COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Ryne Sandberg has never tried to keep it a secret.
The turning point in his baseball career – the moment when he started on the road to the Hall of Fame – was a spring training suggestion in 1984 that he was capable of hitting for power and that, for the sake of his team, he needed to do that.
The suggestion came from Chicago Cubs manager Jim Frey, new to the club that year. And it wasn’t just a suggestion – it was show and tell.
“We went out after a game and hit extra with a couple of guys,” recalled Frey, one of several former Cubs players and officials who came to Cooperstown this weekend for Sandberg’s induction.
“Within a few minutes, he went ‘bang’ and the ball went over the left field fence. I told him to try to pull it down the line as hard as he could and he got the ball up in the air and it went over.
“One of the other players shouted, ‘Hey, who’s that in Sandberg’s uniform?’ “
In his first two major league seasons, Sandberg had shown himself to be a capable hitter, but nothing special. In 1,274 at bats, he’d hit just 15 home runs and batted just .266.
But Frey’s help opened up a whole new world.
In 1984, Sandberg broke through with his MVP season – a .314 average, with 19 homers, 19 triples and 200 hits. By the late 1980s, he was one of the National League’s most reliable power hitters, amassing 122 home runs between 1989-92, including 40 to lead the league in 1990.
Though Sandberg, statistically, is the all-time leader in fielding at his second base position, it’s unlikely he gets voted into the Hall without that kind of offensive production.
“Everybody’s looking for more bang in the lineup,” said Frey. He had the body and the physical strength and quickness with the bat to be a power hitter, and I just happened to see more ability in him than he probably pictured in himself.
“He grew up with people telling him to meet the ball and don’t try to hit home runs. Well, that’s good for about 95 percent of the players, but there’s the other five percent who make all the money because they can go, ‘Bang!’ “
Frey had studied at the feet of former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, whose church was pretty much the three-run home run.
“There’s nothing a manager hates more than a big, strong guy who, with two outs and nobody on in a close game, hits an opposite field single past some fielder – but they get to hit .300 and everybody thinks it’s a big deal,” Frey said. “There are just situations in some games when the manager doesn’t want that ground ball to right field – they like to see a long fly somewhere.
“One guy – I won’t tell you who – came to the big leagues and I started working with him. I thought he was the best player in our organization at one point. He was about 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, a big horse of a guy. And I tried to get him to look for those pitches to drive and turn on them. But he said, ‘I don’t like looking for pitches.’ Well, he struck out a lot anyway. I told him the only way he was going to survive was to hit enough home runs. What was he going to do when he gets sent home? He told me, ‘I always thought I wanted to be a barber.’
“And within a year and a half, he was out of baseball. I assume he’s somewhere cutting hair.”
There was technical work to be done on Sandberg’s swing, of course, though nothing too major. Most of Frey’s sermon was centered on pitch count and awareness.
“There are counts – 2-0, 3-1, 3-0 – in which the batter clearly has the edge,” he said. “In those counts, if you’re familiar with the pitcher and know what he’s going to throw and if you look for them in a spot in which you can get the bat out in front, it’s just like batting practice – even if he’s throwing it 92 or 95 mph.
“These are counts in which you don’t have to be right – you can start the bat a little quicker and if it’s not what you’re thinking, you take it. You go to bat 600 times a season, an everyday guy does, and you’ve only got to guess right 40 times to live in the biggest house and drive the biggest car in town.”
Or get yourself into the Hall of Fame.