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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Return to Cooperstown is timely for Sandberg

Ryne Sandberg with the Chicago Cubs in 1990 (Wikipedia)

By Tyler Kepner

It was glimmering out there for Ryne Sandberg, the same destination for a very different test of endurance and will. He had made it to Cooperstown as a player. Now, he wanted to make it as a cancer patient on the way to recovery.

And he did. Sandberg was one of the 14 Hall of Famers who gathered May 25 at Doubleday Field for the East-West Classic, a re-creation of the old Negro leagues All-Star Game. He didn’t play, but he won.

“The timing was good for this trip, so I had this on the calendar, kind of penciled in,” Sandberg said behind the batting cage before the game. “Then I got good news last week, so it freed me up to come up here. And this is a well-needed getaway. This is a special place to come anyway, and my wife also needed a break; she’s had her hands full as well. We always love coming here.”

Sandberg, 64, announced Jan. 22 that he had been diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer. In the four months since, he has chronicled his ordeal on Instagram, posting messages through six rounds of chemotherapy.

In a post last month, Sandberg revealed that scans May 20 had revealed “NO detection of Cancer!” He said he would soon begin several weeks of radiation treatment and that although some daily symptoms remained, he was having “semi normal good days” and felt blessed and grateful.

“It’s a battle and it changes your whole life and your calendar for that year or more — for the rest of your life,” Sandberg said. “So I have an appreciation for that, and also I have a mentality to not take anything for granted and enjoy everything in life — the day-to-day, basic things and the little things that I enjoy. I maybe appreciate and enjoy those moments a little bit more.”

Sandberg — who made 10 All-Star teams in a row from 1984 to 1993 as the Chicago Cubs’ second baseman — threw out the first pitch in Chicago on opening day. (He bounced it because of double vision, he said.)

Another honor awaits.

On June 23, the Cubs will unveil a statue of Sandberg outside Wrigley Field. The date marks the 40th anniversary of a breakout performance so renowned that it has its own Wikipedia page: The Sandberg Game.

Facing the rival St. Louis Cardinals on that golden Saturday in 1984 — before 38,079 fans and a national TV audience on NBC’s “Game of the Week” — Sandberg went 5-for-6 with seven runs batted in. He belted game-tying homers off another future Hall of Famer, Bruce Sutter, in both the ninth and 10th innings.

The Cubs won in 11 innings 12-11 and by the end of the month, they had risen to first place in the National League East. They finished on top for their first postseason berth since 1945, and Sandberg was named the NL MVP.

The game — called by Bob Costas, who will introduce Sandberg at the statue unveiling — gave Sandberg a new self-image. A 20th-round draft pick who had been traded away by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1982 after one career hit, he welcomed the responsibilities of stardom.

“It changed my whole career, really got me on the map,” Sandberg said. “And it was very much a team thing, because the rest of the season, after the All-Star break, Wrigley Field was sold out, which you didn’t see in ’82 and ’83, my first two years.

“And then being so young — I was just 24 years old when all that happened, and that was kind of my new standard for my remaining years, which was 13 more years. So you got the whole thing: MVP-type seasons, silver bats and Gold Gloves, getting to the playoffs and World Series, those were all goals and they all happened, or got a taste of it, in ’84.”

The Cubs fell just short of the World Series, dropping a heartbreaking NL Championship Series to San Diego. But Sandberg’s steady, all-around excellence at second base earned him a plaque in Cooperstown in 2005 and a strong support network for the fight of his life.

“I have so much appreciation for my former teammates and the baseball world, the baseball fans, the Hall of Fame members, neighbors, friends, everybody that reached out with good wishes,” Sandberg said. “It was off-the-charts incredible.”

Walton memories

When Bill Walton died last Monday, at age 71, he left behind much more than a Hall of Fame basketball legacy. For one rollicking, riveting, raucous night, Walton was also the most entertaining baseball analyst ever.

You may have seen clips last week of Walton’s three-hour tour in the Chicago White Sox booth on Aug. 16, 2019, for a game in Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels. Jason Benetti, the play-by-play man, had worked basketball games with Walton but never embarked on a trip quite like this.

“He’s my freaking hero,” said Benetti, now the TV voice of the Detroit Tigers. “I adored working with him. He just changed the whole idea of what calling games is. You could go anywhere, and he would take you anywhere. And I know nobody else like that.”

In Chicago’s 7-2 win that night, Walton took viewers to a place they had never explored before, tuning his inimitable brain frequency to all things baseball. For Benetti, who has cerebral palsy, the broadcast encapsulated everything he admired and loved about his friend.

“I am really glad the Earth got him,” Benetti said. “I really am.”

Here are a few of Benetti’s memories from the only time he called baseball while wearing matching tie-dye T-shirts with a hardwood legend.

1. Walton was a master motivator. “We go into the clubhouse and Bill gives this rousing speech for 15 minutes about John Wooden and pillars of teamwork and his own battles with physical issues and depression and how to really be a team. It was powerful. And I’m not exaggerating: [Then-manager] Ricky Renteria came up to me and said, ‘Can we get him back to talk to us again down the line?’ He was talking about it for days. He was just that good.”

2. Don’t try to tame Robin Williams. “Bill taught me always, in his actions, that you don’t have to do anything. And I imagine, based on the stories I have heard and read, it’s kind of like doing improv with Robin Williams. Like Robin would show up at Second City and he would be the centerpiece of those scenes. And because the rules of improv dictate that you do this or you do that to make sure the scene is funny, it could be frustrating to do improv with Robin because he’s breaking conventions — even though he’s ridiculously funny, it’s hard to follow. So if you say to yourself, ‘The conventions don’t apply, let’s just go,’ then whatever happens is the art of it.”

3. Wonder and wisdom make a powerful blend. “The reason it’s so fun to talk to kids is because they just want to know more about the world. And Bill was not an infant in intelligence; he was a phenomenal chess player and a brilliant basketball player. But he somehow matured in his knowledge while also keeping that childlike curiosity — that completely unfettered, want-to-know that made him such a perfect partner and a perfect friend. He just wanted to have the world be more vivid to him.”

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