Quiet Ryne Sandberg Leads the Chicago Cubs Out of the Doldrums and into a Pennant Race

updated 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The last time baseball's Chicago Cubs won any sort of championship, Ryne Sandberg, 24, hadn't even been born. For that matter most people alive today hadn't been born.

That was back in 1945. The intervening 39 years represent a unique record of futility, during which there developed the Cubs Mystique (more of a curse actually): If there is a way to lose, the Cubs will find it. Thus did innings, games, series, seasons, whole decades pass. This year, though, the Cubs have kept themselves in the battle for first place in the National League's Eastern Division, no little thanks to Sandberg. "We have a whole new club here and we can win," he says.

Sandberg is doing his part. The team's second baseman and leading hitter (.320), he is odds-on favorite to win the National League's most valuable player award should the Cubs manage to get into the play-offs. One opposing manager, the St. Louis Cardinals' Whitey Herzog, went so far earlier in the year as to call Sandberg the best player he had ever seen.

There was some hyperbole involved, as Herzog had just watched Sandberg hit two homers and drive in seven runs in one game against his Cardinals. But Cubs fans won't argue with Herzog; banners proclaiming "Sandberg for President" and "Kid Natural" are popping up all over Wrigley Field, the Cubs' home park. Sandberg's own manager, Jim Frey, says, "I think he is probably in the top four or five in baseball right now in all-round ability."

If Theodore Roosevelt were alive, he'd probably be a Sandberg booster too, admiring as he did people who speak softly as well as carry a big stick. National League batting statistics, which show Sandberg among the top 10 in eight categories, prove how big a stick he carries. He certainly speaks softly, especially in this time of high fives, petulant prima donnas and self-proclaimed superstars. Using the reverse logic peculiar to baseball nicknames, the other Cubs players call this man of few words "Gabby." When he first joined the team in 1982, Sandberg recalls, "I was a little scared and I didn't talk at all." Frey says, "Ryno is a very quiet, reserved, private person. You say, 'Hi, Ryno,' and he kind of grins. We consider that a conversation."

Sandberg's dad back in Spokane, Wash, has never chatted up a storm on the job either, but then he is a mortician. Derwent Sandberg, a lifelong baseball fan, and his wife, Elizabeth, a former nurse, named their son Del, now 30, after Philadelphia Phillie slugger Del Ennis and Ryne after Ryne Duren, the myopic relief pitcher for the Yankees in the late '50s. (Older children Maryl, 36, and Lane, 35, came before the baseball-name spree.)

Del was Ryne's first athletic mentor. "It was kind of hard when he got a girl friend in high school," Ryne remembers. "I always would get mad because he would go out on a date and I wanted to play ball." Ryne was all-state in baseball and basketball at North Central High School. In football he made Parade magazine's all-America team at quarterback and had scholarship offers from such schools as Washington, Nebraska and Oklahoma. (He's 6'1", 175 pounds.) He decided instead to take a $30,000 bonus from the Phillies and go straight into minor league baseball. "Football, I thought, would be a tough sport to make a living in," Sandberg says. "There is no minor league. You either make it to the NFL or you don't."

From 1979 through 1981 he played in Philadelphia's farm system. Then Dallas Green, the former manager of the Phillies, took the Cubs' general manager job. He began buying and trading for so many Philadelphia players that people started calling the Cubs "Phillies West." Among the refugees was Sandberg, who went to Chicago along with veteran shortstop Larry Bowa, for shortstop Ivan DeJesus, on Jan. 27, 1982.

While DeJesus helped the Phils win the 1983 pennant, Sandberg scored 197 runs and averaged .266 over his first two Cubs seasons, unspectacular figures but solid enough to encourage the Cubs last January to offer him a six-year contract worth close to $4 million. This season since early May his batting average has been over .300. He also has a chance to become the first player in history to record 20 doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases, and 200 hits in the same season.

If Sandberg needed any further inspiration, he got it on May 6 when his wife, Cindy, 23, had their second child and first son, Justin Ross. (The high school sweethearts have a 20-month-old daughter, Lindsey.) With normal husband-father anxiety out of the way, Sandberg quietly began terrorizing the National League. "I wasn't pressing myself or worrying about anything on the field," he says. "I was on a cloud."

The skeptics—which is to say Cubs fans in general—have been wary of the team's success, anticipating the failure that seems inevitable to those who know about the last 39 years. But they should take heart that their newest superstar, who displays a kind of confidence not seen at Wrigley Field in recent years, is strictly a team player. "I'm not thinking about records," he says. "Just winning the pennant would be exciting."

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