It would have been understandable had Jim Sundberg been ticked off after his final game with the Chicago Cubs. But then he wouldn’t have lived up to his nickname “Sunny.”
In mid-July of 1988, Sundberg was a backup catcher for the Cubs. He had been getting some extra playing time with starter Damon Berryhill injured. But on the 14th, Sundberg arrived at the ballpark to learn that Jody Davis was sick with the flu. That meant he was the only catcher on the roster. It wouldn’t have been all that troubling, except the Cubs were scheduled to play two games that day.
“Can you give me two?” Chicago manager Don Zimmer asked, sort of paraphrasing Cubs legend Ernie Banks.
Sundberg, who was always a good soldier, nodded yes.
The 37-year old actually entered the first game in the second inning, when Zimmer gave Davis a chance to grab a few pitches. But Davis was sick as a dog, and had to beg away from the dish. That meant Sundberg caught 17 innings that afternoon at Wrigley Field in two games. Following game two, wouldn’t you know it? Zimmer had to tell Sunny he was being let loose. Berryhill was ready to come back, and the veteran was out of a job.
It was a sucker punch for Sundberg, even if it wasn’t totally unexpected. Jim grew up in Illinois and was a Cubs fan as a kid.
“It would have been a dream come true to play for the Cubs when they win a World Series,” Sundberg said. “And I would like to have been around for the first night game [at Wrigley Field].”
But Sundberg, who was hitting .241 with a pair of home runs in 24 games for Chicago, now had to hope to latch on to a new team. His effort in the doubleheader had been his final gesture as a Cub.
The type of hard, anonymous, team-first work Sundberg displayed that summer day for the Cubs typified his career. Often, Sundberg was an afterthought: that guy behind the plate who was just there, game after game, after day, after game. Well, you get the idea.
The most dependable catcher in baseball
Have you ever tried crouching for two minutes? How about 10 minutes without much of a break? Now multiply that by nine over about three hours, and see how you feel. That’s the life or a professional catcher.
Catching is one of the most grueling positions in any sport. Even a lineman in football gets to stand up or hit someone every few minutes, and take a breather in a huddle every 30 seconds or so. A catcher ism on his haunches, on his heels, squatting and presenting a target for a teammate standing about sixty feet away.
“A catcher must want to catch,” said Hall of Fame receiver Bill Dickey. “He must make up his mind that it isn’t the terrible job it is painted, and that he isn’t going to say every day, ‘Why, oh why with so many other positions in baseball did I take up this one.'”
Before Sundberg, no catcher had ever caught as many as 140 games in a season more than five times. Jim did it in six consecutive seasons, from 1975 to 1980. He won the Gold Glove every season from 1976 to 1981, and his arm was so accurate and reliable, that most teams didn’t dare steal against the Rangers in those years.
For his career, Sundberg gunned down would-be base stealers 41% of the time. The league average was 33%. In 1977, he threw out 55 of 98.
“He gets rid of the baseball quickly, and Jim’s footwork is the best,” said his manager in Texas, Billy Hunter.
In Texas, on mediocre teams, Sundberg was a valuable commodity. For a decade, from 1974 to 1983, the catcher position was take care of. Over those ten years, Sunny caught 88.6% of the Rangers games. In a decade, Sundberg only sat out 177 games. You think Cal Ripken’s streak was impressive? That durability by Sundberg is physically more impressive.
Ranger once more: Return to Texas
For a few days after the Cubs released Sundberg, he stuck around the ballpark and warmed up some of the Chicago pitchers. When you’re a catcher, you catch, right?
Six days after the Cubs released Sunny, the Rangers reached back into their history and grabbed the veteran catcher, for only a small portion of the balance of his salary. As a result, the Rangers welcomed back one of the most popular players in franchise history.
When Sundberg came back to Texas, he was literally coming home. Sundberg and his family still maintained their home in Arlington.
Sundberg put the red-white-and-blue colors of the Rangers once more, and when he did he ranked third all-time in games caught in baseball history. Only Bob Boone and Al Lopez had squatted behind the plate for more games.
On July 26 he made his debut back at home for the Rangers, catching a game against the Boston Red Sox. Sundberg was back in his familiar uniform #10, and he produced an RBI-single in a 9-8 Texas victory.
Sleeping in his own bed had a positive impact on Sunny. In September, he got off to a tear at the plate, even hitting his first inside-the-park home run. “Someone must have been chasing me,” Jim said.
Playing without a contract for 1989, Sundberg did everything he could to show he had some baseball left in his tireless catcher body. On September 10 in Arlington, Sundberg caught all 17 innings of a game, showing his iron man days were not yet gone. That effort, and his inspired hitting in the last month of the season impressed the Rangers.
“I like him around the clubhouse,” said Texas skipper Bobby Valentine. “It’s obvious what he brings to the party, working with the pitchers. He’s been through so many baseball games, championship seasons, he brings a fresh outlook that’s needed.”
The Rangers gave Sundberg a contract for 1989, welcoming their great franchise catcher back for another season. That year, Sunny worked with young catcher Chard Kreuter, and got into 78 games himself. That season, the 38-year old showed he still had power in his right shoulder: throwing out 15 of the first 31 runners who tried to steal against him. He also got a chance to catch 42-year old Nolan Ryan, forming an ancient battery deep in the heart of Texas.
On September 11, 1989, Sundberg revealed what many in the organization and clubhouse had thought: he would retire at the end of the season.
“I thought about letting this go into the off-season,” Sunny said at a press conference. “But I really wanted to say goodbye while it was still fresh.”
On September 24, the Rangers held “Jim Sundberg Appreciation Day” at the ballpark. He ranked first at the time in games played, hits, and doubles in franchise history. Only Bob Boone had caught more games. The last pitcher he caught was Ryan. That day, Sunny produced an RBI-single in his last at-bat, waved his hat, and walked away, a Ranger hero forever.
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