If America were an American flag, then all of its stars would belong here, in the upper lefthand corner of the country. The state of Washington would be a field of blue, and the city of Spokane might aptly be described as star-spangled. Star-spangled Spokane.
Three boys, separated by four years and five miles, were raised to greatness in this city of 177,000 residents near the Idaho border. Three boys put Spokane on the map, metaphorically, late in the 20th century, much as the Northern Pacific Railroad did, for real, late in the 19th. Three boys, their lives intersecting like tracks in a railroad switching yard before parting—one to the East, one to the West, one to the nation's heartland.
The three boys are now three famous athletes. The three famous athletes raced to prominence from a staggered start, so now they find themselves three different distances into their careers, wearing three different shades of fame.
Five miles, four years, three boys. They are three stars shaken loose from the upper lefthand corner of the country. Shaken loose from Spokane, but never really shaken free....
In northwest Spokane, darkness falls on a backyard barbecue. Whether the fall of darkness is defined as the sudden absence of light or the sudden absence of light beer, either way it got dark in a hurry behind the Rypien house on North Moore Street.
So friends and relatives scatter from the lawn like pollen. But Mark Rypien, 29, remains in a lawn chair behind the house he grew up in, a maple tree no longer shading him from sunlight, but from starlight and porchlight instead. "The Big Fella," he says, finally, as the voices of family and friends fade into the house or into the night. "The Big Fella should have been here."
The Big Fella would have admired the new vinyl siding on the old house he bought in 1968, the house in which he and Terry raised their five children on the money he earned selling office equipment by day, the money she socked away working nights as a secretary at Holy Family Hospital. He seemed to fill that house all by himself, the Big Fella, even though he wasn't all that big, not nearly as big as Mark is now. But he was as strong as ammonia, and he wore a potbelly like a prizefighter wears a title belt.
"He could bring a house down," says Mark. "Life of the party. It's so much fun when the whole family gets together like this. But in some ways, it's the hardest time, too."
The Big Fella was broad, that's the word, with a chest that would have broadened further last Jan. 26. Why couldn't Bob Rypien have been one of the one billion? That's how many people watched as his oldest son, Mark, for two seasons the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins, earned the Most Valuable Player award in Super Bowl XXVI....
Five miles away, at 1226 North Hamilton Street, men have been setting them up and knocking them back since Prohibition was prohibited in 1933—ever since the Buffalo Market was swiftly converted into the Snappy Service Beer Parlor.
The Snappy became Joey's Tavern in 1947, and though Jack Stockton and Dan Crowley bought the place in '61 from the guy who had bought it from Joey, they waited 14 years before renaming the joint Jack & Dan's. Why mess with success? Business has always been good, what with Gonzaga University a block away.
Business has always been good, but in the last five years, well, Jack & Dan's has been served a double. So Jack, 64, is here at nine this morning, smack in the middle of his summer vacation, to check on construction of the beer garden being added out back. No problem, really, as Jack lives 150 yards from the bar's back door, in the white house with the redbrick accents and the basketball hoop in the driveway. There, on North Superior, he and Clementine provided for their four children, provided for them with the Budweiser-soaked dollars that crossed the bar.
"The beer garden is for the Olympics," says Jack, straining to be heard as a jack-hammer solos outside. "It's going to be crazy here during the Olympics."
Setting them up and knocking them back? Why, it's the other way around. Jack's patrons will be knocking them back in Spokane, while Jack's second son, John, is setting them up in Barcelona. On loan from the Utah Jazz, for whom he has started for the past five seasons, 30-year-old John Stockton is a point guard on his nation's Dream Team, one of the dozen or so best basketball players in the world....
Make a right out of Jack & Dan's, go seven blocks north on Hamilton and hang a left on West Augusta, and it is just down the road on your left: the old two-story house with the barn-style roof and expansive front porch, the house where Derwent and Elizabeth Sandberg lived with their four children. Derwent, that was his name, and now you know why everybody called him Sandy.
Sandy Sandberg was a mortician who left his work behind at the Hazen & Jaeger Funeral Home on North Monroe, making no effort to pass that most familial of occupations along to his sons. "He pretty much kept that to himself," says the youngest of his three boys.
When Elizabeth was nine months pregnant with that child in September 1959, she and Sandy could settle only on a name for a girl. But the couple was watching a New York Yankee game on television one night, and when they heard the announcer roll out the name of the right-handed relief pitcher walking in from the bullpen, well....
"We looked at each other and knew that would be the name if the baby was a boy," says Elizabeth. And why not? The last time she had given birth, five years earlier in Philadelphia, the boy was named Del, for Phillie slugger Del Ennis. So now Del would have a baby brother, a baby brother named for Ryne Duren.
"My father loved baseball," explains Ryne Dee Sandberg, now 32. "He was a fan of all sports. We never had a lot of money, but he always had enough to buy me a glove and spikes. He has had a lot to do with this."
Funny, isn't it? Now they're free, the gloves and spikes; now, after he signed a contract for $7.1 million annually in this, his 10th year playing second base for the Chicago Cubs; now, when Ryne Sandberg finds himself somewhere between boyhood and a bronze bust in the Baseball Hall of Fame....
They are the sons of their fathers and mothers, to be sure, but they are also the sons of Spokane (spo-CAN, please, so as not to rhyme with cocaine). If they are the city's claim to fame, then the city has staked a claim on their fame, as well. When you get right down to it, Spokane is a city of 177,000 Fred MacMurrays, each one boasting of My Three Sons.
"I think we have three of the classiest athletes around in you, John Stockton and Ryne Sandberg," says a middle-aged man at the Spokane Youth Sports Bingo Hall, where Rypien is signing autographs at a card show. "Could you sign that To Brad, from Mark?"
The city has 13 high schools, and Sandberg graduated from one of them (North Central, class of '78), Stockton from another (Gonzaga Prep, class of '80) and Rypien from a third (Shadle Park, class of '81). So practically everyone in town knows a famous athlete, or at least knows someone who knows one.
Take this guy, for instance, the guy at the head of the line of autograph seekers, this bald guy who is no taller than a tackling dummy. He is describing to Mark—who goes 6'4" and 235 pounds—the time when he sacked Rypien in a high school football game, just decked him, over at Joe Albi Stadium on the northwest side. Must've been Mark's senior season at Shadle. Remember that? "Remember!" says Mark, wincing as he vividly recalls a sack that never happened. "My ribs are still hurting from that one...."
Of the three boys, Rypien is the youngest and the newest to fame. He cannot yet say no to anyone asking for anything. Can I have an autograph? Would you swing by the hospital? Could you say a few words to the school kids? Remember that time I sacked your sorry butt? To everyone, he says, "You bet."
He signs 1,200 autographs in 10 hours over two days at the card show, lining his pockets with nothing but ink stains. He is, bless him, not getting paid for this. Rypien's brothers, Tim, 28, and David, 24, more or less volunteered Mark for the event, and now they fear for his future as a quarterback. "I hope he doesn't get carpal tunnel syndrome," says Tim, eyeing the long, slow-moving line. What is Mark doing up there? He's chatting with people? Posing for Polaroids'? Asking Mrs. Riggs how her daughters are doing? He'll never get through this....
"He loves Spokane," says Tim. "He loves coming back here, whether he had a bad year or he won the Super Bowl. There's more to life for Mark than making money and being a jerk to people."
Fame still has that new-car smell to him. Though Rypien was drafted by the Redskins out of Washington State University in 1986, he spent his first two seasons in D.C. on injured reserve, missed much of 1988 with a shoulder injury and sat out part of 1990 with a sprained left knee.
Before he was a Super Bowl MVP, Mark Rypien was a two-time football team MVP at Shadle, a baseball team MVP there, a two-time basketball team MVP and MVP of the state high school basketball finals in Seattle. Lord knows he can spell MVP by now, but whenever someone asks Rypien to affix the letters to his signature on his 8 x 10 Redskins glossy, he politely refuses. "I'll sign it World Champions," he says, invariably winning over his marker-wielding stalker. "How's that? There you go. Now let that dry, so it doesn't smear...."
World Champions. It's really only in the last year or two that people have been following him down the cereal aisle at the Safeway near his home in Reston, Va.—where he lives with his wife and two daughters—to see whether Mark Rypien goes for the Cap'n Crunch or the Count Chocula. And it has only been since January, when he threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns in the Redskins' 37-24 dismantling of Buffalo in the Super Bowl, only since he informed the world of his plans to vacation in Orlando, only since he chatted up David Letterman in New York...only since then that he can no longer go anywhere unrecognized.
Mark was dancing with his wife, Annette, at a nightclub in Daytona Beach this spring when a man approached him on the dance floor and asked for his autograph. Rypien signed, simply relieved that the guy didn't want to cut in and cut the rug with him.
Earlier that evening Rypien had abandoned the sanctuary of his table for the uncertainty of the men's room. Bouncers became alarmed when they noticed countless patrons entering the John, but none exiting. What evil lurked inside there? It was Rypien, sitting on a sink signing autographs for everyone.
It's the same tune in Spokane, only in a lower key. "They see his face everywhere around here," says Tim. "So maybe people don't get as excited." Tim was an athlete at Shadle too, a catcher who made it to Triple A in the Toronto Blue Jay organization before becoming the baseball coach at North Central High a year ago. He happens to mention that his Indians play on Ryne Sandberg Field....
Ryne Sandberg is the oldest of the three, the oldest and best-known and richest of the three boys, the three boys in four years. Think of it. In the time it takes a president to break his promises, Spokane was buttoning up these three little beauties and sending them out into the world.
"In our generation in Spokane," says Jerry Cain, 28, Rypien's best buddy since junior high, "Ryne Sandberg was the first real three-sport star in high school: All-Everything in baseball, basketball and football, signed a letter of intent to play quarterback at Washington State, then got drafted by the Phillies."
"I had no ambition to go to college and study," says Sandberg, standing outside the visitors' dugout at Shea Stadium in New York City and forthrightly explaining why he did not end up as a senior quarterback at WSU while a freshman named Mark Rypien waited his turn from the bench. "When the Phillies made an offer, it made my decision easier. I wanted to get into the minor leagues young, work at the game, learn how it worked, and maybe, someday, make an appearance in the majors."
Maybe? Someday? C'mon.
"No, I never dreamed of this," says Sandberg. "Never. Not at all. I'm a lucky guy."
He plays second base like Yo-Yo Ma plays cello. He is the only man ever to win nine Gold Gloves at that position. He has the highest fielding percentage in major league history. He once played in 123 consecutive games without an error. But he still carries a trace of the boy from Spokane, the North Central shortstop who made four errors against Western Valley the day scout Bill Harper told Sandberg that Philadelphia would draft him.
He has hit 40 home runs in a season, stolen 50 bases in another, and no one else in major league history can say that. He has hit .288 for his career. He has played in nine All-Star Games. He was the leading vote-getter in '91. He has won one National League MVP award. There is growing sentiment that he is the best second baseman ever to play the game. In March '92 he signed a contract, the richest in the game's history, that will pay him $7.1 million a year for the next four seasons. But he still carries just a hint of the boy who, when told that he might get a signing bonus of $50,000, turned to his high school coach with bug eyes and said, "Oh...really?"
To this day, that is about as long as a Sandberg sound bite gets. He was ALL-Everything in high school, All-Everything but All-Interview, and he still has nothing outrageous to say when he has anything to say at all. And when did that become a character flaw? "Most writers, for the first five or six years of his career, couldn't accept that Ryne is that way," says his mother, who now lives in Brewster, Wash., about 135 miles from Spokane. "I am proud that he has been a very good role model for the rest of the country. He lives an exemplary and moral life. People looked for skeletons in his closet, but they couldn't find any."
No skeletons, but still they've prospected for fragments of bone. Yes, he posed for a promotional poster with Rypien two years ago in the letter jackets of their respective high schools. But hasn't he declined repeated invitations to be honored at the annual Spokane Writers and Broadcasters dinner? Sure, he returns to Spokane at least once a year. But doesn't he make his off-season home, with his wife and two children, in Phoenix? What are the superstar's responsibilities to the city that nurtured him? What are they, and where do they end?
"A couple of sportswriters in town have insinuated that Ryne forgot where he came from," says Sandberg's high school baseball coach, Kenny Eilmes. "But you know, us common people can't realize the pressure he is under. We only see the gravy side of it. We don't see that Ryne Sand-berg got where he is by beginning at baseball's lowest possible classification, in Helena, Montana."
All of the zeroes at the end of Sand-berg's contract were bound to stick to him like concentric rings on a target. But Eilmes is right. The boy worked at baseball as surely as the father worked at the mortuary, as surely as the mother worked as a nurse, as surely as the parents worked for glove money for this boy they named after a ballplayer.
Sandy Sandberg died in 1987. But he lived to see his son become a star. He would sometimes sit right there, in fact, and watch Ryne on WGN. Sandy Sandberg would sometimes sit right there and watch his son on that first TV above the bar at Jack & Dan's Tavern....
John Stockton used to play in the driveway like the post office used to deliver the mail. "In rain and snow," says his father, Jack. "Day and night."
"I remember driving by his house in high school," says Rypien. "Ten, 11 o'clock at night, and he was out on the driveway, dribbling a basketball."
He would play all afternoon, then meet his dad at Jack & Dan's. At dinnertime Dad would pedal John home on the handlebars of his bike. Bob Cousy was Jack's favorite player—"and my wife's, too"—but on the driveway John was always Gus Williams of the SuperSonics, driving a concrete lane at the Seattle Coliseum. His hands and feet were huge, but so were the frail kid's illusions. One night, when Seattle played the Jazz in an exhibition at the Spokane Coliseum, John got to be a ball-boy for the Sonics. That, obviously, was as close as the kid was ever going to get to the NBA.
Even now, when people talk about Spokane high school basketball, they usually talk about another point guard and his dream senior season: the year Rypien was named MVP of the state championship in the Seattle Coliseum, when he set a tournament record for assists. In the final Shadle beat a team from the affluent Seattle suburb of Mercer Island, beat them on a still-disputed, last-second shot with a fouled-out Rypien on the bench. Shadle needed a police escort to get out of the building when the home crowd nearly rioted. Mercer had a championship trophy made. Mercer's coach counted the game as one of his 1,000 wins. "They still cry about it every year," says Rypien. "They can cry all they want. It's etched in stone that we're the state champions that year."
"It's been proven," says Jack Stockton, who sounds vaguely convincing. "Shadle won it fair and square."
Anyway, the point is this: It wasn't John Stockton of the Gonzaga Prep Bullpups who was on his way to the NBA a dozen years ago. It wasn't John Stockton, even though Rypien, a former point guard himself, seems to recall that Stockton once went for 42 against him in a Shadle-Gonzaga Prep showdown. "The only person in the world who thought John would play in the NBA was John," says Jack. "And that's the god's honest truth."
Stockton still holds a grade school record in Spokane for running the mile, a record he set in eighth grade at St. Aloysius. St. Aloysius, Gonzaga Prep, then Gonzaga University—the boy attended the same three schools that his father did. Bing Crosby, who also grew up in this neighborhood and also attended Gonzaga, stands in bronze on the college's campus, with a golf bag at his feet and what appears to be a cigarette butt in his mouth. (It is actually the remnant of a pipe, which is snapped off and stolen from Der Bingle's mouth monthly.) But if they ever erect a statue of John Stockton on these grounds, it will be in brass. They can melt down the actual John Stockton for raw material, for brass is what got him from boyhood to Barcelona.
"He takes losing personally," says Jeff Condill, 28, John's close friend, college teammate and co-owner of Jack & Dan's ever since he bought out Dan Crowley a year ago. "Whatever he plays, Ping-Pong, golf, lawn darts. He holds the Jazz record on the treadmill, and he wants to defend that title every year."
Still, John Stockton would most likely rather lose in lawn darts than be interviewed. We would have asked him to confirm that, but he was too busy playing Sam-I-am to our green eggs and ham. Talk to us? He would not, could not, in the bar. He would not, could not, in his car. He would not, could not, at the gym. We would not, could not, speak to him. Jack, Jeff, his agents at ProServ, the publicity department of the Jazz and the Washington National Guard could not prevail upon him, either.
Stockton has an aversion to making public appearances, on behalf of the Jazz or on behalf of Nike. He was supposed to appear in that poster with Rypien and Sandberg back in 1990, for a three-on-three basketball tournament, but he backed out of it when he thought organizers had lied to him about something or other. He never used to have ballboys pull his car around to the back of the Delta Center, where the Jazz play, but he does now, no longer willing to brave the parking lot.
And so what? It isn't as if the guy has gone completely Garbo: When he isn't spending summer days with his wife and three children at their cabin, an hour from Spokane on Priest Lake, he might be conducting his annual basketball camp for kids. He is close to just about anyone who has ever coached him, tighter than the insides of a Titleist with his family. He still sees people, for god's sake—it's sports-writers he could live through the summer without.
He wouldn't hold the NBA single-season record for assists if he weren't selfless, would he? What is Stockton doing while he isn't talking to us? He is helping an old friend, the Gonzaga trainer, build a house.
"He really is a people person," says Condill. "His family is his first priority. He became more private when he started a family. I think seven or eight years from now, he'll probably come back around the other way."
Most of Spokane knows where to find him, anyway. It's no secret that Stockton makes his home next door to the one he grew up in. Sure, he has a house in Utah, too, but the reason he so loves Salt Lake City, says his father, is that it reminds him of Spokane: easygoing, laid-back.
Nevertheless, when you are a civic bauble, you are always on display in a jeweler's glass case: Not long ago, in Spokane, Stockton was asked for his autograph at a funeral he was attending.
Always on display in a jeweler's glass case. How long before you would tire of looking at life through the fingerprints and the fogged glass?
Ryne Sandberg was last in Spokane for the burial of his oldest brother. Lane Sandberg was 42. He lived in the house on West Augusta Avenue in which he and Ryne and the rest of the children were raised. He died in that house on the 10th of February.
Elizabeth Sandberg sits at home, in her house in Brewster, speaking above the low notes of a piano being tuned in the next room. "Lane had a hell of a tough life, to tell you the truth," she says. "He had epilepsy since the day he was born. When I saw him last Christmas, he was gray and stooped and tired. I thought then, There is death walking."
A month and a half later, Lane died on the floor next to his bed, during an epileptic seizure at eight o'clock in the morning. Sorry is not a word that comforts her, says his mother. But she certainly takes solace in her family. "I am proud of all of my children," she says. "I have a wonderful family."
Harry Caray doesn't shout their names, but her son Del teaches high school in Olympia, Wash., and her daughter, Maryl, works for a TV station in Seattle. And Elizabeth's son Ryne—she looks in on him nearly every day, watching almost every Cub game on the team's cable-TV superstation. The schedule is attached to the fridge.
She can see her reflection in the TV set. After all, it was Elizabeth who was the athlete in high school—Sandy played the tuba. She was from Vermont. He was from Minnesota. During World War II, Sandy had an Army buddy whose fiancee was a close friend of Elizabeth's. Staff Sergeant Derwent D. Sandberg wrote Elizabeth a letter. She wrote back; it was the patriotic thing to do. Two years later they were married. The Sandbergs settled in Spokane because a job was available there when Sandy finished mortuary school. They settled in the house that now stands a block and a half from a ball field that is named for their youngest son.
"I'm very pleased," says the boy's mother, "that the good Lord gave him talent."
Terry Rypien used to stand at the front door and watch her children enter West-view Elementary School directly across the street. From her living room she could see her children in their classrooms. From her couch she could watch them at recess. She went to work at the hospital each night when her husband came home, came home and filled the house with his presence.
Bob Rypien could fill the neighbors' houses, too, fill them with his headlights. Curfew was midnight for Mark and Tim on weekend nights during high school. When Mark was watching television on the wrong side of 12 at a girlfriend's house, Bob pulled his car in front of the girl's picture window and froze his son in the glare. Mark could only sit there on the couch, like road kill with a remote control in his hand.
"His word meant everything," says Mark. "You didn't blow it off."
To look at Mark and Tim and David now, it is impossible to imagine them sharing that one bedroom in the basement of this house. They shared everything, really, since there can be no secrets in such an arrangement. Tim was always in by 11:58 on weekends; Mark was the one who was late. "But you have to understand," says Mark, "Tim would come in with bloodstains all over him, having been in fights with his buddies all night. But he was in by curfew, so no problem. Me, I wouldn't be doing a darn thing but be out till 12:30, and my dad's about ready to kick my ass when I walk in the door. The seven worst words I ever heard were I'll talk to you in the morning. Now I'm supposed to sleep well?"
Terry and Bob were Canadians by birth. She grew up in British Columbia. He grew up in Alberta. When she was 16, Terry moved to Spokane with her mother. Bob's aunt and Terry's sister were friends. Terry and Bob met on a blind date. The family they raised together—Colleen, Mark, Tim, David and Shannon—remains as close as a twin-blade shave.
When they all gather in the backyard, as they have on this evening, Mark finds himself amid the fading laughter, lamenting that his father couldn't be here to turn the fun up a notch. Then, after a pause: "He is here," Mark says. "He's right there." Mark is leaning back, out from under the maple tree, fingering a star overhead. Star-spangled Spokane, indeed.
Long before the light had faded that evening, Mark had his picture taken in the backyard with a neighborhood boy who was wearing a Redskins jacket. Children call Terry on football Sundays. Is Mark there? She tells them Mark doesn't live here anymore, that he's in D.C. playing football today. On Monday the phone will ring again. Is Mark there yet?
The Rypiens stayed together in a convent in St. Paul during Super Bowl week. "I was just glad the Redskins made it to the Super Bowl," says Terry. "In my mind, I thought they probably weren't going to win. Buffalo had already been there. It was their turn." Well, as the press clippings that Terry keeps in an accordion folder will attest, the Redskins won, and won big. John Stockton left a congratulatory message for Mark at the Redskins' hotel in Minneapolis that night.
Mark spoke to Terry after the game. Four months before Mark played his first game for the Redskins, Bob Rypien died of a heart attack, in June 1988. "Don't worry, Mom," Mark now said. "I think Dad had the best seat in the house."
How could Mark know that? Terry Rypien was back home in Spokane by 10 o'clock Monday morning. The trees in her front yard were draped triumphantly in toilet paper. A banner was stretched across the front of the house: HOME OF SUPER BOWL XXVI MVP.
He is here. Dad had the best seat in the house.
How could Mark know that? It was three days before Terry first saw her son in the Disney commercial. You know the one. You know the song. When you wish upon a star...makes no difference who you are...anything your heart desires...will come to you....