As a Hall of Fame second baseman blessed with the ability to influence the game's outcome with his bat and glove, Ryne Sandberg appreciates the intangibles that present day second sackers Dustin Pedroia and Robinson Cano bring to the ballpark.
To Sandberg, Lehigh Valley’s first-year manager, Pedroia and Cano are chips off the old block. For good measure, so is Chase Utley, who unlike Pedroia and Cano operates outside of the A.L. East caldron.
“I’ve always liked the way that Pedroia and Utley went about their business, playing the game the right way and playing it hard. Now Cano goes into that group,” Sandberg was saying Monday afternoon while seated in the IronPigs’ dugout at McCoy Stadium. “Those three guys are the cream of the crop, at least to me.”
Pedroia, Cano and Utley are lynchpins whose individual contributions are reflective in the standings, so believes Sandberg. The Phillies awoke Monday morning with the game’s best record, with the Red Sox and Yankees right behind.
“They are impact players for a position that is sometimes looked at as defense-first and anything else is gravy,” Sandberg went on. “I think all three bring the whole package and are big people in the lineup and for their organizations.”
Pressed about what he felt Cano needed to do in order to be mentioned in the same sentence as Pedroia and Utley, Sandberg responded, “He’s getting there by putting some time in and doing it year after year. It’s one thing to have a good year or two, but when guys start putting years together, which (Cano) has been doing as of late, then you fit into that group, no question about it.
“When you have that kind of bat and power at that position, it’s even more of a luxury and it’s ideal,” Sandberg said. “I think baseball has gotten to the point with those type of guys, that’s what everybody else shoots for, which is offense from the second baseman.”
Sandberg chose the diplomatic route when asked which second baseman he would build a team around. In his eyes, you can’t go wrong with Pedroia, Cano or Utley.
“I would feel very fortunate to land any one of them and throw them at the top of the lineup,” he said.
The prism in which MLB second basemen were viewed through when Sandberg broke in with Philadelphia in 1981 changed completely by the time the ballplayer nicknamed “Ryno” officially retired in 1997. Much like the way Cal Ripken Jr. revolutionized the shortstop position as a 6-foot-4 physical presence, Sandberg is often credited as the guy who took a pre-existing notion by introducing a whole new set of criteria for second baseman like Pedroia, Cano and Utley to adhere to – by combining great defense with a power bat.
“Second base was defense-first, make the routine play and turn double plays and do the little things offensively, which I did my first couple of years,” recalled Sandberg, who started out at third base before switching over to a position in 1983 with the Chicago Cubs that enabled him to write his HOF ticket.
Over the next decade Sandberg heard his name called quite a bit, from making 10 consecutive All-Star appearances to winning nine consecutive Gold Gloves from 1983 to 1991. His career .989 fielding percentage is a major league record at second base. All but five of his 282 career home runs came as a second baseman, which remained a record until Jeff Kent broke it in 2004.
“I grew into a situation where I was able to take it to the next level, starting in (1984, when Sandberg was named N.L. MVP). By knowing the pitchers in the league and getting a little stronger as I grew older, the power numbers came. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s important to first and foremost have defense up the middle of the diamond. Then when a guy gets comfortable and matures and finds that power stroke if he has it, then that’s an added bonus.”
Asked if he kept tabs on his playing cohorts, particularly those manning the same terrain he was, Sandberg answered, “I followed Ripken, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker as far as up-the-middle guys. I admired the careers they were having, which made me strive for that same caliber. They were slightly ahead of me, so I could emulate them and reach goals they were reaching for before I did.”
Naturally Sandberg is delighted that a second baseman (Roberto Alomar) is part of this year’s Hall of Fame class. Like Sandberg, Alomar made it a habit of winning Gold Gloves while serving as a stabilizing offensive force.
“He started off as a little scrappy hitter, bunting and hitting-and-running before taking his game to another level,” Sandberg said. “Good to see another contemporary that I played against get in, especially another second baseman.”
Alomar joins Sandberg as the only second baseman to be enshrined into Cooperstown in the past 25 years. The metamorphosis the position has undergone may help explain why, which could mean good things for Pedroia, Cano and Utley.
“With the added bat possibilities, I think it opens the door for Hall of Fame consideration,” he said. “Before it was about solid, sure-handed infielders and maybe the numbers didn’t add up offensively.
“Look at Bill Mazeroski [the former Pittsburgh great who was voted in by the Veterans Committee in 2001]. He was a great glove guy and a situational type-of-a-hitter. For that era, he was a Hall of Famer,” he went on. “Now we see second baseman with power along with the defense. That seems to be the new mold for a second baseman to go into the Hall of Fame.”