SEPTEMBER 20, 1997
PHILLIES 3, CUBS 2
Losses were to the 1997 Cubs what water lilies were to Monet or clocks to Dalí. At a certain point during that godforsaken season, I realized that a loss had become less of an undesirable outcome and more like the muse that inspired Andy MacPhail in his chosen medium of roster construction. So on the surface, it would seem strange that one particular loss from a year where there were 94 would stand out.
But this choke job hurt me to the very core of my baseball fandom because it was my last on-field memory of Ryne Sandberg. Even 25 years later, that still galls me to the point where it hurts just to type that sentence.
I’ve never known what it’s like to be a baseball fan without Sandberg as my favorite player. I loved numerous other Cubs, but Ryno resides in a special place at the top of my pantheon. So many memories from my Cubs childhood involved witnessing a succession of mediocre teams at Wrigley while filling out an All Star ballot knowing that everyone around the country was also voting for Sandberg at second base. And in the blessed years of 1984 and 1989, he shone brightest. No matter what the Cubs were like, he was the one thing they got right—and in so many years, that felt like a miracle.
So when Ryno announced in early August that he was retiring for real at the end of the season, my dad and I almost reflexively drove to Wrigley to scoop up tickets for Ryne Sandberg Day. In retrospect, nothing sums up the 1997 Cubs better than their best marketing idea being “The one good thing on our team is going away forever.”
Everything leading up to that day’s game remains one of my favorite Wrigley Field memories. It was one of those perfect crisp late season afternoons where the sun was shining, there was the slightest chill in the air, and the ivy was just starting to change color. Both on the field and in the stands, the atmosphere was one of profound gratitude. It was the first time I had been to a game dedicated to a specific player and I still remember the warm feeling of realizing that everyone in the sold-out ballpark shared my appreciation of this remarkable low-key superstar.
Because he always avoided calling attention to himself, it sometimes seemed like Sandberg made a conscious effort to get the special moments of his career over with as quickly as possible. His rare curtain calls were usually done with head bowed and lasted all of two seconds. So the pregame ceremony ended up being a message from the fans saying “You’re going to stand there and hear the love and appreciation you deserve and there’s nowhere you can go to duck out of it.” For the better part of 15 minutes, Sandberg finally got a chance to soak up all the cheers we’d been storing up for 15 years.
Every note of the ceremony was spot-on. Pat Hughes MC’ed and paid tribute to “the greatest second baseman in the history of the big leagues” with the same reverence that he usually reserves for White Claw or the Village of Bedford Park. Ron Santo and Billy Williams received huge ovations while MacPhail got booed like he just announced he was trading for Steve Garvey.
This day was also the last time I got to see Harry Caray in person and when he shook Sandberg’s hand, it was as if the universe was saying, “Not a bad baseball childhood after all, huh?” In his speech, Harry told Ryno to take a moment and look at everyone who showed up to celebrate him on the rooftops, bleachers, and grandstand, asking him to pause and notice as much as he could about an important moment in his life. In that moment, Harry inadvertently transformed into a zen master—like what would happen if the Dalai Lama declared contentment could be found at the bottom of an ice cold Budweiser. There’s never been another like him.
Finally, Sandberg took the microphone and gave a speech mixing just the right amounts of thankfulness, awkwardness, and brevity, noting “I have truly lived my Field of Dreams right here at Wrigley Field.” He concluded with a victory lap a la Cal Ripken—but with his wife and children going along with him. Considering Ryno came back partly to show his new family members what his baseball life was all about, it felt like the most appropriate way to cap off an exemplary career.
If I could eternal sunshine the game that followed, this day would’ve been the highlight of the year. Of course, if I could eternal sunshine anything Cubs-related, I could spend the rest of my days blissfully writing upbeat essays with titles like “Who’s Jose Quintana?” and “At least Milton Bradley always threw the ball in the right direction.”
All the Cubs had to do was pull off a competent but unremarkable performance against a Phillies team that was every bit as dreadful as they were. And they got so close to that bare minimum level of adequacy before going full dumpster fire.
Most of the game was a pitchers’ duel between the Cubs’ Geremi González and Philadelphia’s Matt Beech, then the Cubs struck first in the bottom of the 5th. After Kevin Orie singled with one out, José Hernández split the gap in right-center for a double to knock in the first run. Then González surprised everyone by putting together a solid at-bat and dumping an RBI single to the same spot. A 2-0 lead appeared to be all they would need—which was fortunate because that was all they’d get.
As for Sandberg, it was a tough game at the plate with a ground ball to the pitcher, a routine fly to center, and a strikeout. But it didn’t really matter. The fans gave him a standing ovation before every at-bat and it was wonderful to see all the admiration and love from the pregame ceremony had spilled over into the game itself. Regardless of Ryno’s results at the plate, nothing was going to stop us from showing him how much we’d miss him.
Meanwhile, González was cruising. One of the few bright spots in a ghastly season, he totally locked it down with a three-hitter, facing only two batters over the minimum after the 3rd and delivering eight shutout innings in total. In the days before pitch counts were widely known, I mentally begged Jim Riggleman to give him a shot at a complete game. As things moved into the 9th, I told my dad that once they got two outs, I wanted to move closer to the Cubs dugout to get one last picture of Ryno leaving the field. It felt like a perfect way to say goodbye.
Here is where Riggleman landed on my “Dead to Me” list forever. To close things out on a day that symbolically mattered more than any other, Riggleman lifted the dominant Gonzalez and went to Terry Adams, the Cubs’ closer of the future. Fun fact: Adams somehow lasted 11 years in the majors without it ever becoming the present. On this day, he lived up to every bit of his dreadful 4.62 ERA and 1.77 WHIP.
Adams began by giving up a line drive single to the immortal Kevin Sefcik and already the 2-0 lead felt way too precarious. Then he walked Scott Rolen and the boos began. Just two batters in, everybody could see the horror about to transpire. Coming apart at the seams, Adams gave up an RBI single to Rico Brogna to make it 2-1. Then when Mike Lieberthal appeared to bail him out with a comebacker to the mound, Adams tried to catch Rolen at third and made it abundantly clear that his scouting report should have read “Mel Rojas throwing to the plate and Jon Lester throwing to the bases.” After delivering a scud missile well short of third, the bags were loaded with nobody out.
Now the boos turned vicious. This was more than just losing a meaningless game to the Phillies. All I wanted was one day to feel good about my favorite player. But an overwhelmed “prospect” and career-long managerial mediocrity were conspiring to ruin everything.
On the very next pitch, catcher Mike Hubbard clanked one for a passed ball and allowed the tying run to score, perhaps because even he was preoccupied wondering, “Who am I again?” Then on a bouncer to first, Mark Grace couldn’t get the ball to the bag on time, most likely because he too was wondering “Who the hell is that catcher?” The bases were loaded again and there was still nobody out. This inning was turning into what would happen if you scored footage of The Hindenburg with the Benny Hill theme.
But the Cubs still hadn’t hit rock bottom. That happened next when somebody named Tony Barron bounced a high chopper off home plate toward second. Sandberg camped under the ball. In literally every other game I’d ever attended this was an automatic out. But after what felt like forever, the ball finally descended…and…glanced off Ryno’s glove, falling harmlessly to the ground. 3-2 Phillies.
In all the years I’d been going to games at Wrigley Field, I’d never written “E4” on the home side of my scorecard. Ever. It felt like as soon as I made that notation at that moment, Clippy the Paperclip should’ve popped up to inform me, “It looks like the world is ending. Do you have any sins to confess?” Then I could’ve told him everything I’d thought about Riggleman in the past 10 minutes.
The 1997 Cubs had contaminated Ryne Sandberg and his error let in the winning run. On his day. It was galling. I couldn’t imagine how he felt. Thankfully, Kevin Jordan later popped out to Ryno so that E4 wouldn’t be the last play I saw from him in the field. I did fulfill my pledge to get one more picture of Sandberg after that inning ended, but it was of him striking out in the bottom of the 9th.
Since I had grown up a Cubs fan, I knew what it was like to be disappointed but this was something entirely different. As this was my last sight of Ryno as an active player, it was like spending an entire day at the Louvre admiring the Mona Lisa and then on my way out, noticing a corner where Da Vinci had written “I did it all for the nookie.” This was the first time I left the ballpark utterly disgusted by what I had just witnessed.
The Cubs paid tribute to Sandberg on his day by giving him a Corvette and a number 23 from the scoreboard. In retrospect, the greatest gift they could have given him was cancelling the game.
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