When Kris Bryant won the 2016 NL MVP, he was quickly welcomed to the club by Ryne Sandberg in an Instagram photo that could only be captioned “Two Cub legends pose for a Wes Anderson film.” And after Bryant completed his follow-up season, it turned out that the two of them had a lot more in common than just possessing a trophy modeled after a creepy old racist judge.
Just like Bryant did, during his age 24 season Sandberg became the MVP and most famous player on one of the most historically important Cubs teams of all time. That 1984 performance came to define him for the rest of his career. But it also inspired him to prove that such a transcendent year would be the first of many great ones instead of an outlier. As he noted in his autobiography:
“Fear of failure is a great motivator for some, and that was always a big thing for me…in ’85, I had it big. I wanted to prove that 1984 was not a fluke. I heard the ‘career year’ phrase a lot and I didn’t really know how to interpret it. I thought they meant, ‘Oh, this guy’ll never do better than that.’
“I used that as an incentive for the entire 1985 season. I wanted to prove it wasn’t a fluke.”
The biggest fear of any great ballplayer after his breakout season is becoming a baseball one hit wonder. For Sandberg, even in the midst of celebrating his outsized role in the Cubs’ Division Title, there had to be an unspoken worry that the next year would turn out to be his “Mambo No. 6.”
And it ended up playing out in a pattern familiar to anyone who watched Bryant’s MVP follow-up in 2017. As was the case with KB, for a good part of the 1985 season, Sandberg had to deal with a chorus of doubters insisting his performance had declined and that his MVP encore was a disappointment.
This was probably even more distressing for Sandberg because his MVP had seemingly come from out of nowhere, while Bryant had already established himself as a rising star by the time he won the award. By the time 2016 rolled around, KB already possessed a Golden Spikes Award, Minor League Player of the Year, and Rookie of the Year to attest to his elite baseball skills.
In comparison, the biggest award Ryno had won up until 1984 was a Parade Magazine All-America selection. From his high school days. As a quarterback. Presumably from back in the days when America’s single greatest athletic authority was “Ask Marilyn.”
So it was one thing for Bryant to go hitless in his first three games of 2017—his track record of constantly living up to massive hype combined with the team’s World Series win to earn him the benefit of the doubt.
It was quite another for Sandberg to begin defending his MVP by going 0-for-13. This was well before he was “Future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.” At the time, he had an out of nowhere MVP and two seasons of 2.4 and 3.2 WARP on his resume. It probably didn’t take much for fans and media to judge him a fluke and worry that he was going to have the kind of career summed up by the question: “What if Geovany Soto invented a time machine?”
Even after breaking that opening skid with a double and run scored against the Expos on April 13, Sandberg still couldn’t shake his opening month malaise. It took two three-hit games in April’s final four days for him to finish with an anemic .192/.224/.329 line. This was the kind of performance that could only be redeemed by an inspiring rain delay speech to rally his teammates.
Unfortunately, it turned out that he was still Ryne Sandberg.
Because of the greater scrutiny given to his performance, 1985 was also the year when the media started to notice that the Sandberg April slump was becoming a thing. After recording two doubles on April 30 against the Giants, even the reticent Sandberg let it be known that his numbers had gotten into his head…
“You mean tomorrow’s the first of May? I thought it was today. Really I did.”
In what had to be a baseball first, the slump had gotten so bad that Ryne Sandberg lost confidence in his ability to read a calendar.
Thankfully, like Bryant, it was only a matter of time before Sandberg’s performance began to answer the doubters. It turned out that the reason Sandberg thought that May had arrived a day early was because he was about to embark on an eight game hitting streak. That certainly was more like it, as the streak culminated in a solo home run to beat Mike Krukow and the Giants 1-0 on May 8. So much so, in fact, that Sandberg followed it with two similar streaks of nine and eight games.
It turned out that there were only two games in the entire month of May where Sandberg failed to record a base hit. Over the course of the three streaks, Sandberg began to serve notice that writing him off was very premature, slashing a 1984-esque .324/.375/.523. He showed flashes of familiar power with four home runs during this stretch. And for good measure, he also stole 11 bases in 14 attempts.
The Cubs were flying high at 27-17 and a half game out of first place. Unfortunately, Sandberg missed the next seven contests with a rib cage injury and came back just in time for the team’s infamous 13 game losing streak. Because part of playing for the mid-80s Cubs meant that sometimes the highlight of your month would be that time when it hurt to breathe.
Like the rest of his teammates, Sandberg fell into another slump at the start of the slog through baseball suckage, going 4-for-23 during the first six losses to drop his season numbers down to .243/.296/.402. In the span of just two weeks, 1984 suddenly felt like a fluke all over again.
Making things appear even worse, this slump coincided with All Star Game voting and the reigning MVP faced some unexpected competition. Again echoing the experience of Bryant, Sandberg ended up losing the starting spot to an inferior player–in this case, the Cardinals’ Tommy Herr, who was dubbed by UPI as “the 1985 Kid Natural” in an article presumably from The Sporting News’ annual Blasphemy Issue.
To be fair, Herr was experiencing a career year, hitting .334 at the break. He was also 175 pounds and white, which meant that The Best Fans in Baseball™ turned out to vote for him in droves and he overtook Sandberg late in the process–just as Nolan Arenado did to Bryant.
Sandberg at least had the consolation of being picked as an All Star reserve. As would be expected, he took this turn of events with class, telling UPI that “We all got off to a slow start, especially during the streak. I kinda feel that lately I’ve been coming out of it and so has the team.”
The narrative certainly made sense. Except here’s the thing: Sandberg actually started coming out of it in the middle of all the losing. Over the last seven defeats during the streak, Ryno hit .310. The customary power wasn’t there (.379 SLG) but he was certainly doing his part to put an end to the misery.
Finally, as if to say “this bullshit stops NOW,” Sandberg went 3-for-3 with a two run homer to put a 7-3 win over the Mets out of reach on June 26. Because even in a down year for the team, that’s what reigning MVPs do.
Then there was hell to pay. Well…technically not from the Cubs. No good revenge plan ever includes anyone named Dave Gumpert. But for the rest of the season, the National League would know that the Ryne Sandberg they saw in 1984 was here to stay.
Once the losing skid finally stopped, Sandberg got even hotter. In short order, he recorded the second five-hit game of his career in Pittsburgh on June 29. You might remember the first one. A few days later, he lined a two-run ninth inning double off Kent Tekulve to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 victory over the Phillies. This was the good kind of streak—Sandberg ended up hitting in 18 games in a row during which time he batted .400 with a 1.019 OPS.
This latest hitting streak led into a blistering second half for Ryno that was remarkable for both its brilliance and its consistency.
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Perhaps the reason Hall of Fame voters overlooked Sandberg on his first two ballots was because that’s what happens when you’re able to do such a spot-on impression of Tim Raines.
In yet another echo of Kris Bryant’s 2017, Sandberg spent the second half of 1985 laying waste to National League pitching and amassing many numbers that called back to his MVP year. After the final game of the season, his slashline stood at .305/.364/.504 with 5.7 WARP (compared to 1984’s .314/.367/.520 and 7.6). It was quite a long and vindicating distance from April’s .553 OPS.
Sandberg also exceeded his 1984 totals in power (26 home runs) and speed (54 stolen bases). In doing so, he became the third player in baseball history to accumulate 25 or more homers and 50 or more steals in a single season, joining Cesar Cedeño and Joe Morgan (who presumably celebrated by firing off a letter to the editors of The Baseball Encyclopedia asking them not to notice that).
As if all that wasn’t enough, after enduring criticism for “lapses in the field” leading up to the All Star Break, Sandberg finished the year with 10.8 FRAA and his third consecutive Gold Glove. Across the board, his numbers had proven that he was every bit as dominant as he was when he won the MVP.
Looking back a decade removed from his 1985 season, Sandberg was pleased:
“All in all, I thought I had a pretty good year…”
As any longtime fan of the Hall of Famer can tell you, that’s Rynospeak for “Today…I am…the greatest…of all time.”
“…and thought I had proved something to the critics who said I was just a flash in the pan.”
Although the 1985 Cubs disappointed, Sandberg’s ability to show he was the real deal must have been personally satisfying. And once his season wrapped up with so many mic drop worthy numbers, the only thing preventing Sandberg from telling the haters to suck it was that doing so would have required him to speak.
Now all that’s left to make the vindicated MVP comparison perfect is for Bryant to spend the next decade playing at Sandberg’s Hall of Fame level. So far, things are off to a pretty good start.
Lead photo courtesy Jim Young—USA Today Sports
Rand, Jay and Ernie Roth. “The Ryne Sandberg Era: A Chronology.” Ryne Sandberg Day Special Commemorative Program, 1997. p. 10
Sandberg, Ryne with Barry Rozner. Second to Home: Ryne Sandberg Opens Up. Bonus Books, 1995. p. 79. 81