On the streets of Spokane, an ambitious child shaped the skills of his future
It sounds strange in this, the culture of $500-a-week sports camps, AAU travel teams and hired-gun skills coaches.
Such notions never occurred to Ryne Sandberg, who couldn't have afforded them anyway. In fact, he didn't play actual organized baseball until the seventh grade, because the grade schools only offered softball then.
You think next year's No. 1 draft choice wasn't hitting off a tee at age 2?
What Sandberg did have was time and imagination, a bat and a glove, maybe a tennis or golf ball to spice things up – and the house at 723 W. Augusta, which took a pounding more intense than Fenway's Green Monster or Wrigley's ivied brick ever endured.
Headlights illuminate Augusta Street on the north side of Spokane, near where a young Ryne Sandberg, his brothers and friends would play whiffle ball late into the summer nights. Because grade schools offered only softball, he didn't play organized baseball until seventh grade. (Brian Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Thump . . . thump . . . thump.
Hear it? It's the sound of a kid on his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"He had a game he'd play, against the side of the house, with a tennis ball and a bat," remembered Sandberg's older brother, Del. "It was a game he made up.
"He followed us around, my friends and me, and played in our games, too, but I can remember heading out on my bike and seeing him out in the yard. He was very content playing by himself, maybe more at ease."
The plastic golf ball was harder to hit, especially with a skinny fungo bat. The tennis ball made for a livelier bounce, whether it was off the house or the concrete steps that led down to the street in front. Sometimes, he'd make the play harder by throwing the ball at an angle so he'd have to dive, the way he'd seen Davey Concepcion or Joe Morgan do it on the televised Game of the Week – no ESPN then – or the way he'd seen Davey Lopes or Ron Cey do it at the Fairgrounds when he'd go to a Spokane Indians game.
"I would do that," Sandberg said, "hours and hours each day, pretending I was in big games. Looking back, I can only imagine what the neighbors were thinking."
That he'd be in those big games himself someday?
Not that it was any easier to imagine what Sandberg himself was thinking. Whether it was shyness or caution, it became his trademark at a young age – at least around anyone other than his closest friends. It was reinforced by his father, Derwent, whose perpetual suggestion was to "keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut and you might learn something you don't know."
If it made for 15 years of painful interviews for newshounds covering Sandberg and the Chicago Cubs, well, they hadn't been in his head at all when all the thump-thump-thumping was going on against the family house.
Not that it was all baseball, all the time. By the time he made it through North Central High School, just two blocks from home, Sandberg was all-city in football and basketball, too – a Parade All-American quarterback with a scholarship tender from Washington State.
"And remember how the track and the old North Central used to go around the baseball field?" recalled Jim D'Aboy, who played second base to Sandberg's shortstop for the Indians.
"One day early before coach Eilmes came out, we were goofing around and wound up running a 4x100 relay against the track team. Ryne was the anchor and we ended up beating them – that's just a testament to how fast he was."
But, after considerable drama, baseball is what it was going to be, and that figured because he was named for a baseball player, journeyman pitcher Ryne Duren.
"My parents watched him pitch a game in Minnesota once and his name was in the headlines and it got their attention," Sandberg explained. "Sometimes, when they spelled my name wrong in school or something I'd just go along with it, until my parents would fix it."
Derwent Sandberg was a mortician and his wife Elizabeth a registered nurse, and together they provided for their daughter Maryl and sons Lane, Del (named for former Philadelphia outfielder Del Ennis) and Ryne. If they had no real athletic inclinations themselves, they appreciated the intrinsic value of sports.
"If we needed a new mitt or shoes for any of our sports, they would take care of," Del said. "They didn't make us work or earn the money for it. And they were at every game they could get to. Baseball was tough for Dad because those games started at 3:30 or 4, but he'd slip out of work if he could."
Yet it was widely assumed that Sandberg would eventually settle on football as his sweaty calling. The baseball team he played on was second in state his senior year, but even now Eilmes contends that catcher Chris Henry "had everything" – and when the baseball field at NC was named for Sandberg 20 years ago, Sandberg acknowledged that "I wasn't even the best player on my high school team."
That wasn't the case in football. Nebraska coach Tom Osborne came to scout Sandberg. Oklahoma, UCLA, Washington and both Oregon schools made their pitches.
The winner turned out to be Washington State coach Jim Walden, probably for either of two reasons: playing for the Cougars would keep Sandberg close to home, and his verbal spiel filled in the many natural gaps in a conversation with the reticent Sandbergs.
It didn't hurt that Del had played baseball for Bobo Brayton – indeed, he remembers coming home one Christmas and taking Ryne outside and "showing him a couple things about the double play in a foot of snow in the middle of the street."
Ryne signed the letter of intent, and he planned on playing baseball for Brayton, too. But Sandberg also cautioned Walden that if professional baseball came knocking "with any kind of a deal," that would be his final answer.
"Just one problem," said Wilbur "Moose" Johnson, who at the time was the western scouting supervisor for the Philadelphia Phillies. "The college letter scared people off, and the guy who worked for the Major League Scouting Bureau in the Northwest wrote him up as '$4,000 – unsignable." That's not much of a player."
But Bill Harper, who covered the area for the Phillies, didn't think so.
"In fact, the only guy who ever told me he thought Ryne had world-class ability was Bill Harper," Eilmes reported.
Harper got Johnson up to see Sandberg and then he became convinced, too.
"Each time you went to see him, you saw a different tool," Johnson explained. "The first time you saw he could run – his speed was the thing that stood out first. The next game he'd show he could throw. Then it was his athleticism, and then he'd show some pop – and then you realize you've got a well-rounded player."
Despite the WSU commitment, the Phillies toyed with taking him early in the 1978 amateur draft, but when no club had selected through 10 rounds, Johnson was comfortable not suggesting his name until Round 20.
And then the drama started.
"I had all my classes picked and I had a roommate, Ron Jackson," Sandberg said. "I think I even had a backpack and a bathrobe that said Washington State on it."
But Sandberg started to consider the rigors of trying to play two sports in college and keep up his studies, not that he had anything he was passionate about studying anyway. He also heard Del, who had played on a College World Series team at WSU, talk about how younger players paid their dues in the Cougar system and that playing time wouldn't be immediate. And if he didn't make enough of a mark in college, would there be any scouts coming around then?
After a round of golf with Harper, Sandberg invited the two scouts to the family table – and after Del and Ryne huddled outside for 15 minutes, Del returned to tell Derwent Sandberg that Ryne didn't want to play football after all.
"And I kicked Bill Harper under the table," Johnson said.
The Phillies had offered what, in those days, was second-round bonus money – Harper recalls it being $25,000, though reports at the time suggested more. He left almost immediately for his minor league assignment in Helena, and Del was lucky that he'd graduated from WSU a year earlier and was already teaching in Olympia, so he didn't have to go back to Pullman and explain why his little brother had got away.
"The thing is, I would have loved to have seen him play football for Washington State," Del said. "I still go back for the games and I wonder what it would have been like if he'd done that. Joe Montana came out of Notre Dame about the same time and in my mind, Ryne was a quarterback in that mold. I truly think he would have been in the same ballpark.
"But we'll never know."
That abrupt goodbye to Spokane was telling. Ryne would return in the off-season, for a few years, but baseball took him far away – to Spartanburg, S.C., and Reading, Pa., and Venezuela for winter ball and eventually to Philadelphia and Chicago. He made his off-season home in Arizona and his ties with Spokane lessened. His parents died – his father in 1987, his mother only a few years ago – as did older brother, Lane, and his other siblings moved west.
And as an old teammate once put it, Sandberg is not a pick-up-the-phone kind of guy.
So some of the legacy he generated as a high school Mr. Everything dissipated because his profile wasn't refreshed locally every year the way it was for the two Spokane contemporaries he's often lumped in with, Mark Rypien and John Stockton, who made their homes here. NC retired his numbers – 19 in football, 14 in baseball, though that one has shown up on a back or two since – and the baseball field wedged up against the big rock is named for him. But he became appreciated more for what he was doing on a national scale and less for what he'd achieved here, though a few true believers remain.
Every month, for instance, Eilmes meets former NC football coach Art Bauer for lunch. In April, it was just before Eilmes went to Olympia to attend a ceremony honoring Sandberg for his election to the Hall of Fame. Bauer sent along a message.
"You tell Ryne he's done very well," Bauer deadpanned, "considering he chose the wrong sport."