Replay: Jim Sundberg
"We knew the game was ours and we just went out and played it with ease. It was a lot of fun playing the seventh game of the World Series knowing you’re gonna win it. Very seldom does that happen."
Throughout a career that ended with an induction into the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame, Jim Sundberg was known to teammates and those around the games as “Sunny.” It was an appropriate nickname, not only because it was a shortened form of his last name, but it was also representative of his easy-going, positive nature.
Make no mistake about it though, Sundberg was as tough as they come and the popular backstop joins BallNine for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Sundberg’s legacy in baseball is unquestioned. He is one of the best defensive catchers to ever play the sport. He was an All-Star, a World Series champ and finished his career with a small mountain of defensive hardware. These days the word “legacy” means a little more to Sundberg.
This July, Sundberg released his second book, Legacy Playbook: 50 Days of Encouragement to Pass on What Matters Most. It’s a unique book of 50 stand-alone stories that covers a broad range of topics including memories from Major League Baseball and his childhood and more serious topics like an honest reflection on his own bout with depression.
Sundberg describes the book as a 50-Day Devotional with “lighthearted and humorous [stories] while other [stories] reveal deeply personal memories that have helped me heal emotionally and grow my character.”
The book differs from most in that it serves as a 50-day guide for readers to self-reflect on their lives and legacies while continuing to grow and influence others positively. For 50 different entries, Sundberg provides a short story, a promise from Scripture, a recommended song for the day and a prompt to journal a prayer. It creates an interactive reading experience that is rich in faith, baseball, nostalgia and family.
Sundberg’s full baseball legacy is not something that can be contained in just one book.
When he made the All-Star Game as a rookie in 1974, the two starting catchers were Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Ted Simmons.
Jim Sundberg of the Kansas City Royals looks on during a MLB game in the 1986 season.
When he retired as a Ranger in 1989, the accompanying newspaper article mentioned a 17-year-old minor leaguer named Ivan Rodriguez as an exciting Rangers catching prospect for the future who would eventually fill the hole that was left.
Sundberg’s career began when the first generation of catchers to use a hinged catchers’ glove was still active and ended when the man who revolutionized the position for the new millennium was just getting his start. That’s quite a bridge.
When he retired, only Bob Boone had caught more games in Major League history. Sundberg was a three-time All-Star and was the first American League catcher to win six Gold Gloves. He was also one of the most durable backstops in the game’s history. Sundberg and Randy Hundley, one of Sundberg’s childhood heroes, are the only two catchers to catch in at least 150 games in a season three times and Sundberg still holds the record for games caught in a season with 155. He never played another defensive position on a Major League field.
Sundberg wasn’t just throwing on the tools of ignorance and strolling on back behind the plate for a nice evening at the park, either. His defensive statistics measure up with nearly anyone who has played. He is one of three modern catchers to have thrown out 700 attempted base stealers in his career, he led catchers in assists and putouts six times each and double plays turned by a catcher five times. When he retired, he was in the top 10 all-time in double plays turned as a catcher and for those inclined towards newfangled stats, Sundberg was the all-time leader in Total Zone Runs as a catcher at the time of his retirement.
“The game just got out of hand. There were people streaking on the field the whole game, there was stuff being thrown on the field. Finally, mayhem broke out in the bottom of the ninth.”
To put it all in perspective, Sundberg retired 31 years ago and still ranks in the top 20 for career Defensive WAR for all players at any position in Major League history.
Sunny had his share of highlights with his bat and legs too. His bases-loaded triple off Dave Stieb in Game 7 of the 1985 American League Championship Series broke open a 2-1 game and sent the Royals to the World Series. In the bottom of the ninth of Game 6 of the ’85 World Series with the Royals down 1-0 in the game and 3-2 in the series, Sundberg was the trail runner on a two-run walk-off single that sent the series to Game 7, his head-first slide into home setting off a wild celebration.
In the Old Testament, Psalm 145:4 touches on legacy. It reads, “One generation shall praise your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.”
Sundberg deserves plenty of praise for his work and his acts in baseball were indeed mighty, so let’s go Spitballin’ with the defensive wizard as we recall the Golden Era of Baseball Catchers, his latest book, the ’85 World Series and much more.
Thanks for joining us today Mr. Sundberg. I always love watching great defense in baseball, so it’s an honor to talk to one of the greatest defensive players to ever play the game. Let’s start off by talking a little about your latest book, Legacy Playbook: 50 Days of Encouragement to Pass on What Matters Most. It’s a really interesting concept. Can you tell our readers what to expect reading it?
It’s a book that I always wanted to write. It’s a combination of my life and baseball stories and I did it through a window of my faith. I capture a lot of stories from Major League Baseball and also communicate some things from [my] childhood and how they affected me and helped me develop. It’s combination of those things and I loved writing it.
You talk a lot about your childhood shaping both your baseball life and your own personal life. Was baseball something you always loved growing up?
Baseball is something I’ve done since I was about five years old and was a passion from early on. It takes that passion along with talent and ability and some grit to make it into the Big Leagues and stay there for a while. My dad was instrumental in some ways, but I had some difficult experiences with him too that would take me a few years to heal from and get out from underneath.
You also talk about being a Cubs fan from the Midwest growing up and the car trips you would take with your dad to Wrigley Field. Who were some of the players you looked up to on the Cubs?
Well to start, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley. Guys like Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins, who was the premiere pitcher for them when I was growing up. I liked the Yankees too, especially Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Tom Tresh, Bobby Richardson and Elston Howard. Those guys were the ones I followed.
You mention Fergie Jenkins. Your first Major League start you were 22 years old and catching Jenkins, while facing the defending champion Oakland A’s. What was that like?
Fergie threw a one-hitter that game. They were the World Champion A’s and would also go on to win it that year in ’74 too. It was a great experience to catch someone you looked up to as a kid in your first Big League game. Pretty surreal.
Surreal to say the least. Did you have to pinch yourself and think, “Man is this real?”
I kind of had to. I actually had no feel for the baseball. It was a weird feeling. I was so excited and nervous that it took me a while to get the feeling in my fingers for the ball.
I jumped a little ahead there when you mentioned Jenkins. I wanted to go back to when you were a prospect and read a quote from you from a newspaper in 1973 and see how you react to it. This is from Duane Banks, your coach at the University of Iowa, who won over 900 games as a collegiate coach. Just a few months after leaving Iowa to turn pro, Coach Banks said of you, “He’ll be up there in the Majors, I guarantee it. It’s not often a coach gets a player like Jim Sundberg on his team.”
That’s some great encouragement that I got along the way. There’s a guy that you played for, someone that you respected, and when they make a nice comment like that it’s really encouraging, and I appreciate that. Dick Howser made a similar remark many years later. He said that if he could get Jim Sundberg to work with his young Royals pitchers, that we’d have a shot at the World Series, and he was right. Those kinds of statements encourage you along the way. They make a difference and keep you going when things are difficult.
You played just one season in the minor leagues in AA before jumping right up to the Majors to stay with the 1974 Rangers. It was Billy Martin’s first full year as Rangers manager. I guess he must have liked you from the start.
I played in an extended Instructional League in the fall of 1973 and from what I understand, that’s when Billy Martin saw me and made a decision that I would be his catcher. I found that out when I got to Spring Training the next year. It helps when the manager is behind you and he’s saying you’re going to be the catcher. It impacts a person and helps to make a positive difference.
Billy was tough. He was a tough manager to play for. In 1974 though, the players on the Rangers would have done anything for him. A lot of things went right for the Rangers that year. Jeff Burroughs was MVP, Billy was Manager of the Year, Fergie was Comeback Player of the Year, Mike Hargrove was Rookie of the Year and we just had a lot of things going well for us. We finished second behind Oakland and it was a fun season. But the next season things just took a turn. Billy got difficult to work with and became very harsh with his players and eventually was fired.
Sticking with that ’74 season, it was the best season the Rangers had up to that point in their history and really came out of nowhere. What are some of your best memories from that season?
My first hit, the first win and you always remember your first game. But I really enjoyed playing against the guys I watched growing up. Playing against Hank Aaron, it was almost a hard thing to do. There’s times when you get caught between wanting to get an autograph and trying to get a guy out. That’s the biggest thing I remember from my first year. Playing against all those guys that I had not gotten that close to before.
I noticed that catching during the Ten Cent Beer Night game and riot in Cleveland was left off your list. That had to be insane.
It had started the week before down in Texas. We had a little skirmish with the Indians in Arlington. Then a week later Cleveland had a big promotional night, which was the first game in Cleveland for a new homestand. The game just got out of hand. There were people streaking on the field the whole game, there was stuff being thrown on the field. Finally, mayhem broke out in the bottom of the ninth.
When the fans got out into right field, I got a little fearful of what could happen. There were some pretty big boys out there that had certain ideas of wanting to beat up somebody and you could see that. Fortunately, we stayed together, and the Cleveland Indians players actually helped us. We all stayed together and worked our way back to the dugout. Luckily, nobody got hurt.
Sunny (left, in catcher’s helmet) escorts Jeff Burroughs off the field during the ten cent beer night riot
I also wanted to ask you about the era in which you played. If you look at your contemporaries, you see some of the best catchers to ever play the game. Guys like Bench, Munson, Fisk, Carter, Simmons, Freehan and the list just goes on. That was some time to be a catcher in Major League Baseball.
I think it’s the Golden Era of catching in Major League Baseball, I really do. There’s another layer of guys weren’t necessarily superstars but who were really good catchers. Teddy Simmons really could hit the ball. Butch Wynegar was also a guy who was underrated, I always thought he was very good. But I really do believe that time from the late 1960s through the 70s and into the 80s was the Golden Era for catching. There were just so many really good catchers it’s hard to even name them. It seems like every team had a good catcher.
Later in your career you went to the Royals where you finally won your first World Series. Before that though you had to get past a real good Blue Jays team who took you guys to seven games. You ended up being the star of that pivotal Game 7. Where does that game rank among the best in your career?
We were the first team in Major League history to fall behind 3-1 in a playoff series and come back to win it, then we did it again in the World Series. Game 7 was very special to me. I hit a bases loaded triple that put us into the World Series. It was great to be able to experience that and it was just an amazing time.
As the catcher in that ALCS Game 7, you not only had to go against Dave Stieb, one of the toughest pitchers of the 80s, but you also had to work as Bret Saberhagen’s catcher in the biggest game of his life and he was just 21 at the time. It’s impressive that you were able to call that game for Saberhagen and then do what you did against Stieb.
As catchers, we’re trained to break the game in half. You have to deal with your defensive responsibilities and then you have a chance to sit down and reflect at a much slower pace and wait for your time to hit when you’re on offense. Dave Stieb was one of the best competitors that I played against and that game I happened to get a pitch that was up in the strike zone and out over the plate. I was able to go with it to right field and it got caught up into the wind. It went right down into the corner and hit the very top of the fence. Another inch and it was a grand slam, it was that close. It was something I’ll never forget.
Now onto the 1985 World Series, which is infamous for Don Denkinger’s unfortunate blown call in Game 6. You’re down three games to two and losing 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth. Jorge Orta is called safe leading off the inning and should have been out. The bases ended up loaded with one out and you’re the winning run on second. Take us through the end of the game from that point.
Well I thought Dick Howser was going to pinch run for me, but once I saw he wasn’t going to, I start going through the checklist. Make sure I get a good lead, make sure I get a good jump, read the ball well off the bat. I didn’t know at the time the ball would be hit to Andy Van Slyke in right, but he had one of the best arms in baseball. If I’m gonna try to score, I’m thinking I have to cut third base as hard as I can. I figure if it’s a ball to the outfield, unless it’s a line drive hard right at one of them, I’m probably gonna be sent. All of those things are in my mind. I figured if the ball was hit, I was gonna be scoring so I had to do everything right.
As soon as I saw the ball looped into right, I knew Mike Ferraro our third base coach was sending me. [Cardinals catcher] Darrell Porter came out too far from behind home plate and I slid to the back side of the plate. I took advantage of that opening and was safe and we went on from there. I didn’t like the Cardinals either. I grew up a Cubs fan, so that was satisfying too.
The slide into home in Game 6 of the ‘85 World Series
I just love good fundamental baserunning. Be prepared, no panic retreat, get a good jump, cut the base and execute a perfect slide. I have to ask your thoughts on Denkinger’s blown call in that inning. It’s seen as one of the most impactful blown calls in Major League history and you were right there in the middle of the rally.
Well Orta was clearly out and today that would have been corrected. But what I always say is if you took Orta off the base and things played out, then I would have been the tying run instead of the go-ahead run. So, I see it as if things played out the way they did without Orta, at least we would have had the game tied and we go from there. But also, if Jack [Clark] would have caught a looping ball over at first that he should have, the Series is over with. But that’s how baseball goes.
Was it more satisfying to win your only World Series later in your career as opposed to early on? Were you able to appreciate it more?
You never expect to win it. There are so many great players to play the game who never won one. To have the chance to play in one and win it is amazing. Bret Saberhagen was on the mound for Game 7 and I told Dick Howser early on that if we scored one run, we were gonna win the game because that’s how good Bret was that night. Instead, we’re up 11-0 halfway through the game and we just went from there. The last four innings were the most fun innings of baseball that I ever played in. We knew the game was ours and we just went out and played it with ease. It was a lot of fun playing the seventh game of the World Series knowing you’re gonna win it. Very seldom does that happen.
You’ve caught so many incredible pitchers over the years, but I have to ask you about just one of them. What was it like catching for Gaylord Perry with his spitball?
He was always fairly supportive, and he was fun to catch. He was really tough. On the days he pitched he was all business, probably more so than anybody else I ever caught except for Nolan Ryan. I caught nine Hall of Famers and they’re all pretty competitive, except Gaylord was a little more. I always say Gaylord’s spitter was a pitch he used even when he wasn’t using it. He went through the motions and tried to disturb the hitters by making them think he was gonna throw it.
There were stretches where Gaylord didn’t throw the spitball. He generally used it as an extra pitch if his fastball wasn’t working well. If his fastball and his location was going well, he wouldn’t use the spitter and just stay with three pitches. If he was having some trouble, he would try to break the spitter in and use it as an extra pitch. There was a time when he used it every pitch to Reggie Jackson and got Reggie thrown out of a game in Arlington. He could use it every pitch or he might not use it for a while.
There have been thousands of catchers who have played this game and you’re considered among the very best to ever play the game defensively in any era. When you reflect on your career and put that into perspective, what do you think about that incredible legacy?
I felt like I had a responsibility to stay in the lineup. Whether I wasn’t feeling well or was a little hurt, I felt a responsibility to stay in the game and be counted on. When I was being raised my dad was a letter carrier and I saw him walk to work with a foot of snow on the ground. He was a guy that demonstrated being responsible and being loyal and faithful at work. That rubbed off on me.
Longevity and playing hurt, those were important factors that I think put me in that upper category during that time. It takes a lot of grit and perseverance to play like that. I averaged 140 games a season my first ten years. I caught 1,400 games my first ten years in Texas. There’s a lot of things going on over the course of 1,400 games. Many times, you don’t feel 100% but you still go out and play.
That really can beat you up as the position was played much more physically back then. How are your knees and back holding up?
My knees are actually doing pretty good! I have not had any knee surgeries at all. My back gives me some problems, which is a little bit of hereditary mixed in with the grind of catching.
It was a big deal in the organization when you came back and retired as a Ranger in 1989. You were the first Ranger to ever win a Gold Glove and you were the first position player inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2003. What was it like watching Pudge Rodriguez establish himself as a dominant defensive catcher and face of the Rangers the way you had done before?
I was actually a Rangers broadcaster at that time and broadcast his first game against Chicago. It was fun to watch Pudge. He was one of those players who was good offensively and defensively. He was really fun to watch during his career.
Just a couple of questions about your book before we wrap it up. Religious Faith plays a large role in your book and also in your life. Was that a part of your playing career as well?
I grew up going to church, but it really didn’t mean a whole lot. In 1977 there was a shift and I felt like I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and started that journey back then. It’s been pretty prominent throughout most of my life. My wife and I wrote a book earlier called How to Win at Sports Parenting, but that was more a publisher-driven book. Legacy Playbook was more personal and even though it deals with a lot of my baseball career, I worked my faith in. There are places where you can dive in and think through the chapters. I even put some music recommendations in there for each of the 50 stories. I wanted to do something different than what’s been done in the past and I’ve had a good response to it.
It’s a unique concept for sure and I really feel like it’s a great interactive book with a fantastic message of positivity. Thank you so much for your time and for playing such a key role in beating the Cardinals in the 1985 World Series. Young Rocco Constantino really appreciated that. As we say goodbye, do you have any final thoughts on any topic that we covered today that you’d like to leave our readers with?
Of all the subject matter we talked on, it’s the aspect of fun in baseball that I want to leave fans with. On the professional level, the highest in the world, the players still want to go to the park and pursue having fun in the game. Fun becomes a motivator and a driver, and it helps you play better. It has an effect on the endorphins in the brain which helps performance. Fun is going out and enjoying baseball, enjoying the sport and using your body to get the job done, no matter what it is and no matter what level of play. There needs to be fun in baseball from the young levels all the way up to the pros.
Jim Sundberg’s latest book, Legacy Playbook: 50 Days of Encouragement to Pass on What Matters Most, is available through his website www.JimSundberg.com. You can follow Jim Sundberg on Twitter @Backstop10 and through his public Facebook page. Sundberg is also a highly sought-after public speaker and booking information can be found on www.JimSundberg.com.