SOUTH BEND — Fans stood and cheered when former Chicago Cubs great Ryne Sandberg was introduced before speaking at Tuesday's Midwest League All-Star Game lunch at the Century Center.
Sandberg looked out into the crowd and saw people dressed in Sandberg jerseys and Cubs gear.
"I'm definitely in baseball and Cubs country," said the 59-year old Sandberg.
"This is my first minor league all-star game. We didn't have all-star games when I was in the minor leagues from 1978-81 because we didn't have the facilities or the fan base."
A baseball career, which started in A ball in Helena, Montana, came after being a standout high school basketball and football player in Spokane, Washington.
"I was a quarterback in high school and recruited by Nebraska, Oklahoma, UCLA and both Oregon schools,'' Sandberg admitted. " I also averaged 19 points as a basketball player."
Sandberg eventually chose baseball and it turned out to be the right decision.
He talked about the challenges on his journey towards eventually being a 2005 Hall of Fame inductee.
His first test came in the minor leagues for the Philadelphia Phillies in A ball as an 18-year old.
"Half the team was made up of Latinos and I couldn't speak Spanish," Sandberg said. "I just tried to find my way."
As an infielder, Sandberg saw tough competition when it came to his goal of making the big leagues.
"I looked at who was in front of me in the major leagues," Sandberg said. "The Phillies had Larry Bowa, Manny Trillo, and Mike Schmidt playing in their infield. I was playing with bigger and stronger players in the minor league.
"I noticed it but I tried not to pay too much attention to it. I stayed focused and worked hard. I went to work every day. That's how I was brought up by my parents."
That work ethic produced positive results on the field for Sandberg and got him quickly promoted to the major leagues. In September 1981 in the second game of a doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs, Sandberg was called up by the Phillies to start at shortstop.
But before taking his hacks in the batters box, Sandberg had a little problem to address.
"I had no bats for the game," Sandberg said. "Bowa gave me six to eight of his bats and I picked one."
Sandberg never got the chance to get comfortable in Philadelphia. A year later he was traded to the Cubs.
"I was in Venezuela playing winter ball and I got the ball that I was traded to the Cubs," Sandberg said.
There were struggles at the start for Sandberg in his career with the Cubs. He went hitless in his first 33 at-bats.
"At 22 and not knowing if I belonged, there were a lot of question marks if I did belong," Sandberg said.
"There was a conversation in the office with manager Lee Elia and with (general manager) Dallas Green. They told me that everything was fine. They told me I was playing great defense at third base and to continue that.
"As I've grown older I've thought that might have been last hurrah if I hadn't gotten a hit for another two or three games. I could have gone back to the minors. It could have been a whole different path for me and a longer road to the big leagues.
"As a younger player I found out what I needed to do. I choked up a little bit on the bat, focused on putting the bat on the ball and I tried to hit the ball up the middle."
The Cubs' patience was rewarded, with a game on June 23rd, 1984 against the St. Louis Cardinals being the turning point in Sandberg's career.
"It's simply called the "Sandberg Game". In a nationally televised game, Sandberg finished 5-for-6 at the plate with two homers and seven RBIs in a 12-11 Cubs win. Both of those homers came against future Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter. Sandberg's solo homer to to lead off the ninth tied the game at 9. His two-run homer in the bottom of the 10th tied the game at 11.
"It was life changing for me," Sandberg said. "It took me to another level when it came to how I thought about myself as a player. It was the first time I felt like a major league player. I felt like I belonged.
"That game jumped me to my first all-star game because I was in second place in the voting to Steve Sax before that game. After that nationally televised game I passed (Sax) and started the first of 10 all-star games."
That game also was part of magical season for the Cubs, who won the National League Eastern Division and made the playoffs for the first time in 39 years.
"The Cubs were on the rise with the team that we had," Sandberg said. "Harry Caray and Steve Stone were doing our games on TV on WGN every day and everyone could watch us. I saw our fans come out of the woodwork in Los Angeles, Montreal, New York, Houston and all over the country because of WGN and because we had a winning team."
In the years that followed, individual success continued for Sandberg, but team success eluded Sandberg and his teammates.
To go with his 10 all-star game appearances, Sandberg finished with nine Gold Gloves and seven Silver Slugger awards.
After his playing days, Sandberg stayed involved in baseball as a minor league manager for the Cubs and Phillies and as a manager for the Phillies.
The biggest highlight in recent years for Sandberg was seeing the Cubs win the World Series in 2016.
"That was life changing as well," he said. "I just rejoined the team as an ambassador in 2015. I saw the young players and what they did to get into postseason in 2015. I dreamed about the Cubs winning the World Series my whole career. I never thought it would happen. It just didn't look good. Leading up to 2015 there were the 100 loss seasons, which was part of the plan to start from the ground up.
"It was just incredible to see it all come together. I wear the (World Series) ring just about everywhere I go as a reminder. I share it with the fans."
Sandberg sees a lot of major league baseball games and he likes the direction the sport is headed.
"I like the game today," Sandberg said. "I go to about 60 games a year at Wrigley Field. I want to see the best players on both teams play and safety rules have helped that happen. You can't go out of your way and hurt catchers. You don't see the unnecessary breaking up of a double plays, which I endured for 17 years. You don't see the pitching inside like in my day and the purpose pitch in the middle of someone's back or at somebody's head.
"The ball is flying out of the ball park like crazy. I have noticed that. It's a little fishy there. It's all about the baseball I would think.
"I do like the (drug) testing going on in baseball. It's working very well. All the young players coming up get that message loud and clear.
"I think it's a great game. The parks are terrific and the fans are enjoying their stadium experience."