Ryno ready to take his place in Hall

Ryno ready to take his place in Hall

PHOENIX -- Ryne Sandberg comes to the door wearing shorts, a baseball cap and a smile on his face as wide as the Grand Canyon.

His wife, Margaret, has coffee brewing as two shaggy little dogs scamper around the kitchen, growling and barking for attention. In another room a tropical bird is chirping loudly, but won't be coaxed from his cage.

"Too shy," Margaret says.

The Sandbergs are having the time of their lives, enjoying the hot, languid Arizona summer. And on Sunday, Ryno, the once and always premier Chicago Cubs second baseman, will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., along with Wade Boggs, who'll go in wearing the cap of the Boston Red Sox.

Sandberg will take the stage behind the Clark Sports Center in front of dozens of friends, family, former teammates, managers and an ocean of blue-clad Cubbies fans stretched out along the rolling green hills and lawn as far as the eye can see.

"I wouldn't miss it," says Larry Bowa, the shortstop for the Cubs and Phillies during the formative years of Sandberg's career and now a commentator for ESPN and XM Radio. "I never saw a guy work harder to turn himself into a great player than Ryne Sandberg."

It will be the climax of a roller-coaster six months that has had the Sandbergs mostly on the road since receiving the phone call, saying that Ryno had been elected to the cherished Hall. Sandberg has graying hair now, but at 45, that smooth face looks very much the same as it did during his playing days.

"It's been nonstop since January," Ryno says. "It's been coming from all different directions. Being involved with the Cubs, I have responsibilities with the team. I did Spring Training and then different things for them. I went to Houston and did a thing for the Hall of Fame. Opened their travel exhibit there. Been to New York three times. Chicago. We just got back from three weeks in Chicago. We've had something just about every other day on the calendar."

They've been taking full advantage, turning nothing down, enjoying the entire experience. It was his third time on the ballot. That morning just after the turn of the year, he nervously paced around the backyard waiting for the phone call that never came in 2003 and 2004. No matter.

"Whether you're elected on the third, fifth or 10th ballot, who cares?" he says. "You're in. That's the way I look at it."

The Sandbergs' home is a sprawling single-level affair on one of the most exclusive pieces of property in central Arizona. The backyard is hard up against the 13th hole of a golf course on the Biltmore Estates. At the apex of the Estates is the Arizona Biltmore, the hotel designed by eminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright and opened during the 1920s.

Presidents and baseball commissioners have stayed there and strode down the lobby of stone and concrete walls with those wooden-braced high-cantilevered ceilings.

There are multiple golf courses, tennis courts, a world-class spa and during the heat of summer they have movie nights, where kids can watch films while swimming in the pool.

The Sandbergs' white-shingled house is hardly ostentatious, set behind tall bushes that protect a crescent-moon driveway.

Inside, it is bright and cheery, a reflection of the couple that owns it.

"It's very comfortable," Margaret says, noting that they've inhabited this particular house for only two years. But Sandberg, who is from Spokane, Wash., has been living in the Valley of the Sun since his playing days, taking that lead from the Cubs, who have long trained in nearby Mesa.

Two rooms are set aside for Ryno's memorabilia. Dozens of bats and balls, Gold Gloves, his 1984 National League MVP plaque. Ticket stubs from the game -- June 23, 1984, at Wrigley Field -- when Sandberg had one of the best days of his career: 5-for-6, seven RBIs and two homers, both of them coming off Cardinals reliever extraordinaire Bruce Sutter.

The first, a solo shot, tied it 9-9 to open the ninth. The second, a two-run blast, tied it at 11-11 with two out in the 10th. The Cubs, on their way to the postseason for the first time since 1945 that season, won the game 12-11 in the 11th.

"It was a great ride," Sandberg says, the smile never leaving his face as he shows off his personal artifacts. "I loved it all. The journey. The memories."

That season was magic, but ended with the Cubs thwarted in the NL Championship Series, just like 1989, just like 2003. Sandberg was on the field for the five 1984 games against the Padres and the five 1989 games against the Giants. And he was sitting in the stands when the Cubs blew a 3-1 series lead to the Marlins two years ago and lost that series in seven.

That a pennant-winning or World Series ring isn't among the hardware in his collection is the biggest regret of his 16-season, 10-time NL All-Star-berth career.

"I wish we had brought the World Series to Chicago for Cub fans," he says. "That was my goal every single year. And every single year I thought we had a chance to go to a World Series. Coming up short is the only thing that really bothers me. But the Hall of Fame certainly takes the sting out of it."

The vision of a World Series on Chicago's north side even brought Sandberg out of retirement.

He quit after the 1994 season for personal reasons, got remarried and was at Wrigley near the end of the 1995 season when the old juices began to stir. The Cubs had made a run at the first Wild Card, but were eliminated near the end of the season. When he visited the clubhouse, some of the players and manager Jim Riggleman told him that they thought the Cubs could win it all in 1996 if Sandberg was back at second base.

Sandberg says the thought of a comeback hadn't even occurred to him until that day. Margaret was sitting with him in the stands.

"We were there for the Houston series at the end of the season and he comes back up in the stands and says, 'Everybody's asking me if I'm coming back,'" she recalls. "He wasn't sure. He said, 'Maybe.' But I told him, 'You should.' That was it. We started talking about it, his agent started working on the contract and then we announced it at the end of October."

Sandberg's numbers had already begun to decline when he quit after playing 57 games in 1994. In 1996, the homers (25) and the RBIs (92) were there, but the batting average wasn't. He hit .244, 41 points below his final lifetime average of .285.

In 1997, he decided to hang them up for good. He was 38.

"I told Margaret with about two months to go that this was a lot harder than when I was 28," Sandberg says. "It was time."

The Cubs didn't make the playoffs in either season, so Sandberg's dream of bringing a World Series back to Chicago faded away. But the two years back were a kick.

"I had no clue what we were getting into," Margaret says. "But it was fun. I'm glad we did it."

As a player, Sandberg was never this loquacious. Certainly back in the day, there were no such conversations in front his locker cubicle at Wrigley.

"No one had one," Sandberg says. "It was part of my pregame focus. I cut everyone and everything else out. I learned how to give the two-word quick answers."

Sandberg was a master of it back then.

"He was vanilla, more than vanilla," Bowa says.

Now he's vanilla, strawberry and chocolate. Major League Baseball's greatest honor can do that to a man.

"Being there, going through the museum and meeting some of the Hall of Famers, you get a history lesson," Ryno says. "It really hits home how special it is."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.