Baseball 86: Ryne Sandberg
As spring training was about to begin in 1982, the Philadelphia Phillies were -- for the first time in their long history -- a dominant baseball team. They had won their first World Series ever in 1980, and that came shortly after they had won three consecutive National League East titles, losing in the National League Championship Series each time.
They had, perhaps, the best pitcher in baseball in Steve Carlton. They had, perhaps, the best player in baseball in Mike Schmidt. They had the legend, Pete Rose, and they had Gold Glovers all over the diamond -- Bob Boone behind the plate, Manny Trillo at second, the great centerfielder Garry Maddox covering the one-third of the earth not covered by water. They also had the best prospect in baseball, a shortstop named Julio Franco, along with a truckload of promising young players such as Bob Dernier and George Vukovich and Len Matuszek and Marty Bystrom and Dickie Noles.
It seemed like it might be a decade or more before the sun set on the Phillies.
And that's when Phillies president Bill Giles and general manager Paul Owens decided that they just HAD to have Ivan de Jesus.
* * *
As spring training was about to begin in 1982, the Chicago Cubs were as moribund and uninteresting as they had ever been. The Cubs had not had a winning season in almost a decade, since the days of Ron Santo and Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins. Heck, things were so blah going into 1982 that they brought Fergie back at age 39 -- he ended up being their best pitcher, though this was basically by default.
Those late 1970s and early 1980s Cubs were remarkable for their weirdness. The 1980 Cubs, for instance, had an astonishing assortment of relievers. Bruce Sutter would go to the Hall of Fame. Lee Smith would set the all-time saves record and might still go to the Hall. Bill Caudill, the Inspector, would become one of the game's better relievers. Willie Hernandez would win an MVP and a Cy Young award.
The Cubs lost 98 games anyway. In other words, the Cubs were the sort of team that had four potentially dominant closers and no games for them to close out.
Before the 1982 season, though, the Cubs made a bold move: They hired Dallas Green to run the club. Green is the guy who managed those Phillies to their first-ever World Series title. He was a character, one of those old-time baseball tyrants -- "I'm a screamer, a yeller and a cusser," he told the press when he got hired. "I never hold back."
And what Dallas Green intended to do was turn the Cubs into the Phillies. Literally. He hired his old coach and Philadelphia native, Lee Elia, to be the manager. He brought over one of his favorite Phillies players, John Vuckovich, to coach. He immediately traded longtime Cubs favorite Mike Krukow to Philadelphia for Keith Moreland, Dan Larson and Dickie Noles.
And Dallas Green could hardly wait to trade Ivan de Jesus to Philadelphia.
* * *
Baseball trades were different in 1982. Negotiations were talked about openly in the press. The Phillies made it bluntly clear in early January that they were going to trade mainstay Larry Bowa. Giles made it abundantly clear that he thought Bowa was finished. Bowa made it abundantly clear that Giles could go $!@#$%.
"I'm going on vacation, beginning Saturday," Giles said at a luncheon at the beginning of the month, "and so I'll try to make a deal for Bowa this week."
That's when Giles made it clear that he had two shortstops in mind -- St. Louis's impossibly talented Garry Templeton and de Jesus. Templeton was a lifetime .300 hitter with blazing speed and eye-popping range and an attitude that nobody seemed to like much.
And de Jesus? "I like him," Giles said. "He's a good gamer. He plays every day."
The rumor mill began to grind. The next day, the talk began that the Phillies would send Bowa, Luis Aguayo and Dick Davis to Chicago for de Jesus and Bill Caudill.
[caption id="attachment_23679" align="aligncenter" width="475"] Sandberg made 10 consecutive All-Star appearances from 1983 through 1991.[/caption]
"We never discussed those names," Owens griped to the Philadelphia media. "There's no deadline for the trade. I'm not going to make the wrong deal because of some deadline -- we're going to wait for the right one."
The Phillies kept trying to throw veterans into the trade talk -- Sparky Lyle, Del Unser, Don McCormack and so on. Dallas Green was predictably hostile. According to one reporter, he made de Jesus sound like he was the second coming of Luis Aparicio.
"I will not trade de Jesus even-up for Bowa," he told Chicago reporters. "If I can get two other players from Philadelphia to fill key positions, I'll take a shot at it."
Giles responded to a Philadelphia reporter that the trade might be dead: "Nobody is knocking down the door to get Larry Bowa. If we can't get value for him, I guess we'll have to sit down with him and see what we can do."
And things were quiet for a few days.
And then, it was being reported on Philadelphia talk radio that the deal was back on again, and Giles admitted that he and Green had worked out the framework of a trade. The Phillies would get Ivan de Jesus. And the Cubs would get Larry Bowa ...
... and Ryne Sandberg.
* * *
Ivan de Jesus was a good player in 1977 and 1978. In '77, the numbers suggest that he was a dynamite defensive shortstop (16 runs above average) by getting to more balls than any shortstop in baseball. In 1978, he was still excellent defensively, but he added some offense by working 74 walks and stealing 41 bases. He led the National League in runs scored.
But by the time the Phillies were so desperate to get de Jesus, well, it isn't entirely clear what they were seeing.
He was 29 years old and was coming off a season where he hit .194/.276/.233. You don't often see someone slug .233 -- in truth, you've never seen it. Ivan de Jesus in 1981 is the only player in the last 100 years to slug less than .235 in a full season. It was a year of legendary awfulness.
His defense was fading, too. His range was shrinking rapidly; he was erratic and made a lot of errors.
He was durable, though. He played every day. A gamer. That didn't just mean a lot in 1982. It meant everything.
"There's no doubt in my mind," Owens told reporters. "that de Jesus is right up there with the top three or four shortstops in baseball, and in the National League in particular."
No GM could get away with saying something that ridiculous in 2018. But it really was a different time. On Jan. 27, the deal was done. The Phillies got their guy, Ivan de Jesus, and all they had to give up was their emotional and spiritual leader, Larry Bowa ... and the best player the Chicago Cubs have had in the last half century.
"The thing that impressed me, and other people have told me the same thing," Owens said, "is that even though de Jesus wasn't hitting, he still went out and played hard every day in the field. He's a gamer. I've always admired him."
And what did Dallas Green think? It was hard to tell, because of the laughter.
"De Jesus has been going down for two years," Dallas Green said just seconds after consummating the trade. "The Cubs are not in a position for him to have made it three years in a row."
* * *
The other thing that was different about making trades in the 1980s is that almost nobody studied prospects. If people HAD studied prospects, there's a pretty good chance they would have realized that Ryne Sandberg was something special.
He was a fantastic athlete in high school -- he had been an All-America quarterback and was recruited to play at Washington State -- and at 18, after Philadelphia drafted him in the 20th round (Green was the Phillies' director of minor league operations at the time and was reportedly instrumental in the pick), he went to rookie ball in Helena, Mont., where he hit .311 and flashed fantastic speed and gap power. He was a shortstop then, and made a lot of errors, but his athleticism was apparent. He was 6-foot-1, would definitely fill out; this is the sort of guy that baseball people would keep an eye on now.
[caption id="attachment_23680" align="aligncenter" width="477"] Sandberg returned to the Phillies as manager in 2013; that didn't go so well.[/caption]
At 19, he had only a so-so year in Class A, but the next year he hit .310/.403/.469 with double-digit triples and homers, and 32 stolen bases in Class AA. He would unquestionably have been a Top 100 prospect in baseball after that season, perhaps even a Top 50 prospect. On top of that, everybody raved about his work ethic and attitude. He would have been the sort of player that teams would ask about and be told, no, thank you, we're not dealing Ryne Sandberg.
In 1981, he hit .293/.352/.397 as one of the younger players in Class AAA. He showed the ability to play second, third and shortstop, and everyone said that he could play centerfield too. Now you tell me: You have a high school all-America quarterback who flies through the minor leagues, more than holding his own at every level, can play multiple positions, runs like the wind, and has a great attitude. What do you have?
This guy was one of the jewels of the minor leagues.
The Phillies obviously didn't think so. After the deal, nobody talked about Sandberg at all, at least not on the record. Under a photograph of Sandberg in The Philadelphia Inquirer there was just the odd caption: "Not in the Phillies' plans."
"The deal wasn't consummated," The Inquirer reported. "until the Phillies agreed to add Ryne Sandberg, a 22-year-old middle infielder with good speed but a light bat."
And that's how disastrous trades get made ... or anyway, how they got made in 1982.
* * *
Ryne Sandberg didn't walk all that much. He was, in every other way, spectacular. He hit for average. He hit for power. He played great defense. He was a fantastic base runner. He was, basically, Joe Morgan without the walks.
Compare Morgan's breathtaking 1976 season to Sandberg in, say, 1985.
Morgan hit .320. Sandberg hit .305.
Morgan hit 30 doubles, 5 triples and 27 homers. Sandberg hit 31 doubles, 6 triples and 26 homers.
Morgan stole 60 bases and was caught just nine times. Sandberg stole 54 and was caught 11 times
Morgan scored 113 runs. Sandberg scored 113 runs.
Both Morgan and Sandberg were, by total zone ratings, average to slightly-below-average second basemen that season, though both were generally terrific second basemen overall.
That's pretty similar, slight edges to Morgan, but similar. Morgan walked 114 times, though. Sandberg walked exactly half of that, 57 times. That's why Morgan's on-base percentage was 80 points higher than Sandberg's, and why his 1976 season is an all-timer, a 9.6 WAR season, while Sandberg's WAR was an an-excellent-but-less-impressive 5.8.
You can make a similar comparison between Morgan's MVP season of 1975 and Sandberg's MVP season of 1984. Sandberg had more doubles (36-27), triples (19-6) and homers (19-17). He scored more runs (114-107) and had a higher slugging percentage (.520-.508). Again their defensive value was similar.
But Morgan's on-base percentage was 100 points higher than Sandberg's, in large part because he drew EIGHTY more walks. Sandberg made 100 more outs in 1984 than Morgan did in 1975, and again, it's the difference between a great season (8.6 WAR for Sandberg) and a legendary one (11 WAR for Morgan).
The sad temptation of sports, though, is to spend too much time on soft spots, to spend too much time thinking about why Sandberg wasn't Joe Morgan (whom Bill James calls the greatest second baseman in baseball history), and not enough time talking about how close to Joe Morgan he was. Sandberg was a miracle. Every year, he hit for power, he stole bases, he played great defense, he hit for average. He, more than anyone, turned the Cubs from a laughingstock into a contender, and in his two League Championship Series, 1984 and 1989, pitchers couldn't get him out.
Sandberg played every day, and wore himself out -- he was done at 34, and he knew it. In the middle of that season -- he was hitting .238 and felt lost -- he suddenly and shockingly just retired. "I am certainly not the type of person who can ask the Cubs organization and Chicago Cubs fans to pay my salary when I am not happy with my mental approach and performance," he said.
Later, he admitted that he simply had lost the desire to play. Sandberg did come back after a year off, and actually wasn't bad in 1996 (hit 25 homers and played good defense) but 1997 was a slog, and he walked away for good. It took Sandberg three tries to get elected to the Hall of Fame, because his career was short and because we Hall of Fame voters forget that greatness, more often than not, is fleeting.
I have a friend who's a rabid St. Louis Cardinals fan, meaning that she's a rabid Chicago Cubs enemy, and Ryne Sandberg is her all-time least favorite player. She truly clemenates* Sandberg. We have spent a lot of time unpacking her special antipathy for Sandberg, which boils much hotter than her feelings about, say, Mark Grace or Sammy Sosa or Kris Bryant or any other Cubs player.
*Clemenate (KLEM-a-nayt), verb, to hate an athlete in an entirely healthy, fun sports way (rather than hating them in a crazed, stalking, loaded gun, insane sort of way.
In the end, we disagree about her reasons. She thinks she clemenates Sandberg because she clemenates Sandberg -- that's it, she feels that way because of his stupid face and stupid game and stupid, stupid, stupid everything.
I think it comes down to something else. Cardinals fans have an image of the perfect Cardinals player. It's Stan Musial or Ozzie Smith or Albert Pujols, someone who's not only great, but someone with a presence, a winner -- someone who plays smart and tough and always seems to love the game and the big moment.
Don't tell her I said this: I think she always saw Ryne Sandberg as a Cardinal. And it ticked her off to no end to see that sort of player on the Chicago Cubs.