Cubs immortalize Sandberg's No. 23

Cubs immortalize Sandberg's No. 23

CHICAGO -- Ryne Sandberg's induction to the Hall of Fame in July was one of the pinnacles of his career, but nothing may have meant more to him than the celebration that awaited him at Wrigley Field on Sunday afternoon.

With the stands full of "I love Ryno" signs and No. 23 jerseys, Sandberg was greeted by a standing ovation as he joined a very short list of Cubs to have their number retired.

The Cubs honored their Hall of Fame second baseman with an entire day dedicated to him. A flag with Sandberg's name and No. 23 was raised prior to the Cubs' game against the Marlins and now resides below Billy Williams' No. 26 on the right-field foul pole.

In a career filled with many highlights, including his most recent welcoming to Cooperstown, Sandberg put this day high on his list of memories.

"This ranks right at the top," Sandberg said before the ceremony. "I'm pretty overwhelmed right now. A little bit sick to go along with it, but we'll see how the day goes."

The day was filled with Sandberg highlights, including the raising of his flag, the throwing of the first pitch and the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch.

During the pregame ceremony, Sandberg was joined by his family -- his wife, Margaret, and their five children -- as he was welcomed onto the field by trumpeting horns and a thunderous ovation from a crowd of adoring fans.

Sandberg is only the fourth Cub to have his number retired. The other three players -- Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Williams -- all joined Sandberg in his ceremony.

"I was fortunate enough to be there for Ernie, Billy and Ron," Sandberg said. "I was on the field for all those ceremonies, not even thinking I would have a day that would come like today, but just taking it in. What an honor it was for them. To be with their company and to join them means everything to me."

The realization that his number will now fly above Wrigley Field with those of the other legends forever still has yet to sink in for Sandberg.

"I think I'm going to have to see it a few more games than just one game to realize that it's up there," Sandberg said. "I've seen those other flags most of my career flying out there, and I was there for those ceremonies. I feel like I was in awe during those days and couldn't imagine what that day would feel like. It's going to take more time to realize how great it is."

In a whirlwind summer full of honors and recognitions for Sandberg, it has all been a bit overwhelming, especially for a player who, before being traded to the Cubs following his first stint in the big leagues, had much lower aspirations for his career.

"At one point, I was just hoping to be a utility infielder in the Major Leagues with the Philadelphia Phillies," Sandberg said. "I think I would have been happy with that at the time."

The trade changed all of that, though. In his first full season with the Cubs at the age of 22, Sandberg earned the everyday job at third base and began a career of legendary proportions.

Sandberg became a full-time second baseman in 1983 and turned into a star at the position, tallying nine Gold Glove Awards along with 10 selections to the National League All-Star team. A .285 lifetime hitter, Sandberg hit 282 home runs along with 1,061 RBIs. His .989 fielding percentage as a second baseman is the highest career mark at that position in Major League history.

"Starting off as slow as I did, 0-for-32, the organization stuck with me and allowed me to work my way through that and feel comfortable," Sandberg said. "It was a great situation for me to come here and play every day, and, really, that was what got the ball rolling for me."

It is almost impossible now for former players like Santo to picture Sandberg in any other color but Cubs blue.

"He's a Cub, there's no doubt about it," Santo said before the ceremony. "Not only is he a great ballplayer and a Hall of Famer, but he's a Chicago Cub."

That title is something that Sandberg wouldn't change for anything -- not even a World Series ring.

"I don't know where I'd go and want to win a championship other than here," Sandberg said. "That's still what I'm striving for. That's still why I'm with the organization and coming out to the ballpark as often as I do -- to be a part of that and to win a championship here."

An instructor for the Cubs during Spring Training, Sandberg gets to instill some of his own experience and thoughts of the game to the current team. Having a guy like Ryno around the club means a lot to manager Dusty Baker, who was happy to share in Sandberg's day.

"He means a lot to us and a lot to the city and the organization," Baker said. "He's earned it, and it couldn't have happened to a finer guy."

Seeing his No. 23 up on the flagpole was the key moment of Sandberg's special day, and was made even more poignant by the fact that the number wasn't Sandberg's first pick when he first joined the Cubs.

"I went into Spring Training that first year in '82 and the No. 23 was hanging in my locker," Sandberg said. "I thought it was kind of an odd number. I asked for 14, but [former Cubs equipment manager] Yosh Kawano totally turned me down and said that number has been taken and retired.

"Not knowing too much history about the Cubs, growing up in Spokane, Wash., I had no idea Ernie Banks wore No. 14. I learned in a hurry."

Sandberg may not have known much about Cubs history at the start, but he sure has made himself a large part of it.

Kelly Thesier is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.