Ryne Sandberg's first major-league hit came in 1981 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. (USA Today Images)
NEW YORK -- When Ryne Sandberg shows up at the ballpark for work on Friday afternoon, it’s sure to be a little more emotional than most trips to the office. Then again, there aren’t very many managers who have their numbers hanging on a flagpole at Wrigley Field.
For 17 seasons, Sandberg was Mr. Cub. He was No. 23 in Chicago before Michael Jordan showed up and one of the most popular baseball players ever to suit up for the Cubs. He went to the All-Star Game 10 times, won a Gold Glove nine times and was the NL MVP in 1984.
Better yet, Sandberg led the Cubs to their first postseason appearance in 39 years in 1984 and helped get them back to the playoffs in 1989.
Indeed, the weekend series at Wrigley will be extraordinary.
At least for a little while.
“I guess the first thing is I’ll probably check out my flag out there on the right-field pole. I’m sure all the memories of all the games will [come back] and that I’ll reflect on that,” Sandberg said before Wednesday’s game against the Mets at Citi Field. “And then I’ll put myself in that spot over there in the visitors’ dugout, and once the game starts it will be business and I’ll feel good about it.”
Maybe Sandberg will wonder about what might have been during the weekend back at Wrigley, too. After all, it was with the Cubs that Sandberg got back into the game as a minor-league manager in 2007.
But it also was with the Cubs that Sandberg realized he wasn’t going to get back to the big leagues as a coach or manager.
“My goal was to get back to the major leagues. I don’t think… there is no guarantee to have a chance to manage in the major leagues," Sandberg said, "with the number of teams that’s out there. My goal was to get back to the major leagues at some capacity.
“That’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to play during a championship season, have a chance to get back to the postseason at the major-league level, and have the chance to win a World Series at the major-league level, which I didn’t have a chance to do. I had two postseasons with the Cubs but never a World Series appearance. Those were all goals to do at the major-league level at some capacity.”
The Cubs twice had a chance to hire Sandberg as a coach or manager but went with Mike Quade for the 2011 season and Dale Sveum in 2012. Seeing that he wasn’t going to get a chance with the Cubs, Sandberg took an offer to be the Triple A manager for the Phillies. Two years later, he made it back to the big leagues first as a third-base coach for Charlie Manuel and then as the interim manager.
In that sense, Sandberg has come full circle. He was drafted by the Phillies, climbed up the ladder in the Phillies’ minor-league system and made his playing debut for the Phillies in 1981. Coincidentally, Sandberg’s first big-league hit came with the Phillies against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“In 1981 as a Phillie, I got my first hit there. My first major-league hit was at Wrigley Field,” Sandberg said. “I started the second game of a doubleheader in 1981 and played shortstop and had a couple of plays out there and I got my first hit off of Mike Krukow.
“When I found out I was starting, I knew that my bats hadn’t arrived yet from my order so I didn’t have any bats. I was using a Marty Bystrom bat in batting practice and choking up on it a little bit. It was a big, ol’ bat to bunt with -- a pitcher’s bat -- so I was choking up and taking BP with that.
“I asked Larry Bowa if he had any extra bats I could use in the game so he loaned me a bat and I got my first hit with a Larry Bowa bat. Even today I still have the bat and the ball. It was a flair to right field slightly off the end of the bat and the Rawlings writing on the ball came off on the bat. So I have the ball and the bat and there’s no writing on the ball. It’s all on the bat.
“It was like a bottle bat with no knob. It was totally not my bat. But it was a bat.”
Not only did Sandberg use Bowa’s bat, but also he played Bowa’s position. Coming up through the Phillies’ system, Sandberg was primarily a shortstop. There was a thought of moving him to third base, but that was Mike Schmidt’s spot. Manny Trillo was set at second base, so Sandberg was blocked there, too.
It wasn’t until he was traded to the Cubs (along with Bowa) for Ivan DeJesus that Sandberg got a chance to play every day.
Still, on that first day at Wrigley, Sandberg used Bowa’s bat and played his position.
“I guess I was no threat to take his job. I guess that’s the way he looked at it -- ‘What else can I do for the guy?’” Sandberg said. “Then we both go to Chicago, he takes me under his wing and teaches me everything about the game. Having lunch with him every day pregame, talking about the pitcher that day, talking about at-bats the day before, for the four years that I was with him really learned a lot about the game.
"Just being with him and spending the time after the game having a beer and going to pregame lunch talking about the game. How to play catch right. Working hand in hand pregame at shortstop, double play combinations, all that. That went a long way.”
When Sandberg gets back to Wrigley this weekend, he might be watching a game from the visitors’ dugout for the first time since 1981. He barely remembers stepping into the tiny, dungeon-like clubhouse on the visitors’ side because as a September call up, the clubhouse was too small for the entire team to use. The rookies like Sandberg were forced to use a storage room in the labyrinth of tunnels in the ballpark.
But it was unforgettable and not just because Sandberg got his first hit and had to dress in a storage closet. Those were the days before Wrigley Field had lights and with 81 home games all played in the afternoon, the Cubs didn’t draw too many fans. Sandberg said there were only a few thousands fans in the park when he got his first hit, which wasn’t the way he thought it was going to be in the big leagues.
When Sandberg was traded to the Cubs before the 1982 season, he wondered if anyone would see him play.
“Being on the field with Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose, Manny Trillo, basically an All-Star team, an all-star at every position. Steve Carlton on the bench. Tug McGraw. I was in awe,” Sandberg said. “I was 21 in Triple A, so just being in awe of all of that, having a start. And it was funny at the time, it was late September and the Cubs were out of it.
"The Phils had already clinched the first half of the season [in the strike-shortened year] and now they’re playing to be prepared for the postseason. So, I bet there were 10 to 12 thousand people there. The ballpark, of course, was small. I said, ‘Wow, this is a major-league ballpark.’ And that was also my first thought when I was traded over there, ‘Oh, you gotta be kidding me, not there, there’s 10,000 people there.’ Which all changed pretty much in ’84.”
It will be different again in 2013 when the Hall of Famer returns to Chicago as the manager of another team.