Apparently this stuff sticks with you.
For better or worse, the perception of who you were as a player seems to determine how you’re viewed as a person- or say, as a major league managerial candidate- later in life. Ryne Sandberg might realize this today as he sits home, sipping coffee in his kitchen, wondering how minor-league-nobody Mike Quade beat him out for the Chicago Cubs managerial job. But then again, based on what little we know about Ryne Sandberg’s inner mind, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the larger point simply careens overhead, like a shooting star, while everybody’s asleep.
Good or bad, who you *were* as a player sticks with you.
Back in June of 1984, Ryne Sandberg, the Cubs handsome, young second baseman, hit two late home runs against the St. Louis Cardinals, putting both him and the Cubs on the national map, as they established themselves as legitimate post-season contenders for the first time in nearly forty years. After the game, reporters struggled to get anything interesting out of the young hero, who’d help lead the team to an improbable victory after falling behind the Redbirds 7-1 after two innings and 9-3 after 5 1/2. His first home run, off Cards closer Bruce Sutter, tied the game in the ninth. His second home run (in the 11th, and again off Sutter), tied the game once again, as the Cubs had fallen behind.
“I’m in a state of shock,” Sandberg revealed in the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t know what day it is.”
On the other side of Wrigley Field, beneath the grandstand down the first base line, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog was left with the responsibility of putting things in perspective.
“He’s the greatest player I’ve ever seen,” said Whitey. Sandberg was in the midst of a crazy hot streak, having rapped 24 hits in a 48 at bat span, plus 12-for-16 in his last three games. Describing the fateful last inning, Herzog said it was like “watching Baby Ruth walk up there.”
I believe he meant a smaller version of Babe Ruth, not the candy bar.
Speaking of Babe Ruth, he had a bit of a reputation as a player as well. In fact, you could say he was the polar opposite of Sandberg. They were both future Hall of Famers, of course, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. One was a righty, the other a lefty. One guy hailed from the east coast, the other the west coast. National League vs. American League. Infielder vs. Outfielder. Ruth was brash and outspoken; Sandberg was quiet to point of being uncomfortable.
Ruth was married, but said to have VIP status at brothels around the American League cities. Sandberg was married, but his first wife was said to have VIP status with several of his teammates. Ruth was aggressive, Ryno passive. Ruth became fat and was known for drinking gin and polishing off platefuls of Nathan’s hot dogs. Sandberg looked like he could model men’s underwear.
They were very different guys, except there was one other similarity: They both wanted to manage at the big league level.
Babe Ruth couldn’t stand Leo Durocher. They were roommates for a brief time with the Yankees and Ruth once accused Leo of stealing some money (or a watch) from their hotel room while he was out on the town, chasing “dames.” Babe even came up with a nickname for the cocky young shortstop: The All-American Out. Everybody else called him Leo the Lip.
Durocher wasn’t a great player, hitting just .247 with an average of 2 home runs per season during a high offense era. Stat nerds: In parts of seventeen seasons, his career WAR is 3.6! That’s like a couple months of baseball for Ruth, whose career WAR is 172.0.
But Durocher knew baseball (what today we’d call a high baseball IQ) and had practical intelligence. He knew how to get what he wanted, whether through sweet-talking or brow-beating, and more importantly: he knew how to get others help him get what HE wanted, whether it was victories on the diamond or a date with a movie star. He was only 23-years-old when he roomed with Ruth, and apparently didn’t give an inch to the Babe, who was at the height of his fame.
Leo believed in himself, even when others didn’t.
For all the women Babe supposedly bedded, it was Leo marrying movie starlet Laraine Day, fifteen years his junior. It was Leo marrying fashion designer Grace Dozier. It was Leo marrying retail heiress Lynne Goldblatt. It was Leo marrying (and subsequently dumping, when he’d tired of them, or vice-versa) an endless series of attractive, wealthy young women.
The Yankees encouraged him to get some *experience* managing in the minors (ala Sandberg), but Ruth instead opted to a take a few years off before accepting a coaching position with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938. He was said to believe this was a one or two year apprenticeship and he’d then get an opportunity to manage the Bums in short order. But the very next season, 33-year-old shortstop Leo Durocher was elevated to player-manager, and Ruth was back on the charity golf circuit.
“How can you manage a big league team if you can’t manage your own life?” was the question asked by Major League team owners, when considering Ruth’s managerial potential.
This stuff sticks with you.
Sandberg seemed like a nice guy. He was shy and humble, played hard and played well for many years. He hit homers and stole bases and rarely made errors. He was selected to play in All-Star games and performed well in a couple post-season appearances.
And his teammates would joke about how little they knew about him, because he never let out so much as a peep. He lead by *example,* they said, not by words.
“How can you manage a big league team if you can’t speak up, demand action and lead men? How do we know if you can make decisions under pressure if we have no idea how your mind works?”
These things, whether you’re outspoken or quiet to a fault, stick with you like skunk spray.
In the Chicago Tribune today, Sandberg said he told Jim Hendry he was “Disappointed (but) I appreciated the process and being involved.” According to Ryno, that was the “end of the conversation.”
It was almost as if he was in “a state of shock” and “didn’t know what day it was.”
To the very day, Ryne Sandberg has remained a gentleman, a nice guy by most accounts.
And unfortunately, we know exactly what Leo Durocher thought about *nice guys.*