Ryne Sandberg's uncomfortable saga
Hard to have loyalty in a sport that often reminds you that it is just a business
As I read that Ryne Sandberg, Cubs legend, Hall of Famer and Chicago icon, could be in the running for the managerial position of the Cubs' arch-rival, the Cardinals, my brain froze for a second. The fan in me was baffled, hard-pressed to imagine a Cubs legend being in such a position. This is Ryno, and where else would he have ever work in uniform than as a Cub?
I pause at this possibility because I always thought of myself as a loyal person. My brother connected me with sports as soon as I could walk, and it turns out the teams I supported back then are the teams I follow to this day.
Since I was very young to be an avid sports fan, my one main reason for picking my team was clear as day. Cool uniforms. And so one day, I saw the Phillies in those powder-blue uniforms and I believed I would be a Phillies fan for life.
From Little League and playing Wiffle ball in plastic replica helmets to my debut as a Chicago Cub and my ensuing trade to the Phillies, I was still a fan of the game. Even as the business of it was getting in the way.
Keep in mind, I grew as a fan in the late '70s and '80s, so I saw a lot of player continuity. Players seemed to stay put, free agency seemed like a slow possibility, not the rule for opportunity. So I watched my favorite players wear the same uniform year in and year out.
Maddox. Schmidt. Carlton.
They hardly moved. The biggest change was when the Phillies switched to road grays in the late '80s. Even then, I just saw it as players leaving their uniforms in the wash too long.
With that culture of loyalty at the center of my childhood, I had the same expectation of loyalty from the team that drafted me. On June 3, 1991, the Cubs chose me as their first pick and after the rah-rah phone call and the pump-you-up video they played in my parents' living room, I was supposed to be a Cub for life. Since this was now my own journey and not one of my childhood idols', I could only keep the Phillies in my heart as a fan. Now, I had to mature and grow to embrace baseball in a new reality. As my employer, my uniform was now that of the Cubs and it was clear I could never root against the team for which I played -- Phillies fan or not.
The minor leagues certainly tested that new focus. Office politics, jealously, bias, bus rides. Years humming far away from that major league debut. You start to forget you were part of the main organization. We were the Winston-Salem Spirits or the Mesa Saguaros, not the Cubs. So I just wanted my teams to do well. The Cubs were just too far away to know how to support, especially with so much change swirling around us. New managers, new teammates, call-ups, demotions, change of affiliates, trades
Besides, my image was one where everyone (including me) should be happy to be there. Yet it was full of ups and downs just like any other day-to-day experience. I couldn't crumple up a teammate's baseball card when he struck out with the bases loaded; I couldn't take him out of the lineup in the next Wiffle ball game against my brother for punishment. In this new world, I had to ride the bus back with him or even room with him on the road. Reality was inescapable.
Despite all of those challenges, I made it to the show. I got the call on June 9, 1996. I was a Cub. I met the challenge. I was here to stay, until Dec. 23, 1997, when the Cubs traded me to the Phillies. How can that be? Answer: Hang with 'em.
You would think that would have been Nirvana for me. Back to my college town, 100 miles from home, my favorite team and a chance to knock Lenny Dykstra out of the box. But I felt kind of empty when I got the news. I had seven seasons under my belt as a Cub. I overcame skeptics. I learned to get out of my own way. I played three years of winter ball. I had a lot of grassroots support in Chicago and then poof, traded away. I just felt the Cubs had an obligation, one that I had reciprocated all along, but apparently history didn't mean a thing.
But that was lesson No. 1. "The game is a business." We hear that line all of the time, but that was the first ice-cold shower that brought it home. This was not my high school team, where everyone on the team was from my hometown; this was not a league you could buy into being in the lineup. You had to play well. You had to fit the future. You had to be liked. You had to be politically correct. You have to come from a place that was understood by decision-makers. Come to think of it, you really had no idea what you had to be. And the more you thought about it, the less you understood it all.
For a while, my ride with the Phillies was wonderful; that was until my father became seriously ill. Soon after I lost my starting job, my production declined, my focus waned. I became disgusted with my options and the short rope I thought I had during a critical season for my future. So when free agency rolled in on the heels of that season, I had a chip on my shoulder about how I was handled. Another lesson, the team will play to win and if they don't think you are helping them, you will not play. But how can you sit Garry Maddox? Or an aging Mike Schmidt? Impossible, right? Answer: It happened to them, too.
By free agency, I entertained all offers and I put a premium on ones that came with a starting job. The Rangers gave that, and no one else could, including my childhood team. So I left. (The real Garry Maddox tried to convince me to stay in Philly, which I appreciated.) I left my college town, my home, my parents being nearby, the organization that I loved being part of. To just be able to play again, every day.
The Phillies had made the best offer they could to keep me; in fact, it was a better offer financially, but by then, I had more than 10 years of professional baseball under my belt and even though I still believed in loyalty, I also believed in my ability, as well, and my loyalty looked like it would have cost me the best chance I had to be a starting player. My father had also passed away and I wanted a new look, a new starting point and I had no idea how to achieve that staying put in Philly.
Well, as all plans go, the Rangers dealt me at the trade deadline anyway, interrupting an on-fire July that had me on track to re-establishing my ability to contribute on a near regular basis. As the game will show you, if you are an expensive free agent on a team going nowhere, pack your bags. A half season isn't much time to build loyalty either, I guess.
Ryne Sandberg is going to do what he needs to do for his future. He wants to manage and he wholeheartedly believes he is ready to manage, right now. If a team comes knocking with deep pockets, a history and legends in its lineup, he is going to answer. It would be foolish to slam the door in the Cardinals' faces and say "I was a Cub and maybe one day they may offer this same type of job to me." Well maybe not, it depends who is running the show and unless that person is a childhood version of me, who grew up loving Sandberg and the Cubs and would blindly hire him, Sandberg will have no idea when that day may come.
You have to seize opportunities in baseball. Now. Red Sox like Roger Clemens and Johnny Damon became Yankees. Giant F.P. Santangelo and Yankee Joe Torre became Dodgers. Harry Caray belted out the seventh-inning stretch for the Cubs after years with the Cardinals. For a minute, it is a strange change to be on that other side. To dance with the enemy. But after all, you are now much more than a fan, you are a person behind that pro uniform that has the dirt of experience and the washed-off naive innocence that comes with that ride. You know too much.
Yes, loyalty is the fabric of being a fan. When you gave all of it to a team from your past, it colors every part of your choices. But then life comes into play and, to go with the gifts of loyalty, you have seen the other side. A side where you have been traded twice, you have been benched, you have been aged out or cut. Or maybe loyalty was your ticket to a reduced role. The organization sends you a Valentine's Day card that reads "We love you, but we no longer think you can play every day." Then add kids, schools, timing, opportunity, past bitterness, proving grounds. And it all comes together to a decision that will be hard, but clear, too.
Maybe it isn't loyalty that is the issue with change in a player's baseball life. You can be loyal to a person and not blind to their performance or their importance to a team at a given moment. Just like when I played my brother in Wiffle ball; I loved him, but I wanted to beat him 23-0 if I could and, once I was of age, he wanted to do the same to me.
And I am sure if Sandberg is a Cardinal, he will try to put a foot in the Cubs just like I tried to in my years playing against them. In fact, when all is said and done, what we respected and admired about Sandberg was his drive, competitive focus and will. Elements that make a Sandberg look for an opportunity to shine and to be challenged. Now. We wouldn't expect him to wait for anything, even for the Cubs to call.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLB Players Alumni Association. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville
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