On the first toss from batting-practice pitcher Billy Williams Sunday morning, Ryne Sandberg nonchalantly dropped a perfect bunt a third of the way down the first-base line and about 18 inches fair. If I was looking for small details to establish and preserve what made Sandberg exceptional as a ballplayer, there they all were in a single image–a ball resting just on the edge of the grass along the baseline. Sandberg was a player whose every gesture on the field suggested the innate prejudice that there is a proper way to do everything. Sandberg was the most fundamentally sound ballplayer I ever saw, in everything from his batting stance–a relaxed, erect posture with the hands held close but not too close to the body and with the bat angled just a notch over the shoulder, something right out of a boy’s baseball primer–to the way he ran the bases, cutting each bag on the inside corner, to his prim and proper style in the field. He was elegant–almost regally so–in a way Joe DiMaggio, “the Yankee Clipper,” was said to be regal.
The past tense, of course, is deliberate, as Sandberg announced his retirement earlier this month and is now finishing out his 16th and final season in the majors. In his emphasis not merely on what is proper on a baseball field but on how each task should be properly performed, he has greatly influenced my work over the past 15 seasons, and already I am storing up gestures and idiosyncrasies to last, I hope, the better part of a lifetime. Such as Sandberg’s persistent little hop after a swing and a miss; the slight skip that sometimes precedes his throw to first; the way he sticks his glove hand out in front in throwing, suggesting the high-school quarterback he once was; his fastidious manner in the field between pitches–the drawing of arcs in the dirt with his shoe, a groundskeeping gesture that has become a tic, and the equally frequent process of spitting into the pocket of his glove, rubbing it in, and then drying the tips of his fingers either on his pants leg or by bending over and giving them a quick swipe in the dirt–and, of course, his crisp, compact, efficient, hatchet-chop swing.
The way Sandberg did things made him special from the moment he debuted with the Cubs in 1982. The question now becomes, did he accomplish the things that establish a player as a Hall of Famer? The details of his career, repeated at length in the days after he announced his retirement, seemed to make a convincing case. He hit more homers than any second baseman in history–275 and counting; won nine Gold Gloves for fielding, his first, in 1983, coming in his first year at a new position, second base (the first time anyone had done that); became only the third second baseman to hit 40 homers in a season (following Rogers Hornsby and Dave Johnson) and the first player ever to have both 40-homer and 50-steal seasons in his career; played in ten All-Star games; performed well in the clutch (a .385 batting average with a homer and nine runs scored in ten games in the 1984 and ’89 National League playoffs); played 123 straight games without committing an error, a record for infielders (first basemen aside); and–here’s one of my favorites–once went almost three years, from July 1990 to May 1993, without committing a throwing error. In addition, there was the 1984 MVP award and, of course, the so-called “Ryne Sandberg Game” on June 23 of that season.
I lived across the street from Wrigley Field in those days, and I can still remember that long and glorious afternoon. The Cubs fell behind early to the Saint Louis Cardinals and we gave up on them, my friends and I, going out to buy brats at Pete’s Meats (now a coffeehouse), stopping at a bar to watch the Cubs rally (and asking the bartender to store the brats in the refrigerator under the bar), heading home quickly to catch Sandberg’s game-tying homer off Bruce Sutter in the ninth as it rattled off the Waveland Avenue screen behind the left-field bleachers, then giving up on the Cubs again as the Cards scored in the tenth, only to see Sandberg on television hit another game-tying homer off Sutter in the bottom of the inning, the huge roar of the crowd coming in through the windows, and finally the Cubs winning 12-11 in the 11th inning on a bleeder single up the middle by Dave Owen. If there was one game, one performance, that signaled the Cubs’ transition from perennial losers to possible–dared we believe it?–winners, that was it. Sandberg was five for six on the day, with seven runs batted in, and Saint Louis manager Whitey Herzog afterward proclaimed him the greatest player he had ever seen.
Does all that make Sandberg a first-ballot Hall of Famer? Absolutely, I thought. Yet those memories are colored with nostalgia. Five years must pass from Sandberg’s retirement before he’s added to the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot. I began to wonder just how solid Sandberg’s case will be–both for general induction and on the first ballot, an honor reserved for the game’s elite.
In his excellent 1994 book, The Politics of Glory: How Baseball’s Hall of Fame Really Works, Bill James presents six different tests to determine whether someone is worthy of induction into Cooperstown. The first, Similarity Scores, involves finding someone in baseball history with similar statistics–usually not all that difficult, considering baseball history now goes back more than 125 years–and seeing if that player is already in the hall. That task, however, involves a huge computer database and will have to be assigned to James or someone like him. Another, Fibonacci Win Scores, serves almost exclusively for pitchers. The other four, however, are all fairly accessible to the everyday fan: the Hall of Fame Standards List, the Black Ink Test, the Hall of Fame Career Monitor, and the Keltner List.
Of these, the Black Ink Test is simplest and easiest to explain. It assigns various values for leading the league in statistical categories. (The Baseball Encyclopedia prints those figures in bold type, thus the name.) Sandberg led the league once in homers, three times in runs scored, and once in triples, for a score of 14. That’s noteworthy for a middle infielder, but it should be pointed out that Rod Carew led the American League in hitting seven times–most of those as a second baseman–for a quick 28 points right there. Sandberg’s Black Ink score is good, but not creme de la creme.
The Keltner List was initially developed by James in response to a campaign to get the mediocre (by Hall of Fame standards) Cleveland Indians third baseman Ken Keltner into the hall. It involves 15 mostly subjective questions, such as “Was he the acknowledged best player at his position?” and “Did he ever win the MVP Award?” “For a player of the calibre of Mantle, Mays, Schmidt or Ryne Sandberg,” James writes, “you’ll find almost every answer is positive.” It’s true Sandberg does quite well, but not 100 percent. (“Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?” Two at most. “If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?” The Cubs never did.)
The Standards List and the Career Monitor involve placing an absolute number value on statistics. They differ in that the Standards List deals mostly with career totals, while the Career Monitor deals mostly with seasons. The Standards List was developed backward, so that the absolute maximum score is 100, with the average Hall of Famer scoring 50. Sandberg scores 45, putting him solidly in the range of an average Hall of Famer (now there’s an oxymoron). Yet the top second baseman in the hall by this measure is Rogers Hornsby, at 79, and the average second baseman (as of 1994) was Joe Morgan, at 59 (no doubt that average has since been lowered a little by the induction of Nellie Fox). Morgan was a first-ballot inductee. He wasn’t the fielder Sandberg was, but he drew a lot more walks (I’ve always said Morgan’s first-ballot induction represented the BBWAA’s overdue recognition of how critical walks are) and played on two world champions generally regarded among the great teams in baseball history. Sandberg doesn’t have those credentials going for him.
In part because his season-and-a-half retirement in 1994 and ’95 diminished his career stats, Sandberg scores much better on the Career Monitor, with its focus on yearly performance. The maximum score here is 400, and a score above 100 makes for a viable Hall of Fame candidate. In 1994 James ran Robin Yount out at 130, “the level of an almost-certain Hall of Famer.” Sandberg does even better, at 170. But Yount had two MVP seasons to Sandberg’s one, played on a pennant winner, which Sandberg did not, and had his Career Monitor score dragged down by the fact that he split his career between two demanding positions–shortstop and center field–and therefore didn’t qualify for a couple of nifty games-played-at-position bonuses.
Well, OK, I can hear Sandberg fans saying already. Let’s talk fielding. Sandberg’s .989 career fielding percentage is the best in history for a second baseman. What about that? Well, what about it? Sandberg was the most precise second baseman I’ve ever seen, but he wasn’t the most exceptional by statistical measurement. Bill Mazeroski is the greatest fielding second baseman in baseball history, and the numbers are telling, even though Maz had a career fielding percentage of .983. Maz has Sandberg by about 100 games lifetime–2,094 to about 2,000–and committed almost 100 more errors. He has about 250 more assists–about what one would expect given the games discrepancy–but over 1,000 more putouts and 500 more double plays. Sandberg led the league in assists seven times, but was never great at turning the double play and led the league in double plays only once, in 1983 (this in spite of playing in a hitter’s park for a team that allowed an abundance of base runners). Sandberg was the greatest second baseman I ever saw. As a fielder, however, Maz was better.
My conclusion: Sandberg is an absolute Hall of Famer but he’s unlikely to get in the first year he’s eligible. He should face stiff competition that year. Lee Smith, the career saves leader, has already retired this season and ought to be an absolute first-ballot inductee. Eddie Murray was just released by the Anaheim Angels and may be forced to retire. His 500 homers and 3,000 hits make him an absolute first-ballot inductee as well. The BBWAA almost never inducts more than two players in a year, and has been getting more conservative about inductions in recent years.
Look at Don Sutton, a 300-game winner, who isn’t in. Look at Maz. James says Maz might just be the greatest fielding specialist in baseball history (i.e., his stats are farther out in front of everyone else than anyone at any other position). He also hit one of the most dramatic homers in baseball history, the 1960 season-ender. He isn’t in. Look at Ron Santo. James writes, “If I were in control of the Hall of Fame’s selections, the first player I would choose would be Ron Santo.” He isn’t in.
Such are the politics of glory.
Sandberg’s entire career, it seems to me, was an attempt to divorce the game from politics, from all the sideshows that have come to distract the baseball fan in recent years. He was soft-spoken, his teammates discovered; a dry quote, sportswriters moaned; not a great leader, some fans grumbled. Yet on the field his game spoke volumes; it said all that needed to be said about how great Sandberg was and, yes, about how great the game as a whole can be.
Sunday in the first inning, Sandberg, batting second for one of the few times since his demotion in the order earlier this season, worked his way to a 3-2 count with no outs and Doug Glanville on first. He then slugged a homer on a low cut fastball from Carlos Perez. In recent years Sandberg’s reaction time has slowed incrementally to the point where he can no longer even try to lay off the low, outside slider, but on a 3-2 count, sitting on a fastball, he is still dangerous. I leaned back and laughed. Only two days before, I had taken my two daughters out to the game, only to find Sandberg left out of the starting lineup. We stuck around until the end, hoping for a pinch-hitting appearance, and it was a delightful late-summer day at Wrigley Field regardless. A group of middle-age women sitting in front of us in the box seats turned and glowed at the girls now and then, and after we sang with Harry Caray at the seventh-inning stretch we went down the grandstand to sit with a few friends in the sun-drenched right-field corner and got good and roasted before heading home without a glimpse of Sandberg. Now here he was hitting a homer. Oh well. As on that fondly remembered day 13-plus years ago, I left the game behind–this time not out of despair for the Cubs, but because I had committed myself to help direct cars at the parking lot at my daughter’s school after the air and water show. Returning to the game later on, I discovered–once again–that Sandberg had hit another homer, this time on the way to a far less tense 12-3 victory.
One of these days soon we’ll all walk away from the game expecting to come back and find Sandberg still there, occupying second base, hitting home runs, and he’ll be gone. But not until after the girls and I go back to Wrigley as many times as it takes next month. I want my youngest to be able to say she saw Sandberg. I want my oldest to make her own impression of him in her mind’s eye. That, it seems to me, is what baseball is all about.