To almost every Cub fan, Ryne Sandberg is most indelibly associated with the 1984 season–and for good reason. He won the MVP in a year where the Cubs advanced to the postseason for the first time since 1945. Statistically, it was his magnum opus as he accumulated a career-high 7.6 WARP.
And there was that little moment during that summer where he made a certain Hall of Fame closer scream “OH SHIT” on the mound. Bruce Sutter’s reaction to that second home run looks like he’s trying to create the perfect GIF for any rap battle with Eminem.
It’s probably safe to assume that you’re one of the vast majority of Cub fans who point to 1984 as being Sandberg’s best year. There’s only one problem with that.
Ryne Sandberg disagrees with you.
As he told the Cubs publications department not long after his retirement, “I think [1989 was] when I was at my best. Oh, it was a blast. I think when we had a chance to win, that brought out the best in me. In ’89, I think I got caught up in all the excitement.” (Vorkapic, 34)
So there you have it. While most stats indicate otherwise, 1989 turns out to be Sandberg’s best season in the key metric of BRARP (Being Ryno Above Replacement Player). While we at Baseball Prospectus have devoted a fair amount of study to Mr. Sandberg’s career, we have to concede that the metric’s author is also a bit of authority on the subject as demonstrated by the following chart:
|BRARP Career Leaders
While 1989 wasn’t statistically Sandberg’s single finest year, at 5.1 WARP it was still one of the great ones. And when his performance combined with the most unexpected division title in Cub history, it’s fair to call 1989 a signature season in Sandberg’s Hall of Fame career.
In fact, the story of Sandberg’s 1989 perfectly matched that of the team. Like their manager’s postgame interviews with the media, the Boys of Zimmer spent an entire season going streaking. And this wasn’t a year like 1985 or 1997—this Cubs team also had winning streaks.
In a season that was supposed to be dominated by the last throes of the Mets dynasty, the 1989 Cubs got off to a surprisingly hot start, slumped badly and got injured, shook it off to fight back, and just as they got back into contention, decided to schedule a winless homestand. It was that kind of year. And this was just the first half.
No one epitomized the 1989 Cubs better than their iconic second baseman. Like the team itself, Sandberg got off to a surprisingly good start with multi-hit games in three of his first six contests. With a 3-for-4 performance including a game-winning home run on April 28, Sandberg finished the month hitting .272/.313/.370 as the Cubs hung around at 12-11 and 1 1/2 games out of first.
After putting up acceptable numbers in what was traditionally his worst month, fans could be forgiven for getting excited about what lay ahead for Sandberg. And it appeared that May would be the beginning of an offensive explosion as he dominated a west coast trip, batting .433 over eight games with two doubles and a home run. On May 9, he looked a great deal like the Ryne Sandberg everyone had come to know and love, slashing .311/.361/.426.
But then things took a turn. Sandberg put up three consecutive 0-for-4 days in the middle of the month. He appeared to rebound with three straight two-hit games but then fell back into another slump and sat at an .699 OPS on May 26. Cub fans were not used to their second baseman hitting like a second baseman. And with the team’s starting outfield decimated by injuries, Ryno’s uncharacteristic struggles were coming at an inopportune time.
After another small rally accompanied by a two-homer game at Busch Stadium, June saw his slump worsen. Brief outbursts of familiar excellence such as a 7-for-10, 2 home run stretch on June 11-12 were offset by stretches of 0-for-19 and 0-for-20 at the end of the month. And by July 26, this continuing pattern resulted in Sandberg’s season numbers standing at .255/.314/.403.
At this point, Sandberg’s year “where I was at my best” was threatening to become an entire season of Aprils.
On that date, the Cubs were two-hit by Jose DeLeon and the Cardinals and lost 2-0 to fall 3 1/2 games out of first. The Boys of Zimmer had put up a valiant fight, standing at 55-45. But they were still doing it on the backs of Jerome Walton and Dwight Smith playing out of their minds, Mark Grace announcing his consistently excellent presence, the piece of string and Big League Chew holding together Andre Dawson’s knees, and a manager who was always one day away from calling a hit and run with the bases empty.
Then on July 27th, it was as if Sandberg looked up at the clouds and heard a voice commanding: “Remember who you are…and remember that your name spelled backward is Grebdnas Enyr…” That day, Sandberg went 2-for-4 with a double, two runs scored, and an RBI single during a furious seventh-inning comeback against the Mets. The Cubs beat the erstwhile division favorites 6-5. And then it was on.
The hot streak everyone had been waiting for materialized with a vengeance. Sandberg had nine hits in his next 19 at bats (including three home runs), and the Cubs began to roll. After winning eight of their next 11 games, they found themselves tied with Montreal in first place as the Expos came to town for a crucial three-game series.
The Boys of Zimmer faced their biggest test to date. They had seemingly played above their heads all season but now was the kind of serious August match-up that would determine whether or not they could keep it going for the rest of the marathon. Now would be a good time for an All-Star to step up and lead the way with his production in the year’s most important moment.
All of which is a rather long-winded way to set up that Ryne Sandberg picked a good time to hit six home runs in five games.
In a vital series where games were decided by three, two, and three runs, Sandberg went 5-for-12 with three homers and five RBI. On his Hall of Fame plaque, there’s a special note stating that Sandberg “dignified the game.” And if that’s the case, during the most climactic series of the year, he dignified the hell out of the Expos.
The 1989 Cubs would continue to go through hot and cold streaks for the rest of that glorious season, but from that point forward their Cooperstown-bound middle infielder’s excellence would be a constant.
Sandberg made his presence felt in the team’s signature comeback from a 9-0 deficit against Houston on August 29, singling to drive in the first run of their four-run eighth inning rally and scoring the third. For good measure, he later sacrifice bunted the eventual winning run to second in the tenth inning–a moment that made every ex-major leaguer older than 50 stop bitching about modern players for at least 20 seconds. Which means the comeback was only the second biggest miracle that day.
When Sandberg went 2-for-4 and scored the winning run of the Cubs’ division clincher in Montreal, his personal favorite season was complete. The 1989 Cubs—a team that won all of nine games in Spring Training and was picked by everyone to finish last—came out of nowhere with one of the most shocking great seasons of all time.
And Ryne Sandberg ended up having a season worthy of being bronzed. After facing the baseball abyss for half of the summer, Sandberg finished with 30 home runs—the first time he had reached that plateau. He ended up hitting anAll-Starr worthy .290/.356/.497, and he finished fourth in MVP voting.
Also of note: on June 20, Sandberg made an eighth inning error that allowed the Pirates to take the lead. It didn’t feel good at all. So he decided to stop making them. For the rest of the year. He finished that season with a 90 game errorless streak that would eventually become 123–a record that stood until 2007.
With so many players having career years and a season filled with improbable comebacks, the 1989 Cubs stood as a genuine baseball miracle. The least miraculous part about it might have been the incredible year that Ryne Sandberg turned in. But thankfully, when the team needed him most of all, Sandberg found the perfect time to be ordinarily legendary.
Vorkapic, Rudy M. “10 Years After ‘The Boys of Zimmer’ Have Gone.” Cubs Quarterly. Vol. 18, No. 2 (May-July 1999): 34-42
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports