Ryne Sandberg remembers too well how fast a winning window can close

Taking in a game in Wrigley Field’s bleachers recently, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg thought back to 1984, a glorious year in which — at the tender age of 24 — he broke out as National League MVP and the Cubs broke through with their first postseason appearance in nearly four decades.

“What a time that was,” said Sandberg, now 57 and enjoying the role of Cubs ambassador. “It’s a time in your life when anything seems possible.”

The young Cubs who played leading roles in last season’s World Series victory surely can relate. And why not? The baseball gods seem to have created a window for them to chase championships together for years on end.

The 2017 campaign has been disappointing, frustrating, difficult; when the Cubs haven’t been running in place, they’ve been hocking loogies into the wind. Yet here they are — hanging on to first place in the NL Central heading into a weekend series at Arizona and, thus, still very much alive. And if it all comes crumbling down around them? There’s always next year.

Ryne Sandberg prepares to belt a home run during the "Sandberg Game" of 1984.

That’s what Sandberg figured after the October heartbreak of ’84, when the Cubs blew a 2-0 series lead over the Padres in the NL Championship Series.

“I was young and probably somewhat naïve at the time,” he said. “I thought with that club, we’d come back and have two or three other chances to get back to the postseason. As it turned out in ’85, into the early part of June, we were in first place. We’d picked it right back up where we’d left off.”

It’s easy to forget that the 1985 Cubs were 16 games above .500, with a four-game lead in the NL East, in mid-June. But then the wheels fell off: They smacked head-on into a 13-game losing streak, later had a 1-10 stretch in July and finished 77-84. As Sandberg recalls all too well, injuries to their pitching rotation — only Dennis Eckersley made as many as 25 starts — came one after another.

“Everything changed after that,” he said.

The Cubs of ’84 had Sandberg, catcher Jody Davis, first baseman Leon Durham and center fielder Bob Dernier all 27 (at the start of the season) or younger. Also in their 20s were starting pitchers Eckersley, Rick Sutcliffe, Steve Trout and Scott Sanderson.

Alas, when the Cubs were playoff-good again in 1989, only Sandberg, Sutcliffe and Sanderson remained. The lesson?

“You can’t take anything for granted in this game,” Sandberg said. “You have to win when you have the chance.”

On to the rest of this week’s One Through Nine:

2 Sandberg nevertheless is a big believer in the size of the championship window for the current Cubs: “From a core-group standpoint, I see a six- to eight-year opportunity to be in the playoffs. That means a chance to win multiple World Series.”

3 The 2015 Cubs finished the regular season on a 45-18 tear, yet they had a trio of three-game losing streaks and one four-gamer in that stretch. Last year’s Cubs finished 44-18, but there was a 5-7 period in there when things got just a tiny bit wobbly.

So, you know, no big deal — maybe? — that the Cubs are in a 2-6 slide.

4 One wonders if anyone with the Cubs has had the good sense to advise veteran catcher Alex Avila — the man in the spotlight with Willson Contreras on the shelf for perhaps a month or longer — to “try not to suck.”

Hey, these things are important.

5 Not for nothin’: Victor Caratini, the catcher who was shipped down to Class AAA to clear a space for Avila, hit .370 with two homers in seven games after rejoining his Iowa teammates. Caratini didn’t do much in his first, all-too-brief stint with the Cubs, but he has a season average of .344 at Iowa. Shouldn’t we be taking the guy more seriously?

6 Friday’s Cubs starter, John Lackey, is 4-0 with a 3.00 ERA since the All-Star break. It’s his first four-start winning streak since 2011. Who says this old dude won’t be right in the thick of things when he turns 39 in late October?

7 Perspective check: The Cubs are eighth in ESPN’s latest MLB power rankings. They’re also eighth in CBS’ and Rotoworld’s, and ninth in Bleacher Report’s. You know, for what it’s worth.

8 The headline of the week, brought to you by Sports On Earth: “Are the 2017 Dodgers the best team in MLB history?”

They entered Thursday night’s game at Arizona with a .708 winning percentage, on pace for 115 victories — one shy of the 162-game mark set by the 2001 Mariners. No doubt still chuckling at that cute little achievement are the 1906 Cubs, who won 116 out of a mere 152 games.

Of course, neither those Cubs nor those Mariners went on to win the World Series. That probably disqualifies both teams from the best-ever conversation, which brings us back to these Dodgers: Too soon, everybody. Wayyy too soon.

9 We see you, too, White Sox fans. How ’bout Yoan Moncada’s August? He’s 7-for-18 (.389), with seven walks and a ridiculous .580 on-base percentage, entering Thursday night’s game against the Astros. It’s not only OK to ignore the team’s record and be excited. It’s encouraged.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.
Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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