ALLENTOWN, Pa.—With every passing season, the gap widens between Ryne Sandberg, Hall of Fame player, and Ryne Sandberg, major league managerial prospect.
Five years into his quest to return to the big leagues, the 10-time all-star second baseman for the Cubs is being valued as much for his ability as a minor league manager—and his potential to manage a major league team someday—as for his 19-year playing career that earned him a ticket to Cooperstown.
“I think I’ve noticed that more this year than in the past, and it’s gratifying, because that’s what I’m pursuing at the moment, what I’m trying to do right now,” Sandberg said.
Sandberg earned the Pacific Coast League’s manager of the year honors in 2010 when he guided the Triple-A Iowa Cubs to an 82-62 record. However, this year may have been his best work. Sandberg led the Phillies’ Triple-A Lehigh Valley affiliate—a franchise that hadn’t spent a day above .500 in its three-year history—to within two wins of the International League championship.
Mike Sarbaugh, BA’s 2010 Minor League Manager of the Year, was the International League’s manager of the year after guiding Columbus to the league’s best record en route to a second straight Governors’ Cup and Triple-A National Championship. But Sandberg’s accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed: The 52-year-old Washington native has been named Baseball America’s 2011 Minor League Manager of the Year.
“It’s a great honor, and it speaks volumes to what we did as a team,” said Sandberg, whose IronPigs went 80-64 and spent nearly three months atop the IL North before earning the league’s wild-card berth. “I had a fine staff with Rod and Sal (pitching coach Rod Nichols and hitting coach Sal Rende), and the players played hard throughout the season. For me, this is just icing on the cake for what we did this season.”
“I think we were expecting a lot from Ryne when we brought him in, but I believe he even exceeded those expectations,” Phillies assistant general manager Benny Looper said. “Obviously, he’s got a lot of love and respect for the game, and we’re very excited about how he handled the ballclub.”
It was that love for the game that put Sandberg back in a baseball uniform full-time five years ago at low Class A Peoria. After a memorable induction speech in Cooperstown in 2005, when he spoke of respecting the game and playing it the right way, Sandberg decided to return to uniform in hopes of joining Ted Williams as the only Hall of Famers to get their first major league managerial job after their induction.
But unlike Williams, who was hired by Washington Senators owner Bob Short in 1969 as much for the publicity as to improve a stumbling franchise that moved to Texas two years later, Sandberg has been riding the buses and answering early morning wake-up calls for flights through four minor leagues.
“It goes back to respecting the game of baseball and what it takes to get the big league level in any capacity,” Sandberg said. “It’s about doing what I enjoy doing, and that’s coming to the ballpark every day and being on the field and sweating and working hard and being part of a team.”
“It’s very easy to work with Ryno, because he’s all about baseball,” Nichols said.
The Phillies selected Sandberg in the 20th round of the 1978 draft before he was plucked from the farm system three years later by Cubs general manager Dallas Green, who had just left the Phillies, as a throw-in in a swap of shortstops Larry Bowa and Ivan DeJesus. He returned to the Phillies last winter after a much-publicized split with the Cubs, who bypassed him and chose Mike Quade to follow Lou Piniella. Quade lasted just one season before he was fired by new general manager Theo Epstein, who opted not to interview Sandberg for the position.
Sandberg made an immediate impression on the Phillies brass in 2010 by not flashing his playing credentials while interviewing for the organization’s Triple-A job.
“He’s a Hall of Famer, but he doesn’t wear that badge so to speak, and I think the players respect him for that and his knowledge of the game,” Looper said. “He’s a very humble person—that’s probably the best word to describe him.”
Sandberg’s Hall of Fame status earns him instant respect. The way he treats his players maintains it. “Sometimes when you have a coach or manager who had a good career they look at you like, ‘God, I was much better than you are, why can’t you figure this out?’ ” Lehigh Valley outfielder Brandon Moss said. “There was none of that with Ryno. There’s just no arrogance with him.”
“We had fun joking with him about it, but if you didn’t know he was Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg before you met him you weren’t going to find out from him,” Lehigh Valley shortstop Brian Bocock said. “His personality is very laid back, but his passion for the game is out of this world. He cares about his players, and it shows. You want to play hard for him, want to win for a guy like that.”
Nichols, who pitched for three teams over parts of eight big league seasons, said the two share a philosophy despite their contrasting major league success.
“We both love the game, and we both realize our playing careers are over, and now it’s about the players we’re teaching and trying to help get the major leagues,” Nichols said. “It’s trying to get players in the right place to have success, and that’s his strength—he puts you in the right frame of mind to succeed.”
Sandberg allows his coaches to do their jobs, a trait Moss—who has spent parts of the last five seasons in major league clubhouses—said goes a long way on the big league level.
“Sal was the hitting coach, Rod was the pitching coach, and he kept it that way,” Moss said. “Players respect that. If you asked Ryno something, he was glad to talk to you, but he didn’t step on anyone’s toes.”
Sandberg’s rules are simple, and his biggest are to play the game hard, to play team baseball on the field and be good teammates off it. The veteran-laden IronPigs, who posted 40 come-from-behind victories, quickly embraced those principles—”We became a very tight-knit group and had a lot of fun,” Sandberg said—but both Bocock and Moss said the skipper put the hammer down when necessary.
“The challenge for him—and I believe he’ll pass with flying colors—is to do that in the big leagues, where there’s a lot more egos to deal with,” Bocock said.
Sandberg embraces a role as ambassador of the game, and at all of his minor league stops he made time nightly before games to sign autographs for fans lined up next to the dugout. (It will be interesting to see if logistically he will be able to continue this policy at the big league level.) He and wife Margaret also get involved in charitable and community projects during their summer stays.
“He feels like he owes something back to the game,” Looper said.
The 2011 season was Sandberg’s fourth winning season and the second time he’s taken a team to the league finals. Two other times his teams tied for a playoff spot but came up short in a tiebreaker, including 2010 when Iowa matched Memphis for the best record in the Pacific Coast League.
“I feel I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the job,” Sandberg said. “This is my second year at Triple-A, and I’m very respectful of the process. There’s a lot of baseball men out there, doing the same thing, and I’m very respectful of that. If someone feels it’s time for me to go the big leagues, I’m all for it. But if not, I’m right back here next year, doing the same thing.”
“He’s going to be a very good (major league) manager,” Nichols said. “There’s no hurry for him, because he’s so good at what he does. He has a gift for the game, and for him to stay in the game is a win-win situation. He’s going to have success wherever he goes.”
Jeff Schuler is a columnist for the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call