Back when I was an eight year old bookworm, I took a wander through my local library and saw a display copy of George Orwell’s 1984. “I can’t wait to read that,” I thought to myself, “The Cubs won the Division that year!” Like almost everything involving the Cubs of my youth, I was in for a rude awakening.
My first memories of baseball go back to when I was five years old during that magical season. Which means it was inevitable that my favorite player would be Ryne Sandberg. As the Cubs clinched a postseason berth for the first time in 39 years that year, Sandberg led the way, won an MVP award, and established himself as a genuine superstar who would go on to a Cooperstown-worthy career.
I was fortunate to watch Sandberg throughout my baseball-obsessed childhood and paid tribute to him on the newest episode (number 23, naturally) of the 3 Strikes, You’re Out podcast with fellow Ryno fans and Cuppa Cubbie Blue podcast co-hosts Sara Sanchez and Andi Cruz Vanecek.
Sandberg was the focal point of my baseball childhood as the biggest star on two Cub playoff teams. But just as importantly, through all of the lean years of mediocre teams in between, he was the one constant I could point to and say, “He makes me proud to be a Cub fan.” Which, before 2016, seemed like it was the most difficult feat in the entire sports universe.
After his playing career finished, Sandberg was inducted into the Hall of Fame and had his number retired in 2005. In the midst of those celebrations, I couldn’t help but notice that it seemed like he had crossed off just about everything he could on my “favorite player makes you proud” bingo card and there wasn’t anything left to accomplish.
Flash forward to 2016. After a short-lived managerial stint with the Phillies, Sandberg rejoined the Cubs organization and was settling into a comfortable post-retirement life as an Instagram Grandpa. Meanwhile, I was still getting used to living a more honest and open life after coming out two years prior.
While I was living in New York at the time, I was keeping my eye on everything Cubs. Which meant that in late June, I saw this post on Sandberg’s Instagram feed:
An army of 100 thousand St. Louisans armed with replays of The Bartman Game couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face.
It was a simple gesture of goodwill. After all, between their presence at Pride and the annual Out at Wrigley game, the Cubs have long sought to establish ties with Chicago’s LGBTQ community. And as a Team Ambassador, it was natural for them to ask Sandberg to be part of that outreach.
But seeing that picture cut through all the marketing and branding. In that moment, it was as if the guy I chose as my favorite player was saying “You are welcome as a fan of this game and this team. And you are welcomed and accepted as a fan for everything that makes you who you are.”
Keep in mind, Sandberg was a star in the 1980s and mid-90s. This was the era where Billy Bean went to agonizing lengths to remain closeted because of his fear of how teammates would respond to a gay player. It was also a time when MLB essentially fired umpire Dave Pallone for being gay.
Two decades later, here was one of the faces of that era of baseball posting photos on his own social media feed standing among parade-goers wearing shirts reading “Cubs Pride.”
As sports fans, we know the phrase “never meet your heroes” all too well. We’re aware that all our favorite athletes have flaws like everyone else and we’re well acquainted with the public downfalls of so many legends.
This was the polar opposite of all that. There are few better feelings as a fan than to see your favorite player become the face welcoming your community — especially so soon after becoming an out member of that community yourself. And there are few better realizations in the world than to look at the player who gave you so much joy as a fan and recognize, “You chose well.”