Ryne Sandberg, a talented shortstop from Spokane, Washington, was selected by the Phillies in the 20th round of the 1978 draft. The reason he dropped so low is that most baseball teams thought Sandberg was going to attend Washington State University; he had verbally committed to them and was going to be their quarterback.
Imagine that -- Ryne Sandberg, star NFL quarterback of the 1980's. It could have happened.
Instead, he decided to ride the buses in the Phillies minor league system, starting in Helena, Montana. After an undistinguished minor league career, he got a September callup in 1981, and got his only hit in a Phillies uniform -- wearing #37, see the photo of the handsome young man above -- in the second game of a doubleheader on September 27, 1981 at Wrigley Field, just days after his 22nd birthday, off Cubs righthander (and current San Francisco Giants broadcaster) Mike Krukow. I witnessed it in person and I wish I could tell you it was a slashing line drive down the line; it wasn't, just a little flare to right field in the top of the eighth inning of a 14-0 Phillies defeat.
Sandberg went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Cubs; Phillies manager Dallas Green, who had drafted Sandberg while Phillies farm director, saw something in the kid that no one else did and, after being named Cubs general manager, insisted on having him "thrown in" to a trade on January 27, 1982 that was on its face a swap of veteran shortstops, Larry Bowa for Ivan DeJesus.
And then Sandberg left baseball after retiring in 1997; he showed no indications he wanted to stay in the game until he approached Cubs GM Jim Hendry, nine years later, after Dusty Baker was let go, letting Hendry know he'd like to manage the team. Hendry already had his sights set on Lou Piniella, so he apparently thought he'd gently let Sandberg down by telling him he needed experience.
Many people would probably have gone home after that, but Sandberg went and got that experience. Just as he had done in 1978, he rode the buses at the lowest minor league level -- this time, the Midwest League -- and worked his way up to Triple-A this season, where he was named Pacific Coast League manager of the year and applauded around the organization and baseball for his work ethic as a manager, just as he did as a player. It was obvious to everyone that Piniella was going to retire after 2010 and it seemed Sandberg would be the logical choice.
But then Piniella pulled a surprise -- for family reasons (really, not the fake "family reasons" we often hear from people quitting; Lou's 90-year-old mother was quite ill) he retired on August 22 and Mike Quade was named manager. Significantly, there was no "interim" tag placed on his tenure, and the Cubs, seemingly headed to a 100-loss season, went 24-13 under Quade, who was rewarded with a two-year contract on Oct. 19, with Sandberg passed over. He was not offered a coaching job in the Cubs organization; he was told he could have his job back at Triple-A Iowa.
Cubs fans, many of whom had grown up with Sandberg as their childhood hero, had a collective hissyfit. Personally, I was in favor of Sandberg, but I could not argue with the choice of Quade, who had done a good job and had the respect of his players. But many Cubs fans acted as if the franchise itself had collapsed. That was an overreaction. There had been reports that at least one team had considered offering Sandberg its managerial spot in 2010 -- but that didn't happen, and despite the fact that there were several open managerial slots (Pirates, Mariners, Mets among them) at the time Quade's hiring was announced, Sandberg received no offers -- not even an offer to be a major league coach, not even from the Phillies, who had an opening as first base coach when Davey Lopes' contract was not renewed. (Another coincidence: Sandberg and Lopes were teammates on the Cubs from 1984-86.)
So the Phillies' hiring of Sandberg as their manager at Triple-A Lehigh Valley is a lateral move, not some slap in the face at all of Cubdom. Does it make him, as some fear, the heir apparent to 67-year-old Charlie Manuel? Probably not; the Phillies are still a strong organization and even though they will have to retool this offseason, they've won the NL East four years in a row and haven't won fewer than 85 games in a season under Manuel. Presuming Manuel is healthy, Sandberg could be four more years from managing the Phillies -- or not; the Phillies current coaching staff has two men with previous major league managerial experience, Pete Mackanin and Juan Samuel, both of whom would probably get consideration ahead of someone without even one day of major league coaching experience. That's something a lot of critics said Sandberg needed; I thought Sandberg's work with the kids who are going to make up the Cubs in the next few years and his long service in the organization trumped that necessity, at least with the Cubs. It may be that Hendry just doesn't see eye-to-eye with Sandberg and wouldn't promote him; that wouldn't be the first time that happened in baseball, or indeed, in any business.
But it's not a travesty, it's not something Cubs fans should say "I'm never going to that ballpark again!" about (and some have), and it doesn't mean he can't come back to the Cubs someday. Sandberg's statement here would seem to indicate no bridges have been burned:
"I didn't think it was in the best interest for me or the Cubs or ownership to be at the Triple-A level," Sandberg said. "I didn't think it would be fair to everybody involved, including the fans and the new manager, Mike Quade, with the perception of me waiting for something to go wrong in Chicago or for the axe to fall in Chicago.
"I take this job [at] Lehigh Valley with no expectations, no guarantees or promises about anything. I don't have any timeframe or anything. I've been offered this job, and I'm grateful for that."
Amen, Ryno. That's the quiet leadership style you showed during your playing career and in the Cubs system (well, apart from your penchant for being thrown out of games, something you rarely did as a player). Perhaps you'll come back someday. After all, Ivan DeJesus is now the Cubs third-base coach. Maybe 30 years later, they can be swapped for each other again -- and this time, we'll leave Bowa out of things.