Cubs 101 - Pt. 38 - The Return of the Ryno
Ryne Sandberg will always retain a very special place in the history of the Cubs franchise. He was the token "throw-in" that became a Hall-of-Famer. He always approached the game with single-minded intensity, from his days as a raw rookie up until his reign as the highest-paid player in the game. But foremostly, he is largely credited as the man responsible to the Cubs' return to post-season play, based on the 1984 "Ryno Game" and his MVP performance that year.
He is my all-time favorite player, so of course I have read everything about him I can possibly find, including his two biographies, "Ryno", an early-career effort, and "Second to Home", written during the raw days after his 1994 retirement and subsequent collapse of his first marriage. I have briefly run into him out in public a couple of times, but I have not taken the initative to introduce myself or try to engage him in a conversation. One reason is because I am still awestruck by him. But the other, I guess, is because he isn't what you'd call "approachable". I believe that he basically wants to live his life and play his game, and he doesn't factor his fame and what he means to the rest of us into his persona. I guess that's my nice way of saying that the Ryno is a little bit, uh, "simple".
And that's ok, as long as he's out there gobbling up grounders and smacking homers for us. Try to understand his career from his perspective: he started out as the young guy on a rising juggernaut, surrounded by winners such as Sarge Matthews, Rick Sutcliffe and Ron Cey. He is held up as the Cornerstone of the franchise (illustrated by a Nike poster of that era, the most prized possession in my basement shrine). Then he continues to cruise along in a relatively successful mode, with Andre Dawson, Greg Maddux, and the 1989 Division winning team. Suddenly, Larry Himes takes over the team, installs Sammy Sosa as the Cornerstone, purges the clubhouse of every incumbent, save himself and Mark Grace, and the franchise is run into the ground.
Then in 1993, immediately after signing the $7 million annual contract that made him the highest paid player, Ryno's hand is broken in Spring Training by a purpose pitch. Yep, a purpose pitch, in Spring Training! Talk about adding insult to injury. To a simple man who played the game with respect, this was the wrong thing to do, and it truly didn't help that he never really recovered the entire year. By 1994, Ryno felt he was playing on a losing team, for a GM who resented him, with limited strength in his recovering hand, and on top of all that, his wife was wearing her trademark corncob dress to places without him! Perhaps if he was making a mere few million a year, he would have stuck it out, but as far as I know, Ryne Sandberg is the only man I know of in MLB history who walked away from money. His ethics were such, that he didn't think he was earning his keep (and if you look at his 1994 stats, he wasn't.) When he was benched, that was the final straw. He didn't want to overstay his welcome, so he quit.
His 1 1/2 year hiatus was good for him, though. He got his thoughts out in "Second to Home". He was finally able to settle things with wife #1, reconnect with his kids, and as an extra special bonus, found himself a new wifey. Ryno was able to reflect the best he could on his place in the game. The Cubs also got rid of Himes, and at the end of the 1995 season, there appeared to be an upswing in their fortunes. Jaime Navarro was a major free-agent success in his first year, and they actually finished with a winning record. His friends Grace and Shawon Dunston openly campaigned for Ryno to come down from the stands and rejoin the team, and in the Spring of 1996, that is just what he did.
In his first year back, he once again displayed the power he had when he led the league in homers, smacking 25 long ones. However, overall his timing was off at the plate. He only hit .244 for the year, with a career-high 116 strikeouts. His OPS was .760, which was slightly below average for the league. Overall, the team backslid to 76-86, and there were whispers that perhaps coming back wasn't the best thing for Ryno to have done.
The next year, of course, was the dreadful Cubs team that started 0-14. This particular edition of Cubs featured Opening Day starters Kevin Orie, Brant Brown, and Terry Mulholland - a regular "Who's Who" of Cubs futility! It really wasn't fun to watch Cubs baseball in 1997, except for the simple fact that most if not all of us realized that, this time, this was the true Ryno swan song. For his part, his power was down, but his overall performance was an improvement over his first year back. Sandberg ended his career with a .264 batting average in 1997, and while the loss of power brought his OPS down further below the league norm, at least he did not look uncomfortable at the plate his last year.
At that point, it was time to walk away, for good, on his own terms. He showed that he could still play the game decently, with respect and pride, and he did not overstay his welcome, becoming the burden many other great players became at the end. He left with enough dignity, and in a timely enough manner, that management was able to replace him on the roster with Mickey Morandini, who himself played a big role in one of the more memorable Cubs seasons. But that's getting over our skis a bit, at this point.
Ryne Sandberg - the best second baseman of our generation. Sorry, Lou Whittaker. Suck It, Joe Morgan!
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