Ryne Sandberg left a signed football scholarship to Washington State on his dresser in 1978, moved into a garage in Helena, Mont., and boarded the bus that would take him through baseball’s bush leagues and eventually to Cooperstown.
Then he did something no other Hall of Famer deigned to do after his election.
He got back on the bus.
He rode it through towns like Appleton and Cedar Rapids and South Bend, learning the nuances of managing the same way he learned how to play the infield. The combination of humility and confidence it took to take that route back to the major leagues should have been a tip-off about both his worth and worthiness. But for some reason, even after a four-year investment managing at all levels in the Chicago Cubs organization, it didn’t mean much to the club whose uniform he wore for 15 seasons.
Which is how he came to be manager of the Philadelphia Phillies today.
Friday’s appointment was qualified as “interim,” which might suggest that even after grooming Sandberg to replace Charlie Manuel – two more years of managerial seasoning in Triple-A, having him coach third base in Philadelphia this season – the jury is still hung on him as a supervisor of millionaires. Or it might be a sign that the franchise has simply lost its compass.
A 4-19 slide greased Manuel’s exit, but it’s general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. who has presided over the aging decline of the Phillies’ accomplished core with little in the way of answers. Maybe Manuel pointing that out to him is what moved Amaro to say he’s “looking for somebody who understands there is a process.”
But beyond that, Amaro acknowledged, “We’re analyzing … what type of manager we’d like to have.”
Seems like something you’d already want to know.
That Sandberg may have to interview for his own job come season’s end might be vaguely discouraging, but on this return journey he’s already endured through discouragements. He can handle a few more questions.
Over the next 41 games – he’s 0-1 after the punchless Phillies were shut out by the Dodgers on Friday night – Sandberg is apparently supposed to make his tired veterans care again about a season that’s over for them, and sprinkle a little get-somebody-out dust over his relievers.
But that’s the mandate when you’re the “permanent” guy, too.
That Sandberg is getting his opportunity in Philadelphia is part of sport’s crush on twisted destinies. It was, of course, the Phillies who drafted and signed him out of North Central High School 35 years ago, only to let him go as a throw-in to the Cubs when the two teams swapped shortstops Larry Bowa and Ivan DeJesus in 1982.
Within two years, Sandberg was MVP of the National League.
Now the Phillies are taking a chance on a Cubs icon who got a bit of a kiss-off from the franchise.
Only two other Hall of Fame players – Luke Appling and Ted Williams – became major league managers after their inductions in Cooperstown. Appling managed in the minors, too, but it was well before his election. It was also well before these times when players of that stature retire financially set for at least one lifetime, and can stay in the game on their terms.
Sandberg, still with a lot of baseball in his system, happily signed on as a managerial apprentice with the Cubs’ Single-A team in Peoria, making his way up the ladder. But when Lou Piniella pulled the plug in Chicago in 2010, the club went with another dues-payer, Mike Quade, rather than Sandberg.
He got the message. And when Quade was fired a year later and replaced by Dale Sveum, Sandberg got it again.
“I just wasn’t their guy,” Sandberg told Jim Salisbury of Comcast Sports Net earlier this year. “I’ve been around baseball long enough to know there’s no guarantees in this game. It’s all about who’s comfortable with who and relationships and all that.
“So if there was any hurt at all, it didn’t last very long.”
Now he’s earned his way back, and not on his famous name. He was Baseball America’s Minor League Manager of the Year in 2011. Young players under his guidance, like Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney, gush about his attention to detail. Even the sometimes painful reserve he showed as a player seems to be gone, as we witnessed during his pointed Hall of Fame speech – and some of his fiery ejections in the minors.
And at month’s end, he’ll return to Wrigley Field as a manager. Just not in the uniform he expected.
“As far as going back in this seat,” he said Friday, “I think it’ll be kind of fun.”
Especially remembering the second round of bus rides it took to get him there.