
Wade, Ryno are Hall choices
No doubts about Class of 2005
Boggs hits his way to the Hall
Ryno charges into Hall of Fame
Red Sox lavish praise on Boggs
Rays react to Boggs Hall call
From Beantown to Bronx to Hall
Sutter closing in on Hall of Fame
Boggs is fans' favorite to make Hall
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.