The smile on Ryne Sandberg's face says it all after his statue is unveiled at Wrigley Field. | Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Welcome back to Talkin’ Baseball where we always shout “Kid Natural!” at the end of “Go Cubs Go…”

Last Saturday, thousands of fans jammed Chicago’s Boystown streets to catch a glimpse of JoJo Siwa at Pridefest in what she later described as “the record for most people in attendance at Chicago Pride at 2 a f—ing clock in the afternoon.”

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d type: I know what it felt like to be there because the next day, I went to go see Ryne Sandberg give a speech. And I came away just as uplifted.

The Cubs were unveiling a statue of their franchise icon at Wrigley Field and I wanted to be there to show my gratitude for everything he represented to me when I was a young fan. Judging by the throng that literally lined up around the ballpark, I wasn’t alone.

Sandberg, who marched in the Chicago Pride Parade in 2016, is one of the principal reasons I’m as big a baseball fan as I am. When you’re ten years old, big league baseball is like watching real life superpowers. Seeing Sandberg in his prime was like getting to witness everything that happened after Clark Kent took off his glasses on a daily basis.

He excelled at every conceivable skill: hitting for average, home run power, baserunning, and defense. When the All Star ballots were printed every year, you knew he would be the starting second baseman in a runaway.

And this sublime athlete played for the Cubs. It felt like a miracle. As an emotional queer kid prone to outbursts of crying at the drop of a hat (or a routine pop up), rooting for the Cubs played havoc with my self esteem—except at second base where everyone knew they had a player who was better than everybody else.

It turned out that his only Kryptonite was…talking. 

Whenever a microphone was thrust in Sandberg’s face, one of the most unflappable stars in the game took on the look of a sixth grader called on to sing Barry Manilow in front of the whole school. No matter what baseball cliché he chose, you got the feeling his actual answer was always “Can this be over now?”

But an amazing thing has happened ever since Sandberg’s 2005 Hall of Fame speech. He’s learned to let down his guard just a little and share more of himself. 

Sandberg rejoices with the Wrigley Field crowd after throwing out the first pitch that evening.
Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

This was especially evident during the statue ceremony as it came only about six months after Sandberg revealed that he was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer.

While his Hall of Fame speech was famously about respect, this one was all about vulnerability and love. The younger me who cheered on Sandberg in his prime and who existed in a cauldron of all the emotions would’ve been blown away. 

Sandberg’s heyday came in the 1980s and early 90s, an era dominated by testosterone-laden facades and Rambo-esque machismo. In that time, he possessed an unbreakable stoicism that made it seem like he showed an emotion as frequently as the Cubs won a pennant. 

But as he discussed during his speech, his cancer diagnosis showed him that connections in the baseball community were about more than just slapping high fives with your bros after crushing another home run.

“The number of people in baseball that have reached out to me this year is astonishing,” Sandberg exclaimed, “Some I haven’t had contact [with] in 20 or 30 or 40 years. I feel that love now that was always there but I was too busy grinding out an extra 60 ground balls every morning to know that it was happening. We are what we are and that was me. I love you guys.”

As we break the walls of sports’ connection to toxic masculinity, Sandberg was taking down his own facade and permitting himself to connect with his own fragility and feelings for others. He recognized that at a time when he needed it most, his teammates’ love had outlasted even his work ethic.

He had a similar message of connecting to his fanbase’s love on a deeper level as well.

“As for the fans, you always made it clear how you felt. You carried me my entire career. But you have taken it to a whole new level and I have felt every one of your posts on social media and in person by your comments. You are my friends as well. And now you have carried me through months of chemo and radiation. I’ll never be able to thank you properly,” he reflected.

What a beautiful sentiment. In the hands of a player more deft at playing the media, it might have sounded cloyingly saccharine. But coming from a player like Sandberg who had hidden his vulnerability for so long, “You are my friends as well” came across as a wonderful new way of seeing the world.

Sandberg’s feats on the baseball diamond were what led the Cubs to dedicate a statue to him. But it was his willingness to open up and let us see the humanity behind his legend that made the day special for the thousands who attended.

Not to mention the fact that Ryno actually found hope in a social media comments section. Even if he never touched a baseball of his life, that’d be worthy of a statue.

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