There's life in baseball after Cubs for Sandberg
Wrigley favorite not bitter about getting his chance to manage elsewhere
CHICAGO -- This story got screwed up somewhere along the way.
We all thought that would be Ryne Sandberg over there in the Cubs' dugout, enduring the long rebuilding process gallantly and graciously, connecting Cubs fans to all that was good and what could be again. A budding leader and P.R. persona doing what he loves in the city that loves him and in the ballpark where his name and number fly high on the right-field foul pole.
We love those stories, because we're an inherently sentimental society of sports fans. And whether you watched Sandberg while sucking suds in the Wrigley bleachers or by the graces of WGN's nationwide broadcasts, you knew him as the face of baseball on the North Side.
So you didn't have to be a lifelong Cubs fan to be a bit puzzled by the club's decision to pass Sandberg over -- twice, no less -- in the managerial merry-go-round. Not that anybody should be handed anything in life, but, really, what more did the guy have to do? Sandberg was the rare Hall of Famer who not only had the patience to put up with players less talented than he, but who proved his passion for the position and respect for the process each time he checked into some dumpy Minor League motel.
Oh, and he was successful, too. That didn't hurt.
Well, the Cubs made their decisions, as is their right. When passed over for Mike Quade after the 2010 season, Sandberg went his own way, as was his right. And when the paths of the icon and the club converged again here Friday afternoon, with Sandberg returning to Wrigley as interim skipper of the Phillies, it felt strange and foreign to just about everybody but Sandberg himself.
Sandberg, you see, gets it. Gets it more than the rest of us could. He understands that the most sentimental story isn't necessarily the most satisfying one, and so he offers gratitude, not bitterness, toward the Cubs.
"The Cubs gave me a chance to start in Peoria, an opportunity to manage in their Minor Leagues for four years," Sandberg said. "That's gone a long way. I understand how baseball works."
And baseball works in such unpredictable fashion that, for all we know, maybe one day that will be Sandberg sitting in the home dugout.
For now, a day like this was a day to appreciate the 53-year-old Sandberg on dual fronts -- as the player who helped restore the Cubs to relevance and always represented himself and this city so well, and as the manager who has earned the respect of his peers and players for traits and talents that go well beyond his Cooperstown credentials.
The first front was a no-brainer, of course. Everybody knew Sandberg would get the rousing ovation he received when lineup cards were exchanged at home plate. As the Phils' Kevin Frandsen said beforehand, "We'll truly get to see what, in baseball terms, true love is."
Sandberg's legacy here might best be represented in the here and now by all the crowded rooftops across Sheffield and Waveland Avenues. We know the Cubs now as one of the game's surest cash cows and pregame party scenes, but that wasn't always the case. In Sandberg's rookie season in 1982, not only were the rooftops empty, but so, too, were the majority of seats. The Cubs drew an average of just 15,423 fans that year.
It was the 1984 team, led by Sandberg's National League MVP Award performance, that reawakened Wrigley. And it was a pair of pokes against Bruce Sutter on a June day, in front of a national TV audience, that created the Sandberg mystique and seemed to cement that team's status as a legit NL East contender.
"The playoffs here were unbelievable," Sandberg said, "along with, I think it was '84, where we played our last home game before going on the road with a chance to clinch. We played a game, and then everybody's in there undressing. All of a sudden, somebody came in and said, 'Wait a minute, nobody's leaving!' So we went out and paraded around the field -- a little pre-celebration for what we were going to do on the road."
That season put Sandberg on the road to the Hall of Fame. Soft-spoken and sure-handed, his 16-season career was all substance, no flash. The mortician's son was methodical in his preparation and his dealings with not only the press but his own teammates.
"All those years I lockered next to him, he probably said no more than 10 to 15 words to me a day," Sandberg's former double-play partner, Shawon Dunston, told Sports Illustrated in 1996. "And most of those were on popups. He'd say, 'You take it,' and I'd say, 'I got it.'"
So it was a shock, to say the least, when Sandberg first uttered his itch to manage, because that's a position in which communication is a cornerstone.
Sandberg made the decision in 2006, nine years after his playing career ended and one year after his induction to Cooperstown. He had reached a level of wealth and contentment and recognition that only a select few ascend to, and yet short stints as a special Spring Training instructor with the Cubs gave him the urge to get back in the game.
Sandberg has said that he learned more from his first half-season as a manager at Class A Peoria in 2007 than he did in two decades of playing. And the Cubs learned, slowly but surely, that their oft-reserved icon had grown considerably as a communicator.
Darwin Barney remembers what a valuable resource Sandberg was, in both word and deed, when Starlin Castro leapfrogged him by making the jump from Double-A to the starting shortstop job on the big league club. A shortstop himself, Barney was stuck with Sandberg's Triple-A Iowa club wondering what it would take to get on the radar.
"What do I have to do?" Barney asked Ryno. "What am I going to do now?"
They started working at second base three times a week, at home and on the road, with Barney getting personal instruction from one of the most dependable second basemen in the history of the sport.
"I was fortunate to have a good relationship with him," Barney said. "The ability to communicate with him was very helpful."
Sandberg showed Barney the value of patience and fortitude, values Sandberg himself would apply when the Cubs made their next managerial hire. When Lou Piniella abruptly retired in August 2010, they promoted third-base coach Quade on an interim basis. The players responded positively enough that then-GM Jim Hendry decided it was best to stick with that setup, rather than promote Ryno.
That's about when the Phillies pounced on their former farmhand, offering Sandberg their Triple-A managerial post at Lehigh Valley. His clubs there went a combined 155-132 over the next two seasons. Sandberg's work didn't earn him an interview with the Cubs when Quade was removed by the Theo Epstein regime in 2011 (though Epstein did, quite classily, reach out to Sandberg immediately when the job came open to personally inform him he would be looking for somebody with Major League managerial or coaching experience). But it did earn Sandberg a spot on Charlie Manuel's coaching staff for 2013.
That Manuel, saddled with an aging squad, was on the hot seat and Sandberg was the manager-in-waiting was one of the worst-kept secrets in baseball, and the secret was finally out two weeks ago, when Manuel was dismissed.
No telling exactly what the future holds, because there is already scuttlebutt in the game that the Phillies might go for a more-veteran skipper when they look to fill Manuel's vacated post permanently. As usual, Sandberg is not being handed anything here.
But the Phils have played well under Sandberg the past two weeks, responding well to his new methods (players are expected to arrive four hours before home games and are subjected to more pregame infield practices and pitchers' fielding practices than they had been previously) and increased in-game aggressiveness on the basepaths.
"The guy's got a high baseball IQ," third baseman Michael Young said. "He hasn't lost sight of how difficult the game is, and that can be difficult for a guy who has that kind of playing career. He's impressive."
Impressive enough, one would imagine, to make this stint with the Phillies a more permanent endeavor. But Ryno knows too well not to get ahead of himself.
"I'm at a stage now," he said, "with my age and everything, where I just want to enjoy every step and take it all in and relish every moment."
This was a special moment for Sandberg. A return to his roots, in the position that he's passionately pursued the past seven years.
No, Sandberg doesn't hold that position with the Cubs, and so the story contains a twist none of us really expected.
But it's a pretty good story, all the same.