Rethinking “The Sandberg Game”

At some point during every day of his life, Ryne Sandberg is asked by fans or the media about June 23, 1984. And invariably, the conversation goes something like this:

RADIO GUY: Hey Ryno, remember that game where you hit the two homers off Bruce Sutter?


(Uncomfortably long awkward pause)

RADIO GUY: That was awesome.

You know why everyone thinks Sandberg doesn’t say anything? Because it’s hard to be eloquent when every reporter he meets turns into Chris Farley. Which could potentially lead to the greatest moment in sports television history…

STEPHEN A. SMITH: (hitting himself in the forehead) IDIOT! GOD, I’M SO STUPID! STUPID… aren’t you gonna try to stop me?

SANDBERG: Nope. You’re rolling.

ANNOUNCER: ESPN First Take. Brought to you by the great taste of Paint Chips.

The Sandberg Game is popularly viewed as the moment when the ’84 Cubs realized that they were in the midst of a special season and the day when Sandberg vaulted out of obscurity into instant superstardom. And while it remains a truly transcendent moment from an historically great year, there’s one thing wrong with this perception …

Ryne Sandberg was already a superstar by the time The Sandberg Game happened. That day just made everyone notice it.

Sandberg’s stardom seemed to sneak up on people because his path to it was assembled piece-by-piece. He eventually became an all-time great because he was a five tool player, excelling at every phase of the game. And even though this did not appear to be his destiny at the beginning of his career, he gradually added a new skill to his repertoire with each passing year until he ended up the Hall of Famer we know today.

The first tool to make its presence known was his speed, and it was there from the very beginning (32 steals in 1982). Sandberg’s move to second base in 1983 immediately added superstar-level defense to his profile as he accumulated 17.2 FRAA. That year he also won his first Gold Glove, becoming the second player in MLB history and the first in the National League to take one home in his first year at a new position.

In two years’ time, Sandberg had quietly accumulated three of the five tools necessary to reach his eventual Hall of Fame-caliber production. Unfortunately, during those two years, those tools were somewhat obscured by offensive inconsistencies such as the 1-for-32 start to his career. But Dallas Green and the Cubs chose to endure those slumps as Sandberg figured out his offensive game and gave him time to develop without worrying about losing the fanbase.

(Losing the fanbase, of course, was Lee Elia’s job.)

Then, in an attempt to find himself offensively in 1984, Sandberg famously worked in  Spring Training with new manager Jim Frey on recognizing pitches to drive and developing a new batting stroke to take advantage of them. As they remolded his swing, Frey told Sandberg that if he heard a whistle, he should look to get out in front and pull the next pitch for extra bases. Sadly, Sandberg never thought to reply, “And if you hear me whistle, remember to pull your tiring ace after the sixth…”

Jokes aside, Frey’s teaching paid immediate dividends and started to change Sandberg’s career well in advance of June 23. In the second game of the ’84 season, Sandberg went 3-for-5, driving in four runs. He also knocked his first home run of the year that day in Candlestick Park, proving he was now capable of hitting homers in a temperature of Absolute Zero.

Three days later, Sandberg tripled in a tenth-inning run in San Diego and then dropped the mic by following that dramatic hit with an immediate steal of home. In just the first week of the season, he was serving notice that he was becoming a different player who was capable of putting it all together. A few weeks after that, on April 20, another 10th inning triple set up a walk off win against Kent Tekulve.

Following a 3-for-5 performance in Pittsburgh on the 28th, Sandberg finished the first month of 1984 with a very respectable .259/.337/.444 line. No one realized it at the time but here was the most important sign that he was about to become a superstar: Sandberg was performing so well, he forgot it was April.

And then once the calendar turned to May, Sandberg took off on the road to Cooperstown and never looked back. He launched an 18 game hitting streak from April 24 to May 16. Between May 2 and 9, he put up multiple hits in every game. In fact, there were just three days in the entire month where he didn’t have a hit and only one game where he didn’t reach base.

At the end of May, the 1984 Cubs stood at 27-20 and were a half-game out of first place. And while the Cubs lurking near the top of the division was synonymous with the phrase “It’s still early,” any astute observer could see that a big reason for their success was their second baseman hitting .325/.379/.492. In addition, he was 8 for 10 in stolen base attempts and he didn’t commit his first error until May 23.

For someone who wasn’t known for his public speaking abilities, Sandberg was doing a startlingly good impression of Rogers Hornsby. Only with speed and defense.

As if to announce this was not a fluke, Sandberg welcomed the first day of June by going 3-for-6 with two homers in a 12-3 shellacking of the Phillies. While Steve Sax still led NL second basemen in the All Star voting, Sandberg responded by continuing to substantially outplay him. He kept his batting and on base averages steady and added even more power as the month wore on. After going 3-for-5 on June 22, his slash line stood at .321/.371/.531.

It was readily apparent for several months before the most famous day of his life that Ryne Sandberg had already put his entire game together and was performing at a superstar level. The question then became: could he maintain this pace for an entire season? And what could he do to make the rest of the baseball world notice the incredible year he was having?

SPOILER ALERT: Ask Bruce Sutter.

Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.

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