Sandberg's claim to Hall of Fame was how he played day after day


HE DID NOT have a unique batting style or stance that Little Leaguers could mimic, didn't grip a bat in an unorthodox manner the way Ernie Banks did, didn't swing fluidly and gracefully the way Billy Williams did, didn't dig in and rip from the heels as Sammy Sosa does.

He was not immortalized in verse the way Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance were, wasn't a screwball like Dizzy Dean, a flake like Rube Waddell, a bigot like Cap Anson, a boozer like Grover Cleveland Alexander or a freak of nature like Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown.

He is not known for knocking in runs as Hack Wilson is, for astronomical batting averages as Rogers Hornsby is, for a deadly accurate throwing arm as Gabby Hartnett is, for cunning base-running as Lou Brock is.

No, not Ryne Sandberg.

Unlike these other Hall of Famers who once played for the Chicago Cubs - or Sosa, who can be expected to join him in enshrinement some day - Sandberg's identity, what makes him extraordinary, what sets him apart, remains unclear to this day to even his most ardent and attentive fans.

Was he the strongest, the swiftest, the most spectacular? No, no and definitely not. Did he play the longest? No, and, in fact, he even took a sabbatical while still in his prime.

Did he captivate the public with the force of his personality? Sweet-talk you a la Banks? Click his heels for you like Ron Santo? Growl and roar at you like Leo Durocher? No way, to the extent that many a lifelong Cubs fan could hear Sandberg's voice on a radio and not be able to identify who was speaking.

If this second baseman, who on Tuesday made it to Cooperstown on his third try, had a defining characteristic, it was a rock-steady consistency. He gloved the ball. He threw the guy out. He made the play. He got the hit. He played the game hard. He played it smart.

This was no wild man. He didn't charge at the game like, OK, a rhino. Sandberg wasn't about raw aggression or swashbuckling pizazz. He didn't stampede toward you helmet-first like Pete Rose or do back flips like Ozzie Smith. He didn't swagger like Reggie Jackson or strut like Jim Palmer.

He simply played the game.

Played it as it was meant to be played - with dedication and determination and a highly becoming modesty. With a textbook skill that involved blocking a ground ball with your body to keep it in front of you or taking a pitch even when a coach has given you a green light, arts lost on too many of today's strategically impaired stars.

Nondescript in style, Sandberg was a ballplayer's ballplayer, the kind to whom a Carl Yastrzemski or a Cal Ripken or a Tony Gwynn could relate, a workman punching a clock, putting in a solid eight-hour shift and going home without causing his employers a single minute's distress.

Like those honorable men, Sandberg also sided with one team, one town for most of his days in uniform. Doubtless he could have improved his odds of earning a diamond ring by defecting to another organization early in his career, but in the end, this was a true-blue Cub through and through.

When he renewed acquaintances with the Cubs in 1996 after reconsidering a Michael Jordan-like early retirement, a Los Angeles Times columnist - ahem - had the audacity to write: "On his Hall of Fame plaque at Cooperstown, under Sandberg's name, somebody is going to write: 'Glutton for Punishment.' "

No, somebody won't.

Somebody instead is going to etch in bronze: "Ryne Dee Sandberg, 2B for Chicago Cubs, 1982-94 and 1996-97, National League MVP in 1984, retired with more home runs (277) than any second baseman, ranks No. 1 all-time for highest fielding percentage by a second baseman, nine Gold Gloves, 10-time All-Star.'"

Mr. Consistency.

That was his trademark. This is his legacy. Ryne Sandberg ... not the greatest this or the greatest that, but truly now, genuinely so, deservedly so, one of the greats.

Mike Downey is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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