A Cubs fan (me) belatedly notes: The baseball writers, discharging their sacred annual duty, have elected Ryne Sandberg, former Cubs second baseman (actually, the first game I saw him play, one of the more memorable games I ever attended because it was called because of darkness after 17 innings, he was at third) to the Hall of Fame. Somehow, the news didn’t stir the wild elation in me that I might at one time have expected (actually, I find former A’s and Twins’ catcher Terry Steinbach getting one vote for the Hall almost as interesting as Sandberg getting elected. I’d love to hear the Steinbach partisan explain the passion that led to that vote).
My subdued reaction is due partly to my ambivalence toward baseball tipping over to estrangement. On one hand there’s the game, which still displays beautiful and subtle moments. On the other hand, there’s the relentless insistence on nonstop entertainment at the ballpark, the wacky player salaries, the prevalence of free agency and constant player movement that makes it hard to figure out just who’s on which team, and the owners and league establishment who treat fans as saps to be milked for as many bucks as possible before they’re hustled out of the park.
And then there’s simple Cubs fatigue. As Steve Goodman asked, “What do you expect when you raise up a young boy’s hopes and then just crush ’em like so many paper beer cups year after year after year after year, after year, after year, after year, after year, ’til those hopes are just so much popcorn for pigeons beneath the El track to eat?”
So, Sandberg was elected to the Hall. My first question was whether he deserved it, because my impression of his career was that he was a very good player, but not one who had the lasting dominance both in the field and at the plate to make him a Hall of Famer. I’m sure that impression is influenced by how the Cubs had a couple of moments of real brilliance during Sandberg’s career (especially winning the National League East in 1984, Sandberg’s MVP year) that ended in disappointment (losing the ’84 playoffs after going up on the Padres two games to none). They reached the playoffs just once more during his career, in 1989, when they lost four out of five to the Giants, who went on to get swept by the A’s and an earthquake.
Beside those two playoff years, the Cubs never had another winning season during his career (they were 73-71 in ’95, the year of his first retirement). That’s a little different from the last few Cubs to make it into the Hall — Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and Fergie Jenkins — who were all part of a team that put together a decent string of winning seasons and served as the semi-tragic victims of the ’69 Mets.
But I’m not a Hall of Fame voter or a sportswriter, or even that up-close a fan of the game anymore, so maybe I’m just not remembering how good Sandberg was in the midst of all those bad, so-so, and occasionally good teams. Of course, my wet-blanket attitude does not affect Sandberg’s standing, in the opinion of Kate and many other fans of the distaff persuasion, as one of the cutest players ever.