Baseball's watch on the Ryne probably began early in the 1983 season, when second baseman Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs attracted an entire league's attention by going from May 21 to June 30 (a period of 38 games) without making an error. He also put together a batting streak during much of that same period in which he hit .350.
Among today's crack young ballplayers (Cal Ripken of the Orioles, Darryl Strawberry of the Mets, Tony Gwynn of the Padres, etc.), Sandberg's all-star credentials are as legitimate as any of them. And his contributions, which include a batting average hovering around the .320 mark, aren't going unnoticed now that the Cubs are leading the National League's East division and dreaming of a possible pennant. One of his milestones this year was hitting two home runs in the same game against ace reliever Bruce Sutter of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Home runs, of course, suggest power, and until this year power didn't seem to fit Ryne's offensive makeup. He was strictly a contact hitter, aggressive but chiefly a producer of singles.
What changed all that, transforming him into a long-ball threat with 15 homers this season, was the arrival of Jim Frey as the Cubs new manager. Frey had earlier played a large part in shaping Strawberry's future as a hitter when he coached for the Mets. What people tend to forget is that while Jim never played in the majors, he won two minor league batting titles and once led the Texas League in seven offensive categories.
''Basically I had no quarrel with Sandberg's hitting style,'' Frey told me. ''I wasn't out to make him over. He already knew the strike zone, he was tough with runners in scoring position, and he never failed to protect the plate whenever he was behind in the count.
''I just thought he had too much talent not to take advantage of all of it - too much talent to remain a line-drive hitter,'' Jim continued. ''What I wanted was to alert him to that fact that he could be a line-drive hitter with power. What I told him was that on certain pitches I knew he could handle, he should be looking to drive the ball for extra bases, instead of just settling for singles.
''I also reminded him that at 6 ft. 2 in., he had too much body strength not to take advantage of the pitchers. I wasn't trying to make a home run hitter out of him. That wasn't the point. But I did want him in a frame of mind where, if the pitcher made a mistake and got the ball up, he would sense his opportunity and go for it. You can talk to some players, of course, and they don't even hear what you're saying. But this is a kid who can see the logic in everything you tell him.''
Asked how the Cubs were able to pry such an obvious young talent like Sandberg away from the Philadelphia Phillies in a 1982 trade, Frey replied:
''Well, you have to remember that Dallas Green had been the Phillies' general manager before he accepted a similar position with Chicago, so he obviously knew a lot about Ryne. The other thing, I assume, was that when Green discovered that the Cubs had a shortstop that the Phillies wanted (Ivan DeJesus), he used that leverage to get Sandberg.''
For the bulk of his first season with Chicago, Ryne, who had been a shortstop in the Phillies' farm system, was stationed at third base. And he made the transition look easy by committing only 11 errors in the 140 games he played there.
But when Chicago acquired veteran third baseman Ron Cey from the Los Angeles Dodgers in time for the 1983 season, Sandberg was switched to second base. There he became the only player in National League history to win a Gold Glove in his first year at a new position.
''As far as I'm concerned, there isn't anything that Ryne can't do in the field,'' explained Cubs third base coach and former major league shortstop Don Zimmer. ''He is unorthodox in the sense that he reaches out for ground balls instead of gathering them in toward his body. But there have been ball jabbers before him who did well in the majors and one of the best was Jackie Robinson. Listen, if he gets the job done, what's the difference?''
When the National League began distributing its all-star ballots in May, the early voting for second base ran heavily in favor of Steve Sax of the Dodgers. However, just prior to the All-Star Game, Ryne got some unexpected publicity when he became only the second National League player this year (behind Gwynn) to get 100 hits. More important, 40 of those hits were for extra bases.
At his current pace The Sporting News says the native of Spokane, Wash, would become the first player in history to reach 200 hits, 20 doubles, 20 triples, 20 homers, and 20 stolen bases in one season.
If the Cubs should win their first pennant since 1945, Ryne would be a prime candidate for Most Valuable Player honors. In fact, there are those who think he will take it anyway!