Yes, I know … I often talk about not having a lot of memorabilia. But when something is given to you out of the blue, does that count as memorabilia – or as a treasured keepsake?
One of my roughest years in baseball was 1994. It wasn’t just a rough year for me and the Cubs; it was a rough year for the whole sport. The Cubs weren’t very good – note to self: going winless at home in April is not cause for celebration – and a work stoppage was looming. Quite honestly, by the time the season came to a screeching halt in August, it was time for a mental break.
If you recall, the 1993 club was fairly decent and finished over .500 at 84-78. Once baseball resumed in 1995, that Cubs team went 74-70 and was in the wildcard race until the last few days of the campaign. But the 1994 season just plain old stunk. At times, it seemed as if people didn’t want to be there.
And then, one day, completely out of the blue, one person wasn’t going to be there anymore.
That date was June 13 – an off-day before a West Coast road trip. At that point in the season, the club was 23-37 and in last place in the N.L. Central – 11.5 games out of first. I can assure you, things weren’t going to get better the rest of that year.
There was a weird vibe in the building that morning; something didn’t feel quite right. Then the word trickled down to the Media Relations department … Ryne Sandberg was announcing his retirement.
Sandberg was only 34. True, he was struggling that season, but he’d been an All-Star in each of his previous 10 campaigns. He had won nine Gold Gloves. He had seven Silver Sluggers. For crying out loud, he was still Ryne Sandberg.
Like everyone else, I was stunned. But there was no time to go through the motions.
My routine the day the team was leaving to go out of town – and I wasn’t on a trip – included going to the clubhouse … saying Hi to the manager and coaches and checking in to see if there was anything they needed before heading on the road … saying Hi to the training staff … and getting the game notes done for the following day.
So I walked down to the Cubs clubhouse – and I was told Sandberg was already there in the training room. I walked in, and there he was – just talking and acting as if everything was normal.
I gave him a “hello” head nod and started to leave the training room. He said something to the effect of, “Hey. Hold on.”
Ryne followed me out of the training room. He asked me if I knew what was going on.
I had no choice. I answered “Yes and No.”
He knew what I meant. Ryne didn’t explain everything, but he told me he needed to retire for family reasons. Over the course of time, we all learned out what that meant. He also said to come see him after the announcement; he had something for me.
I wasn’t thinking memorabilia or anything like that. I was figuring he had something that needed to be returned upstairs. Actually, I wasn’t thinking much at all; I hadn’t mentally planned for a day without Ryne Sandberg on the team.
The next couple hours were an absolute blur. Press conference. One-on-one interviews. Constant thoughts transcribed on the back of the press release for notes ideas – as this was someone retiring who was someday heading to Cooperstown.
After the press conference, I walked back downstairs to a quiet home clubhouse. Ryne was going through some things in his locker. I wandered over to him to thank him for everything, and he handed me a brown shopping bag – rolled over multiple times at the top.
“Open this later on,” he said to me.
I made it all the way back to my desk before curiosity got the best of me.
Inside the brown paper bag was a Rawlings glove – with the red Rawlings label surrounded by a gold band.
On the side of the glove, a message simply read:
Thanks for everything.
I didn’t know what to say. I still couldn’t believe it was over.
Thankfully, it wasn’t totally over; he did return to play in 1996 and 1997. And when he announced in August 1997 that he was going to retire at the end of that season, it somehow felt right this time.
I do look at that Rawlings Glove all the time. I can’t help it; it sits atop the living room TV.
While the writing on the glove is faded now, his legacy as the best overall second baseman I’ve ever seen remains as strong as ever.