The Speech Heard Around the GameBack on September 21, 1997, I booked a trip to upstate New York. The only problem was that I had to wait seven years, 10 months and 10 days.
When Ryne Sandberg singled off Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, Curt Schilling, I rose to my feet with 40,000 other people. He had played the final game of his career at Wrigley Field. Once Sandberg reached first base, he was pulled for a pinch-runner. Ever since he joined the Cubs in 1982, he was the player I watched the most and attempted to emulate when I took the field in Little League all the way through high school baseball. For two consecutive days, I had tickets to Wrigley Field to join the festivities. In a flash, it was over.
He played 2,164 games over the course of 16 seasons (1981-1994, 1996-1997). He hit 282 home runs which was the record for second basemen at the time. He won the National League's Most Valuable Player Award in 1984. The Cubs appeared in the postseason twice during his career. First in 1984 against the San Diego Padres, then again in 1989 against the San Francisco Giants. On top of his offensive performance, he never missed a beat in the field. He once had a 123 errorless game streak. It flew by too quickly.
Finally, the day arrived. On July 30, 2005, Susan and I made the long drive to Cooperstown, New York. If there was ever one day I wanted to sit on the lawn for a Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony, it was the day Sandberg joined the legends of baseball.
On July 31, 2005, we waited on the lawn in the bright sun and intense heat to find the best spot possible for the ceremony. When the moment arrived, the shy and quiet player Cubs fans remembered didn't show. Instead, a vocal Sandberg delivered the most memorable Hall of Fame speech ever. He thanked Cubs fans and spoke critical words against the culture of steroids and performance-enhancing drugs that polluted the game we all loved. I was stunned. Everyone was stunned. I never expected anything like it. If you're interested, here's a video and the text of the speech.
On the very next day, Baltimore Orioles star, Rafael Palmeiro, tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Palmeiro, a former teammate of Sandberg's in the late 1980s, had testified before Congress earlier that year and said, "I never used steroids. Period." This was stated, of course, while he pointed his finger at the panel. During the 2005 season, Major League Baseball had instituted a drug policy. This was the first time players could be suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. He was the first high-profile bust. Today, Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees is sitting on 599 career home runs. Every media outlet is breaking into their coverage to show the moment Rodriguez hits his 600th. An admitted performance-enhancing drug user, he now ranks seventh on the career Major League Baseball home run list. At 34 years of age, he trails only Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660), Ken Griffey, Jr. (630), and Sammy Sosa (609). The stains of the Steroid Era remain.
Ever since Sandberg's speech, the numbers of baseball just don't mean the same thing. Too many players in recent years have hit 50 or more home runs in a season. When a player would belt 500 career home runs, it was a certain lock for the Hall of Fame. These days, 600 doesn't mean anything.
When I drove to Cooperstown, I expected a simple speech. I never imagined it would strike a nerve and send shock waves through the game.