CHICAGO -- As a prospect in his first spring training, Ryne Sandberg found himself separated from the real Philadelphia Phillies. But there came a day when he saw stars.
"Boarding a bus with the other minor-leaguers," Sandberg recalled, "I looked over, and they were working out. Phoned my parents back home in Spokane that night and told 'em all about it. I was about 100 yards away from Mike Schmidt taking batting practice."
When Sandberg makes his belated Wrigley Field debut for the season tonight, Cubs fans doubtless will remind him he has been missed. But Sandberg, too, will return with renewed appreciation for his privileged existence in the big show. Maybe some fellow players, when they whine that the filet on the charter flight isn't juicy enough, should be where he's been lately.
Early last week, Sandberg wondered aloud about the postgame clubhouse spread -- ribs or chicken? He was told leftover hot dogs from concession stands would be a bonus, so if you're hungry, try that junk-food drive-in on the corner. Then there was the grounder that shot 30 feet into the air after six hops on an infield not nearly ready for prime time. But that's life in Daytona and Orlando, where this future Hall of Famer played with some maybes and perhapses who can only dream of Chicago, let alone Cooperstown.
"It was good for me," Sandberg said. "It reminded me of what the path is like to get here."
Sandberg played two games with the Cubs' Class-A Daytona farm club and twodoubleheaders with their Double-A affiliate at Orlando, a cram session of rehabilitation for the injury he incurred March 5. A skin bracer from San Francisco's Mike Jackson on opening day of the Cactus League broke the fifth metacarpal in Sandberg's left hand. That's healed. Now it's the right hand with writer's cramp.
Sandberg signed hundreds of autographs for spectators, temporary teammates, opposing managers, ballboys, ticket takers, what have you. Camera crews followed his every move, and interviews totaled in the high double digits. It's not often that a luminary such as he beats the bushes for any reason, but Sandberg is not one to strut his stuff. He got with the program, stretching and doing calisthenics and running laps.
"Got fined twice," Sandberg said. "For two dress-code violations. Not showing enough blue on my socks, and a gray T-shirt under my uniform instead of a blue one. I took somebody's job in both places, and the No. 23 jersey, too. But they were all great to me. When I left Daytona, every player came up to me individually and thanked me for coming. Thank me? I was assigned there. The only thing I did was pay $1,000 to get them some better batting practice balls. The ones they had were five years old."
Before large and attentive crowds, Sandberg went 3-for-14 with a home run and four walks against better pitching than he anticipated. In a perfect world, he would have been allowed to regain his timing against the Cubs' rotation last week.
Until Mike Morgan stopped the bleeding Sunday, starters averaged only four innings and had a 12.21 earned-run average for a three-city goodwill tour of their own. But manager Jim Lefebvre had a better idea. When Sandberg arrived in Cincinnati on Friday night, he was the Cubs' cleanup man.
"Wherever they want to put me, that's fine," Sandberg said. "I've batted second, third and fourth. It's not like, when I'm batting fourth, I'm going to go up there thinking about hitting more home runs. I'm happy to be anywhere in the lineup after the spring I had. I'm happy to be playing baseball again."