BASEBALL'S ALL-STAR GAME : A Second Baseman Second to None : Sandberg: He might not only be the best at his position, but possibly the best player in the game today.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The second baseman of the Chicago Cubs is known as Mr. Excitement to the media of this city. It is not--though it could be--a description of Ryne Sandberg's brilliance on the field but rather a facetious reference to his mellow manner off it, the absence of substantive quotes and his seeming quest for privacy.

Display an empty notebook while grumbling about these traits to Tom Lasorda, the Dodger manager, and he asks a logical question, "What do you want, an orator or a ballplayer?"

What you get in the case of Ryne Dee Sandberg is a blue collar ballplayer who someday will stand on the steps of the Hall of Fame and be forced to become an orator.

It seems certain that Sandberg's appearance in tonight's 61st All-Star game at Wrigley Field--he was the leading vote-getter in the National League--is simply another steppingstone on the way to Cooperstown.

Mention that possibility to Sandberg and he smiles, shakes his head and says, "I think of Cooperstown in terms of retirement, and that's a long way off--at least, I hope it is."

Sandberg is 30 and in his ninth season with the Cubs. He was the National League's most valuable player in 1984, and is having an even better year this season.

He may be the best of the best now. Top Gun among the aces gathered here for tonight's game. The quintessential proof that silence is golden.

"Right now, it would be tough to pick a better one," said Cub Manager Don Zimmer, when asked if Sandberg had become baseball's best player. "There's nothing he can't do. I mean, I've seen him have some awfully good streaks, but from Day 1 of this season I don't know how you could be better.

"He's just the best I've seen at that position in my 42 years, and I've been around guys like Jackie Robinson, Joe Morgan, Red Schoendienst and Bill Mazeroski."

During a June in which the headlines were going to Darryl Strawberry, Sandberg merely batted .377 with 14 homers and 25 runs batted in. He entered the All-Star break leading the league in hits, runs, total bases, slugging percentage, extra-base hits and home runs. He has 24 homers this year and a major league leading 43 since last year's All-Star break. If he hits 30 this year he will become the first second baseman to do so in consecutive years. In addition, he is third in the league with a .335 batting average and sixth in runs batted in with 57.

And yet, Sandberg's glove might be his principal weapon. In pursuit of his eighth consecutive Gold Glove, he has made only three errors. Said Zimmer: "I've never really seen Sandberg angry, but when he does make an error it's like the end of the world."

An errant throw on May 19 ended an errorless streak of 123 games and 584 chances, the longest ever by an infielder, excluding first basemen. A bobbled grounder on June 23 represented his first misplay with the glove in 156 games and 753 chances.

"There was a time when I just went through the motions," Sandberg said, referring to his early years as a minor league shortstop and third baseman. "I've since learned that I have to kick myself, that concentration is the key to good defense."

Concentration and practice. No one works harder, according to Cub third base coach Chuck Cottier, who hits Sandberg pregame grounders whether he is in the lineup or not.

"Right, left, straight at him," Cottier said of the daily regimen. "He even practices back-handing the ball behind second base and one-hopping his throw to first. He came to me in spring training and said that he was concerned about getting ready with the short camp and wondered if I'd come out with him early each morning so that he could take extra infield.

"He's the best I've seen, and there's a reason for it. He works at it."

Of Sandberg's ethic--work and otherwise--Cub General Manager Jim Frey said:

"Never in my seven years here have I heard or seen him make an excuse or look for an out. He plays sick, he plays hurt, he plays hard.

"There's never been one incident here where his approach or integrity was questioned.

"I mean, we've got guys who've been in the big leagues all of four days bitching about buses, hotel rooms and everything else. God forbid they ever get a hit."

Or hit 30 home runs as Sandberg did last season, Frey added.

"In that case they'd be on every talk show in the city saying they invented the game," Frey said. "I call 'em celebrity-athletes. Ryno would just as soon put on a mask when he leaves the park and be left alone.

"It's the way he is, the way he's most comfortable. I once said to him that he was probably the best athlete in this city and if he forced himself to be more outgoing it would be a tremendous benefit to him financially, but he hasn't changed in the seven years I've been here, and probably never will. Which is why I say that beyond the stats, when you see how he goes about it every day, when you see him play hurt and seldom miss a game, he hasn't received enough recognition for his approach alone, especially compared to others."

Cub pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who frequently drives to and from Wrigley with Sandberg, laughed and said they have had some real quiet trips.

"He's just a very private person," Sutcliffe said of Sandberg. "I do know he loves golf and hates losing.

"Even with the great year he's having, the losing bothers him a lot."

Sandberg is the latest athlete to have a candy bar named after him, but he has obviously never pursued the spotlight, it has always found him. He was an All-American high school quarterback in Spokane, but rejected two-sport offers from Oklahoma and Nebraska to accept a similar invitation from Washington State--less glamorous but closer to home.

He told the baseball scouts not to bother, but the Philadelphia Phillies didn't listen. They drafted him in the 20th round, offered third-round money, and he elected to sign, deciding that he could be seriously injured in football and to heed the advice of his brother, Del, who played at Washington State and told Sandberg that he might get lost in college, that the scouts might never see him.

"That was before ESPN," Sandberg said with a wink.

That was 1978, and Sandberg went on to have four solid seasons in the Phillies' minor league system at a time when the varsity was top-heavy with high priced superstars and had Mike Schmidt at third base, Larry Bowa at short and Manny Trillo at second.

That was also the period in which Dallas Green, the Phillies' farm director, became manager, then moved to the Cubs as club president after the '81 season and immediately pulled off one of the all-time heists, persuading his former team to include Sandberg as a throw-in in a deal that sent Bowa to the Cubs for Ivan DeJesus.

"I've heard various explanations," Sandberg said of his inclusion in that deal. "I guess the Phillies didn't believe those good seasons I had in the minors were for real. I don't know what they think now."

It doesn't matter, of course. Sandberg scored 103 runs as a 1982 rookie third baseman and moved to second in 1983, becoming the first player to win a Gold Glove in his first season at a new position.

In the spring of '84, Frey, then the Cub manager, had a talk with Sandberg, attempting to convince him that he had home run potential.

"It had nothing to do with his swing or his mechanics," Frey said. "I felt he had the size and athleticism to be a more productive hitter, but he was satisfied, as he is socially off the field, to be in the background. The image he had of himself as a No. 2 hitter was to be a setup man for the big guys.

"I told him that I wanted him to start thinking of himself as one of those big guys, to think of himself as the guy who could win a game in the late innings.

"I asked him, 'Did you ever think about being the most valuable player in the National League?' "

Sandberg hadn't, but he immediately began to perform like one. He hit 19 homers, drove in 84 runs and batted .314 as the Cubs won the 1984 Eastern Division title and Sandberg was voted MVP.

In his office at Wrigley Field, Frey smiled and said: "Nothing he does dramatically surprises me. He's a pure athlete. You could hand him a tennis racket and he'd be a top player in 15 minutes."

Sandberg still bats second and represents the best of all worlds to the Cubs, a contact hitter who can hit behind the runner and do all the little things required of that position in the batting order, as well as recognizing his ability to drive the ball when the count and situation permit.

He is legitimately a Baby Ruth, as former St. Louis Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog called him after he hit two home runs off Bruce Sutter in a pivotal game during the 1984 race. Herzog added that Sandberg might be the best player he had ever seen.

Sandberg, of course, has already surpassed his home run statistics of that MVP year and is an even better all-around hitter and player, though Strawberry's resurgence may make it difficult for Sandberg to repeat the feat of teammate Andre Dawson, who won the 1987 MVP while the Cubs finished last.

Dodger catcher Rick Dempsey was talking about Sandberg's development the other night.

"In a way, you have to pitch around him and go to the next guy, even if it's Andre Dawson," Dempsey said. "You have to respect the hotter of the two hitters.

"You have to hope you can pick at (Sandberg) enough to make him hit a bad pitch to where it will least hurt you, which is the opposite field, though he has good power that way, too."

There are players who would be satisfied to finish the 1990 season with the statistics Sandberg has compiled in the first half. Some of it, he said, is a carryover from the confidence gained by 30 home runs last year, some from his ongoing maturation and physical development.

"I'm still learning how to hit and improving at it," he said. "I would be disappointed if I wasn't a better hitter now than I was in '84. I think the statistics show that I am, that I'm having a better year, and that's all you can look at, really."

People magazine may have been using different criteria when it recently selected Sandberg as one of the world's fifty most beautiful people, which may not have surprised Sandberg's wife, Cindy, but did, he insisted, surprise the honoree.

"I only expected to be in the top 55," he said with a grin, a rare display of emotion by the ballplayer known as Mr. Excitement.

ANOTHER MVP SEASON FOR RYNE SANDBERG?

Year H R HR RBI Avg. 1984 200 114 19 84 .314 1990 112 67 24 57 .335

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