30th anniversary: The Ryne Sandberg trade

Thirty years ago today, one of the more one-sided trades of the 1980s occurred. It was one of the worst trades the Phillies ever made, and one of the best trades the Cubs ever made.

At the time, the three-player transaction didn’t look like a big deal. If it was at all interesting to people, it’s because it was a challenge trades, in which the clubs swapped their veteran starting shortstops, with Chicago’s Ivan DeJesus going to the Phillies and longtime Philadelphia fixture Larry Bowa going to the Cubs.

Based purely on name value, the Cubs were coming out ahead. Bowa was a five-time All-Star who had won a pair of Gold Gloves. DeJesus? Well, he’d started for each of the last five seasons and once led the league in runs (in 1978, with just 104), but that’s about it.

In fact, in terms of recent performance, the gap favored Bowa by an even greater degree. In the strike-shortened 1981 season, he batted .283. Admittedly, it was with just 17 extra base hits (none of which were homers), and 26 walks. But back in those days a lot of shortstops had little to offer behind batting average.

And having batting average put Bowa well ahead of DeJesus. In 1981, while playing every day, DeJesus hit a puny .194. Oh, and he had even less power than Bowa—eight doubles, four triples and zero home runs.

To be fair, in 1980 they were more evenly matched at the plate. Batting average, the favored stat of the day, preferred Bowa, but DeJesus won in OPS+. In 1979, DeJesus had a far superior year at the plate, out-hitting Bowa by 42 points.

And one more thing: DeJesus was several years younger than Bowa. To be precise, he was seven years and one month younger. Thus even though Bowa had the reputation and the name value and the Gold Gloves, in order to pull off the shortstop swap the Phillies had to throw in a second player.

And that’s where the deal became a disaster for Philadelphia.

On the face of it, the Phils sent the player they could most afford to lose. They sent Chicago a young prospect who played third base. Folks, it’s January 1982 and the Phillies are pretty well settled at third base, thank you very much. They had a guy named Mike Schmidt and he’d just won his second consecutive NL MVP Award.

So the Phillies decided that if all they needed to do to get younger at shortstop was get rid of the prospect they’d never need, why not.

And thus a young Ryne Sandberg joined Larry Bowa in the trade to the Cubs for Ivan DeJesus.

When you describe it like that, it all makes sense. Yup, in fact many trades that work out horribly actually have a logic behind them—the results just don’t mesh with the logic.

What happened was simple. Sandberg had a nice rookie season at third base in 1982, and then the Cubs decided to move him to second for 1983. He blossomed. He won a Gold Glove in his first year at second, and the next year claimed an MVP. He became a perennial All-Star from that point onward.

In terms of shortstops, the trade also didn’t go the way Philadelphia wanted it to, though it wasn’t a disaster. Despite his age, Bowa actually lasted a little longer with his new team—three and a half years with Chicago while DeJesus lasted three seasons in Philadelphia.

Then again, while Bowa lasted longer, he wasn’t very good. WAR considers him barely above replacement level and his batting average cracked .250 only once in Chicago; rather bad for a guy whose game was based on getting hits.

But DeJesus was also a disappointment. He was never as bad as his 1981 season, but he was never as good as his 1978-79 performance.

Yeah, DeJesus was a little better than Bowa, so the format for the challenge trade makes sense. To even out the trade the Phillies should’ve sent a fungible player to the Cubs alongside Bowa. But it turns out that the guy they sent over was light years above fungible.

Aside from that, today many other events celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is an event occurring X-thousand days ago). Here they are. I’ll put the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to skim.

Day-versaries

6,000 days. Ken Griffey Jr. belts the first of five career walk-off home runs.

9,000 days. The Yankees trade Joe Niekro to the Twins.

10,000 days. The longest hitting streak of Eddie Murray’s career peaks at 22 games. He’s 34-for-77 with a AVG/OBP/SLG line of .442/.551/.727.

10,000 days. The baseball debut of pitcher Zane Smith.

10,000 days. The major league debut for Billy Hatcher, outfielder.

20,000 days. Baseball adopts a new rule stating that base runners can’t interfere with batted balls in the field. This is caused by recent incidents in which Reds base runners fielded the ball and intentionally threw it away to help their team.

At some point today it’ll be one billion seconds since the birth of Austin Kearns.

Anniversaries

1899 Bibb Falk, good hitting outfielder, is born.

1927 Judge Kenesaw Landis clears Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker from alleged involvement in a fix of a Sept. 24, 1919 game.

1927 The Detroit Tigers release longtime star Ty Cobb.

1937 The Braves sell starting pitcher Ben Cantwell to the Giants.

1937 The worst flood in the history of Cincinnati puts Crosley Field underwater. Home plate is under 21 feet of water.

1943 The Cubs purchase veteran workhorse starting pitcher Paul Derringer.

1944 Construction magnates Lou Perini, Guido Rugo and Joseph Maney buy the Boston Braves. Perini owns half.

1944 Casey Stengel resigns as Braves manager. (Or the Braves fire him; I have different sources saying different things).

1947 John Lowenstein, one of Earl Weaver’s longtime platoon specialists, is born.

1949 Fred Saigh buys out Robert Hanngean’s interest in the Cardinals, giving him control of 90 percent of the club.

1953 The Philadelphia A’s trade Ferris Fain and another player to the White Sox for Eddie Robinson and a pair of others.

1956 The New York Giants football team moves from the Polo Grounds to Yankee Stadium. There is rampant speculation that the baseball team will soon leave as well.

1966 Wisconsin state circuit judge Elmer W. Roller rules that the Braves must stay in Milwaukee or else the NL must promise the city an expansion team for 1966.

1968 It’s the January draft. The A’s claim George Hendrick, the Dodgers get Davey Lopes, the Giants nab Garry Maddox and George Foster. All those players sign with their teams, but others are not so lucky. The Orioles draft Dave Kingman, the White Sox draft Mickey Rivers, and Cincinnati drafts Chris Chambliss – but none of those guys will sign with those teams.

1976 The Pirates sign amateur free agent Pascual Perez.

1983 Gavin Floyd, pitcher, is born.

1992 The A’s sign reliever Rich Gossage.

1995 The Royals sign aging free agents Steve Balboni and Dave Henderson.

1996 Atlanta signs reliever Kerry Ligtenberg from the Prairie League.

1997 The Reds sign free agent third baseman Terry Pendleton.

2005 Boston trades first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and cash to the Mets for a minor leaguer.

2005 The White Sox sign middle infielder Tad Iguchi.

2005 Tampa signs free agent Hideo Nomo.

2006 Boston trades Andy Marte, Kelly Shoppach, Guillermo Mota and a player to be named later to the Indians for Coco Crisp, Josh Bard and David Riske.

2006 The World Baseball Classic sets pitch limits and mercy rules.

2008 Longtime catcher Mike Lieberthal announces his retirement.

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