Will Ryne Sandberg want to wear No. 45 too?
That just might be asked today when the Cubs unveil their newest free agent, a 36-year-old, unretiring sort who put up some brilliant numbers before he quit for lack of interest.
Sandberg will agree to a one-year contract, at considerably reduced wages, for the 1996 season. He would have been approaching the final stage of his $28.4 million contract, but that deal was rendered null and void when he left. Sandberg then entered into a personal-services contract, at $500,000 per annum.
The Cubs still owe Sandberg more than half that for his work as a goodwill ambassador and whatever. Technically, he is a free agent, but in spirit, Sandberg remains a Cub. So he will sign for a modest base salary of $2 million, plus bonuses, but the primary incentive for Sandberg evidently is a return to Wrigley Field, not exactly the friendly confines when he decided he’d had enough.
Still, if Sandberg felt uncomfortable on June 13, 1994, when he shocked the baseball world, this next phase won’t be easy. As Michael Jordan confirmed, a genius is allowed to change his or her mind, just like us common folk. But Jordan didn’t leave in the middle of the season, and his wife didn’t file for divorce a week later. Cindy Sandberg did.
Ryne Sandberg, who cherishes his privacy, will be urged to go public when he returns to the Cubs. Then, in April, he will have to prove he can hit, and hit for power. There will be days when he will wish he were back in Arizona, playing with his children in the swimming pool, away from it all.
When Sandberg bolted, leaving $16 million on the table because his desire and performance had dwindled well below his superstar standards, it seemed a noble gesture indeed. He could have continued to play and cash checks, but that was intolerable to such a professional.
When reports of his unhappy domestic circumstance surfaced, that only underscored Sandberg’s values. If he was turning back a fortune to save his family, and to heck with his career, then he truly was special.
Skeptics who criticized him for abandoning the Titanic - the Cubs were already 11 games out - either didn’t understand or didn’t choose to understand that Sandberg had bigger problems than only five home runs and a .238 batting average.
But Sandberg dismissed reports of a rocky marriage, which is his privilege. In his “Second to Home” autobiography published last spring, he wrote, “To the best of my knowledge, at the time I retired, everything was fine. Cindy and I were together. I had no idea that would change.”
It changed in a hurry, though, and while there will be challenges to Sandberg’s motives and timing, understand this: During much of his career, teammates wondered how he could play so well considering the situation at home. Sandberg never dodged the essence of his departure - he’d lost his fire - though he spared us the details.
Well, Sandberg is remarried now and obviously rejuvenated. Moreover, he watched the Cubs from a distance last season and witnessed a turnover in their attitude. He was never bashful about blasting the previous regime, but Larry Himes is out of his life, too. Sandberg’s reversal is a badge for the new management, and he won’t cost what his former bosses agreed to, even if he felt it was aggravation pay at the end.
Sandberg’s skills had diminished in 1994. He did not leave at the top of his game, like Jordan. But Sandberg wasn’t all there mentally either. The rest of the 1994 Cubs probably wished they could have quit too, and some of them did, in uniform instead of suit and tie.
Maybe that was the clincher. When the Cubs shipped Himes from Chicago to Arizona, Sandberg decided to go from Arizona back to Chicago. If only Greg Maddux lived in Arizona, too.
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