On July 19, 1992, during a nationally televised Sunday Night Baseball game, the Cubs were in the process of doing what all Cubs teams of the early 90s did best: blowing a late lead. As anyone who watched the team from 1990-92 could tell you, the bullpen of that era was so grisly that as soon as a pitcher like Chuck McElroy entered the game, Arne Harris was required by FCC law to hand the WGN director’s chair over to Wes Craven.
This particular evening, Paul Assenmacher surrendered a massive game tying home run to Barry Bonds in the bottom of the eighth in Pittsburgh. Immediately upon making contact, Bonds thrust his fists in the air and as Ryne Sandberg later remembered it, “After we waited a half hour for him to circle the bases, it was finally our turn to hit in the top of the ninth.”
Or, as that measure of time is known today, one half-Papi.
In that very top of the ninth, as luck would have it, Sandberg found himself with an opportunity to get the lead right back with a runner on second and two out. Facing Pirates sidearming closer Stan Belinda, Ryno fouled off pitch after pitch until working the count to 3-2. Finally, Sandberg got around on a high fastball and lashed a powerful home run deep into the left field stands to give the Cubs back a lead they (miraculously) would not relinquish. If you were watching on TV, Sandberg’s home run celebration played out like this:
- Hit game winning home run.
- Put head down.
- Start jogging.
It was a classic Ryno moment--an astounding and dramatic feat on the baseball field followed immediately by the kind of celebration usually reserved for the phrase: “I just filled out my W-2.” As Sandberg narrated it, “I just put the bat down and ran around the bases, and the announcers made a point of mentioning my lack of a home run trot, compared to Bonds’ lengthy lap around the bases.”
Actually, since this was ESPN, the analysis actually consisted of Joe Morgan with eyes closed and fingers in his ears shouting “MAKE THE BAD MAN GO AWAY.”
The contrast between Sandberg and Bonds couldn’t have been more stark. And this being baseball in 1992, that contrast was transformed into something of a morality play with Ryno playing the role of baseball justice. Sandberg himself couldn’t resist joining in, noting that “I wasn’t going to show up the pitcher or the other team...You don’t need to be disrespectful to have fun. When you get back to the dugout, you get the handshakes and the high-fives and you can have all the fun you want.”
It was classic old school baseball grumbling from a player who epitomized classic old school baseball. And it wouldn’t have been out of place coming from the mouth of old school peers like John Smoltz or Goose Gossage discussing today’s stars of the game. All of which goes to make what Sandberg actually has to say about the current state of baseball all the more astounding.
Because in every interview he gives, Ryne Sandberg has proven to be that rarest of breeds: an old school baseball player whose philosophy of the game has actually evolved with the times. And because of that, a figure who was so exemplary during his playing days with the Cubs has become an ideal Hall of Famer for the modern era. Consider this quote...
“He’s a team player. He’s playing the game the right way. His effort, leadership, and numbers say MVP.”
That’s Ryne Sandberg talking about Javy Báez. Sandberg is from that generation of players who might be the only people on earth about whom you can say “You can tell he’s legitimately impressed because he just used a cliché.” And it might be the first instance of any ex-major leaguer using “playing the game the right way” to talk about a modern superstar and meaning it as a compliment.
It’s hard to believe that the same player who criticized Bonds for celebrating his own feats would eventually say of Báez, “The fact that he’s entertaining and has a little flair to him, I have no problem with that because he’s fun to watch.” It’s as if at some point after Sandberg retired, three ghosts visited him one night and warned him that if he didn’t change his ways, he’d turn into Clint Hurdle.
Which would have been a terrible fate. Because no one wants a Cubs legend to come down with a condition that could best be described as “resting arteriosclerosis face.”
And it’s not just a superstar like Báez either. Sandberg extends his admiration to the entire current roster:
“I think that the way the Cubs players go about it is very entertaining. I like their celebration. I like the way they get on base and they have a sign...that’s telling the dugout, ‘Hey, you do the same thing. Let’s get a rally going.’ I think it’s great.”
There’s a bit of insight into what has made Sandberg so different from his contemporaries in the ex-player fraternity. Rather than seeing Cubs hitters waving at the dugout and falling into the “Where’s the respect for the game?” default setting common to so many of his peers, Sandberg instead finds common ground in the “team first” mentality the gesture symbolizes.
Again, it’s worth emphasizing that this understanding of the modern player is much different from the Ryno that we used to know. His outlook has changed drastically from the days when if you hit Control-F on his Hall of Fame speech and entered the word “respect,” your laptop would spontaneously combust.
And true, it’s worth remembering that as a Cubs ambassador, Tom Ricketts employs Sandberg to talk up the players as much as he can. While this sounds a bit cynical, at the very least it proves that Ryno is infinitely better at his job than fellow Hall of Famers like Gossage--who, before he was barred from Yankees spring training, would routinely issue ambassadorial proclamations such as:
"(José) Bautista is a [expletive] disgrace to the game. He's embarrassing to all the Latin players, whoever played before him. Throwing his bat and acting like a fool, like all those guys in Toronto. Céspedes, same thing."
Yikes. You know you've crossed a line when you get punished for insulting opposing players by the New York Yankees.
But more to the point, a big part of the reason why Sandberg appreciates the Cubs players of today is that they made him feel welcome back in the organization at a time when he needed it most.
As you might recall, during his time managing in Philadelphia, Sandberg stepped into a bad situation with a core of rapidly aging players desperately trying to hang onto their former greatness and did not acquit himself well at all. By the end of his brief tenure, his big league managing hopes had turned into daily misery.
In the wake of his sudden resignation from the manager’s chair, NBCSN Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury theorized that the Phillies experience soured Sandberg on the modern player, writing that “They lacked his work ethic, accepted losing too easily, and had a general sense of entitlement that didn’t sit well with the old-school, grind-it-out Hall of Fame second baseman. During his time as Phillies skipper, Sandberg saw too much of this.” Bench coach Larry Bowa added, “I think [managing] left a sour taste in his mouth.”
If the Phillies of 2014-15 were old, bad, and entitled, the Cubs were busy assembling a team that was so Bizarro Philadelphia, the only thing missing was Santa Claus throwing batteries at the fans. If Sandberg had joined the Phillies at the worst possible time, the Cubs reached out to bring him back to the team at a moment when their roster represented so many of the best qualities of the modern player.
And as the Cubs made their run to the NLCS in 2015 and rewrote history in 2016, those players not only showed Sandberg everything that’s great about present-day baseball but also made him feel more welcome than he had ever felt in Citizens Bank Park. In an interview before the 2016 World Series victory parade, Kelly Crull related the story of Anthony Rizzo bear hugging Sandberg in the euphoria of the Game 7 victory and declaring “This is for you and every guy who ever put that jersey on!” (It was especially gracious of Rizzo not to add “...offer does not apply to Mel Rojas.”)
In response, Sandberg praised the current group of players as “very knowledgeable about the history of the Cubs...and we’ve all been accepted so quickly and [with] open arms. I remember that hug very much because we were both soaking wet at the time so we kind of stuck together.” (It was perhaps even more gracious of Sandberg not to add “...like he was a baseball and I was Yadi’s chest protector.”)
After the Phillies experience, the 2016 Cubs came along at just the right time to make Ryne Sandberg a fan of baseball again--and just as importantly, a fan of the players. As he confessed to Crull, during the clubhouse celebration, “I told a few of them that I loved them. Because I really did all year. Loved watching them play. Loved following them.” Now when he talks about today’s players, Ryne Sandberg sounds like every guy wearing a Ryne Sandberg jersey at the Cubs Convention.
And in a baseball world that gives a platform to too many John Smoltzes, it’s refreshing to hear. As journalist and sportswriter Molly Knight recently tweeted while watching the NFL playoffs...
“I love how much Tony Romo loves football. I wish former MLB players who commentate during playoff games did their jobs with this much joy.”
Here’s a sentence that might be an even bigger miracle than the Cubs winning the World Series: for the first time in history, baseball broadcasters could stand to learn a thing or two from Ryno.
Source for Bonds quotes:
Sandberg, Ryne with Barry Rozner. Second to Home: Ryne Sandberg Opens Up. Bonus Books, 1995. p. 94-95