CHICAGO -- They'll need another foul pole in Wrigley Field when Ryne Sandberg retires.

Ernie Banks owns the one in left field and Billy Williams occupies the one in right. So where do they hang No. 23 when he peels it off for the last time?

Maybe they ought to emblazon it on the edge of the outfield grass he guarded at second base. Maybe build a monument in the left field seats made dangerous by his stinging home runs. Or just run it up the masthead above the center field scoreboard, above everything and everyone, the way Sandberg played.

Pick a good spot to honor the best second baseman of his day, of most days -- and the Cub who might by then have bumped aside Banks as the most revered in franchise history.

And remember that as he neared his 31st birthday in 1990, people didn't only talk about how good he was. They talked about how good he could be.

"In 42 years in baseball, I've never seen a better second baseman for all-around play," said Sandberg's manager, Don Zimmer. "Jackie Robinson is the guy I'd compare him to."

"I don't want to compare him to anybody, but of the guys I've been around, he plays real good, and he plays a lot," said his general manager, Jim Frey.

"I can't think of any {middle infielder} with his power," said Montreal Manager Buck Rodgers.

How good is he? Check the statistics:

He went 123 games and 584 chances without committing an error, both records for infielders excluding first basemen. He handled some 20 percent more chances than Manny Trillo, the guy with the next-highest total. He has won seven straight Gold Gloves, one for every year he has played his position. If he gets one this year and next, he'll have won more than any second baseman in history. When he was barely 24, he became the second major-leaguer to win one in his first full year at a new position.

He reached 1,500 hits last month, in his 1,308th game. With the first half of the season at an end, Sandberg has a shot at a Triple Crown. He is second in batting average at .334, first in home runs with 24 and sixth in runs batted in with 57.

He's on pace to top the season record for home runs by a second baseman, 42, set by Rogers Hornsby in 1922 and tied by Davey Johnson in 1973. He's almost certain to become the first second baseman to hit 30 homers in consecutive seasons.

He has played fewer than 153 games once, in 1987, a year in which he missed 26 games with a badly sprained ankle.

There was, strange as it may seem, a time when the man who produces these incredible numbers thought of himself as just a second baseman. He wasn't very muscular and seemed content to knock singles and doubles to all fields.

In 1982 and 1983, he hit a total of 15 home runs. That's one more than he hit this June, when he nearly tied the record for the month, shared by Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, Bob Johnson and Pedro Guerrero.

Sandberg did build more muscles, but he also changed the way he thought. The man who persuaded him to was Frey, his manager in 1984.

The move didn't go over well in the Cubs organization. Some thought Sandberg, a 20th-round draft pick stolen from Philadelphia in 1982, would never be able to hit for power. He hit 19 homers that year and 26 the next.

Sandberg isn't super strong; most of his home runs are pulled shots to left. But he was smart enough to know what Frey meant and talented enough to carry it out.

"I saw an athlete I thought was an extraordinary athlete and better than he was giving himself credit for," Frey said. "When I mentioned that I was going to talk to him {about trying to hit home runs}, I caught hell from people in the organization. They said, 'You're going to ruin him.' I said, 'No, I'm going to make him a lot of money.' I can't say I thought he'd ever hit 30 home runs. But I knew we weren't seeing the finished product."

Are we seeing the finished product now? And how will we know?

Don't expect Sandberg to tell us.

He is, by all accounts, a nice fellow, but he's not warm. He handles the attention of being a star professionally but unenthusiastically.

"I've always been like that," said Sandberg, who considers himself private, not shy. "I'd just rather play the games and not have to talk about it before and afterward. I don't let it get in my way, but I don't go around looking for interviews."

Sandberg also avoids the numerous publicity deals that so many other Cubs devour. For many of his teammates, no personal appearance or baseball card show is too obscure if the money's right. "My first couple of years, I did it a lot, but I just got tired of it," he said. "I'd rather spend the time with my family {wife Cindy and children Lindsey and Justin}."

Sandberg's hesitancy to talk about himself has made him into a somewhat enigmatic figure, at least as enigmatic as a man can be when he spends half his year in public view.

"I've got a lot of emotions inside that I don't show, whether it's excitement or frustration or getting mad," Sandberg said.

This isn't a guy given to breaking bats over his knee. But don't equate that with indifference.

Ask Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, who frequently drives to and from Wrigley with Sandberg, about his carpool companion and he laughs and says they have had some real quiet trips.

"He's just a very private person," Sutcliffe. "I do know he loves golf and hates losing. Even with the great year he's having, the losing bothers him a lot."

Maybe Sandberg wouldn't have been so unusual 30 years ago, when baseball was a game, not a show. But he's out of place in a time when making a great quote is remembered longer than a great play.

"When I first came up, I thought everybody was scared of him because he didn't talk to many people," Shawon Dunston said. "He's really no different. He likes to joke around with us. He loves to have a good time, but when he's not talking, some people think they can't approach him."

If Sandberg felt more comfortable around reporters, he might by now have made some sort of public gripe about the three-year, $6.3 million contract extension he signed before last season.

Ironically, when the Cubs offered Sandberg his deal during spring training a year ago, many in the organization thought they were overpaying. Two-plus million a year for a second baseman?

Now, of course, the Cubs look like geniuses. They also know the ante will be considerably higher the next time around.

"If you wanted to give him $20 million, you wouldn't see him change," Dunston said. "He's painted picture perfect."