by Howie Stalwick & r & In 1981, Ryne Sandberg was a 22-year-old shortstop who went 1-for-13 in his first stab at major league baseball. The Philadelphia Phillies were so impressed, they promptly shipped him to the Chicago Cubs for a 29-year-old shortstop who hit .194 that season.
That must have been rather embarrassing for Sandberg, being traded for a journeyman like Ivan DeJesus. But wait -- it gets worse. The Phillies were so eager to rid themselves of Sandberg, they also gave the Cubs a proven veteran in Larry Bowa.
Truthfully, the Cubs wanted Sandberg a lot more than the Phillies wanted to give up Sandberg. Still, facts are facts: The Phillies traded Sandberg and Bowa, a two-time all-star shortstop coming off a .283 season, for DeJesus, whose anemic hitting was only slightly worse than his pathetic fielding.
As it turned out, Bowa and DeJesus were both nearing the end of the line. And that Sandberg kid? Oh, he merely managed to hang around Chicago for 15 years. Made 10 all-star teams. Won nine Gold Gloves. Broke a major league record or two. And on July 31, he goes into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Who woulda guessed it? The son of a mortician and nurse grows up on West Augusta Avenue in north-central Spokane; routinely stars but rarely amazes anyone while making his way up the youth baseball chain; signs a letter of intent to play football (the sport he was best known for) at Washington State; then changes his mind at the last minute and opts for pro baseball.
And the rest, as they say, is history. For that, the Cubs and their nutso-wacko fans are forever grateful.
"I remember Ryne came in to see me late in the season his senior year," recalls Ken Eilmes, a retired Spokane Valley resident who was Sandberg's baseball coach at North Central High School. "He said, 'You know, Mr. Eilmes, I don't know if I really want to play football. I've always liked baseball.'
"I told him, 'I know what you can do in football. I've coached you in football [as a North Central assistant]. You will succeed in whatever endeavor you get into in life.'
"I don't care if he was a ditch digger -- he would have been the greatest ditch digger. He was just that kind of kid."
So-o-o-o ... you're not surprised to see Sandberg in the Hall of Fame, Ken?
"I knew he was awfully good, but I'll be honest with you -- I didn't think he'd be a Hall of Famer," Eilmes says. "I thought he'd be good enough to play [in the major leagues], but I didn't know if he could be a great player."
No need to apologize, Coach -- Sandberg's teammates thought the same thing.
"He was a good athlete, but c'mon," says Marty Hare, a Spokane property developer who played baseball, basketball and football with Sandberg at North Central. "He was good, but Hank Aaron and those people are Hall of Famers."
"I was surprised he did as well as he did, but I knew he could get to the major leagues," says Ron Jackson, a Spokane Valley middle school teacher who was a football and baseball teammate of Sandberg at North Central.
It seems ludicrous now, but Sandberg wasn't even considered the best baseball player at North Central his senior year, when he hit .417 with four home runs. Junior catcher Chris Henry, blessed with a bazooka for an arm and a booming bat, often dominated when the 1978 Indians finished 25-3, won the City (now Greater Spokane) League and lost to Newport of Bellevue in the State AAA (now 4A) title game.
"Chris Henry was the athlete on the team," Hare says. "Chris Henry could change the game with one swing of the bat."
Henry, says Eilmes, "might have been the best high school baseball player we've ever had from here."
Henry's baseball career stalled in the minor leagues, but Sandberg became, arguably, the greatest second baseman in baseball history. He did so while maintaining the quiet, humble image that he established while growing up in the shadow of the North Central baseball field that now bears his name.
"He was very polite," Eilmes says. "I don't know if I ever heard him say a word of profanity. And he was not just a great ballplayer, he was practically a 4.0 student in high school."
"He was a quiet kind of guy," says Jackson, Sandberg's best friend on the North Central baseball team. "He was a quiet leader. He could get on guys when he had to, but he would never brag or get cocky."
Like most people in Spokane, Jackson, Eilmes and Hare say they've had limited contact with Sandberg since high school. Except for his 15 summers in Chicago, Sandberg has lived in the Phoenix area (where the Cubs hold spring training) for years.
"He's not really the type who picks up the phone [to call friends]," Jackson explains. "After a while, you ask yourself why you should make the effort.
"It would have been nice if he had reciprocated [more], but that's OK. That's the way his life is."
Still, Jackson says Sandberg was a gracious host on winter golf trips to Phoenix. Also, Sandberg would occasionally meet with Jackson for a beer after leaving four comp tickets for Jackson at Cubs games in Los Angeles when Jackson was teaching in nearby Lancaster.
"One time," Jackson says sheepishly, "he must have signed 100 [Sandberg baseball] cards for me, which felt kind of ridiculous."
Hare said he was "not real close" to Sandberg in high school and had not talked to Sandberg "in years" before Sandberg was voted into the Hall of Fame last winter. Hare called to congratulate Sandberg and see if he wanted to catch up on old times the next time Hare was in Phoenix, and Hare says the two "had a great time" when Sandberg invited Hare to his lavish Phoenix home. Hare also attended an April ceremony for Sandberg at the state Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
"He's always sent me Christmas cards," Eilmes says. "He's just a very private person. Very quiet."
"His life now is in Phoenix and Chicago," says Del Sandberg, Ryne's older brother and a former North Central, Spokane Falls and Washington State baseball player who teaches and coaches in Olympia. "He grew up in Spokane -- he was a teenager there -- but he left right after graduation. Our parents have passed away, and a lot of people have moved."
Sandberg's sister, Maryl Nance, is an executive with a Seattle television station. A third Sandberg brother, Lane, died in 1992. When Sandberg (who is semi-retired, but tackles some baseball-related work for the Cubs and others) does return to the Spokane area, he often joins Del to fish at the family lake cabin east of Colville.
Later this month, Del, Ryne and a horde of other Sandbergs ("Most are in California") will gather in Cooperstown for a family reunion and Ryne's Hall of Fame induction speech. Sandberg has loosened up considerably when dealing with the media and general public since re-marrying in 1995.
Of course, the soft-spoken Sandberg probably never took speech or debate at NC. Del says he's confident his little brother will do just fine when delivering his Hall of Fame speech before thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers.
"He's got to get used to talking to people," Del says. "He'd better, because at the end of the month, he'll talk to the world."
ESPN Classic will televise the 2005 Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Sunday, July 31, at 10:30 am. It will also air on ESPN Radio (AM-630).
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