Sandberg gives lesson by classy resignation

June 20, 1994|By MIKE ROYKO

As it turns out, the highlight of Ryne Sandberg's marvelous athletic career may have come when he abruptly quit his baseball job.

His stated reason for leaving was even more impressive than his many dramatic home runs, stolen bases and incredible fielding plays.

He said something that is almost unthinkable for a modern professional athlete: I can't do the job the way I used to and the way I want to, so I'm too proud to take the paycheck.

And just like that, at age 34 -- still capable of playing fine baseball -- he walked away from a contract that would have paid him $7 million for at least two more years.

That's not exactly chump money, even after the feds grab their 40 percent. Two more years of showing up at the ballpark and going through the motions and he'd have banked at least $8 million. Stick that in tax free bonds and you have $400,000 a year for the rest of your life.

It takes a lot of pride and dignity to kiss off that kind of wad. And it's not the sort of gesture you see in modern big-time sports.

We've become more accustomed to athletes signing plump contracts one day, then whining that they are underpaid and demanding a bigger contract the next day.

Or the many athletes who take the big money while sniffing, snorting or guzzling their way into oblivion.

A few years back, the Cubs had a big-money pitcher who was a disaster.

When he finally went to another team, he became an astonishing success. Why? It turned out that he spent the off-season shaking his booze and drug habits.

After his brain cleared and he became a rich superstar elsewhere, it would have been gracious of him to send the Cubs a letter saying something like: "Enclosed is a check for all the big money you paid me when I was a glassy-eyed bum. I am sending this refund, including interest, because I was always drunk or zonked out and totally useless when I worked for you."

Of course he didn't. Most modern stars will call their agent and say: "OK, so I didn't show up for work, and I've been floating up around the ceiling, and I threw my girlfriend out of a window, and the cops pinched me for driving 130 miles an hour on a sidewalk. If I check into the Betty Ford Clinic, can you get me a raise?"

But here is Sandberg quietly saying that he's quitting because his work no longer measures up to his personal standards, those of the fans, or his paycheck.

Obviously, he has the advantage of having been a well-paid player during most of his career, so he is already a wealthy young man. Unlike the old-time, underpaid stars, he won't have to open a bowling alley or tavern or go to work for a Las Vegas casino, glad-handing the high-rollers.

But today's sports world is cluttered with wealthy young men who go through the motions, have contempt for the fans, and wouldn't dream of doing what Sandberg has done.

And I don't doubt that if the Cubs were a good team in contention for anything but laughs, he would have gone on playing, and playing well.

But he probably looked around and saw that they weren't going anywhere this year, and if or when they improved, he'd be too old to be part of it. So pride became more important than profit.

It shouldn't be a great surprise, since he's been an unusual person throughout his Cub career.

Never a griper, moaner, or groaner, a hot dog or a showboat. And definitely not a media creature. Despite his movie star smile, he wasn't all over the tube peddling shoes or soda pop. As he said in retiring -- in what was probably the longest public utterance of his career -- he was "a baseball player." That's what he did for a living. He played baseball. He wasn't a TV huckster.

Actually, he was something of a throwback to the earlier days of baseball, when players babbled less, played harder and were measured by how well they performed, not by how big a contract or commercial endorsement their agents could hustle for them.

And he should always be remembered for what he did at noon last Monday.

Maybe that's what should be on his plaque when he goes into the Hall of Fame: "Ryne Sandberg, who walked away from one of the biggest paychecks in baseball, because he didn't think he was earning it."

Imagine if that standard ever swept through Washington, D.C. The town's population would be 200.

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