Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Splendid Seasons: Cubs MVPs, Part 3

We're remembering the 19 Chicago athletes whose splendid seasons have earned them the Most Valuable Player award for their respective leagues. Nine of these players have represented the Cubs, and three of them are remembered below.

Ryne Sandberg,

     “Ryne Sandberg is the best player I have ever seen,” said St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog on June 23, 1984. In an uncanny performance, Sandberg had homered off ace reliever Bruce Sutter with the Cubs trailing in the bottom of the ninth and repeated the feat in the tenth, tying the game both times. The Cubs had won 12-11 in eleven innings, with Sandberg going five-for-six and driving in seven runs.
     Prior to 1984, Sandberg was an opposite-field hitter who’d hit only 15 homers in his two years in the majors. Then the Cubs’ new manager Jim Frey encouraged him to pull more pitches and consequently hit more home runs. Sandberg’s breakout season resulted. He pounded out 19 homers and 19 triples, scored 114 runs, knocked in 84, and batted .314 as the Cubs achieved their first championship since 1945. The first three hitters in the lineup—Bob Dernier, Sandberg, and Gary Matthews—each scored over 90 runs; Sandberg and Matthews were among six Cubs who had 80 or more RBIs.
     Ryno had an even better year in 1985, but the Cubs lost all chance to repeat as N.L. East champs when their entire starting rotation fell victim to injuries. He got only one more shot at postseason play, in 1989, but continued for years thereafter as one of the most durable and reliable players in the league. Sandberg abruptly retired early in the 1994 season, then returned in 1996 and played two more years. By the time he retired for good, Sandberg had hit more home runs than any other second baseman in history (that record has since been broken). He was also a swift, heads-up base runner (he scored more runs than any other Cub of the 20th century) and the finest fielding second baseman of his era, and possibly of any era.
     A ten-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glover, Sandberg was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2005.

Andre Dawson,

     The strange thing about Andre Dawson was that a man so quiet and gentle off the field smoldered with such intensity on it. His knees were so bad for most of his career that he could hardly walk from the car to the clubhouse—yet once the game started he went all out all the time.
     So sure was he that he wanted to play for the Cubs, that Dawson came to their spring training camp in 1987 and offered himself for whatever salary they would condescend to pay him. A free agent after a decade in Montreal as one of the league’s best all-around players, he had received no offers that winter. (It was later revealed that he, like all free agents that year, had been a victim of collusion by the owners.) Dawson wanted to play in Wrigley Field because he loved day baseball and because the natural grass would be relatively easy on his ravaged knees. Hat in hand, he signed a blank contract and asked the Cubs to fill in a salary figure of their own choosing.
     For their $500,000, Dawson gave the Cubs a monster season: 49 homers, 137 RBIs, a .287 average, and his seventh Gold Glove for fielding excellence. He became the first player to win the National League’s MVP award while toiling for a last-place club. Dawson put an exclamation point to his storybook season on closing day at Wrigley Field. As he stepped up to the plate for his final at-bat of the year, the fans signified their respect and gratitude with a standing ovation. Dawson responded by blasting a long home run into the bleachers in left center.
     Dawson was elected to the Hall of Fame earlier this year and will be inducted this summer.

Sammy Sosa,

     No one ever doubted that Sammy Sosa had tremendous physical gifts; he was a prototypical “five-tool” player who could hit for average, hit with power, and run, field, and throw with the best of them. For nine long years, however, immaturity and inconsistency tarnished his brilliance. Then, in 1998, he exceeded the wildest dreams of even his most ardent supporters.
     Sosa cracked 20 home runs in June, the most ever in a single month, and for the rest of the season he joined Mark McGwire of St. Louis in a relentless assault on Roger Maris’s 37-year-old record of 61 homers in a season. When McGwire hit No. 62 against the Cubs on September 8, Sosa offered his congratulations. “Mark is my idol,” he said. “He’s the man!”
     Although McGwire eventually outhomered him 70-66, Sosa led the league in RBIs with 158 (highest total in the majors since 1949), in runs scored with 134, and in total bases with 416. He also established career highs in batting average (.308), hits (198), and walks (77) as the Cubs rebounded from a disastrous season the year before to win 90 games and a wild-card playoff berth.
     Sosa was elected the National League's Most Valuable Player and achieved a level of celebrity that had rarely been attained by any baseball player.
     As time went on, though, the record-smashing feats of Sosa, McGwire, Barry Bonds, and others were tainted by the well-founded suspicion that they had been helped along by the use of steroids. If many of the unprecedented performances of recent years seemed too good to be true, fans concluded, they probably were. Sosa tried to laugh off questions about his own transformation from the 160-pound greyhound who joined the White Sox in 1989 to the 235-pound block of solid muscle he’d become. He credited the change to a daily regimen of Flintstones vitamins.

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