Getting the read on Ryne Sandberg

Getting the read on Ryne Sandberg
February 2, 2014, 8:00 am
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Ryne Sandberg led the Phillies to a 20-22 finish after taking over as manager last August. (USA Today Images)

In less than two weeks, Ryne Sandberg will begin his first spring training as a major-league manager.

Once upon a time, of course, Sandberg dreamed of managing the Chicago Cubs, the team with which he enjoyed a Hall of Fame playing career, the team that flies his retired No. 23 from the right-field foul pole at Wrigley Field.

But Sandberg is not the manager of the Cubs.

He is the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.

And after reading his memoir, Second to Home, I can’t help but think that maybe he is right where he should be -- with the Phillies.

The book, co-authored with longtime Chicago writer Barry Rozner, came out 19 years ago, shortly after Sandberg retired from playing in June 1994 because he had “lost the fire,” and wanted to spend more time at home with his two young children.

Throughout the book, Sandberg talks of his time in a Cubs uniform, how he became a second baseman, how he became a power hitter and an all-star. The ideals that he took to the field -- preparation, hard work, a disciplined approach to everything, and respect for teammates and the game -- resonate in every chapter.

Sandberg was originally a Phillie, selected in the 20th round of the 1978 draft and lured away from a football-baseball scholarship to Washington State by a $24,000 bonus from the Phillies. Bill Harper, a Phillies scout, had followed Sandberg for two years in high school and wouldn’t quit until Sandberg said yes. Sandberg made it to the majors with the Phillies in 1981 but was traded with Larry Bowa to the Cubs shortly before spring training 1982.

Though Sandberg’s time with the Phillies was brief, the franchise left an indelible mark on him. The people in the organization at that time shaped his baseball foundation and helped him forge the ideals he lived and played by in Chicago. The impact that those people had on him is a constant theme throughout the book.

We’re talking about people like Bowa, Dallas Green, Larry Rojas, John Vukovich and Ruben Amaro Sr., folks Sandberg first met during his time with the Phillies.

***

If you believe that sometimes things are meant to be, check out this little factoid from the book: As a youngster, Sandberg learned to compete by playing sports with and against his older brother, Del. Del was scouted by pro teams in high school but never got a shot to play pro ball after going to Washington State, where he was a second baseman. After Ryne was drafted by the Phillies, Del advised his brother to sign and get his pro career going.

Sandberg’s parents were baseball fans.

Del is named after Phillies great Del Ennis.

In the book, Sandberg talks about playing in the low minors with George Bell, another former Phillies prospect who went on to win an MVP award with another club. Sandberg learned to handle himself in brawls because Bell was a frequent charger of pitching mounds.

Throughout the book, it becomes clear that Green had an enormous influence on Sandberg. The connection continues today. When Sandberg was passed over for the Cubs’ manager job in 2010, Green, a Phillies front office adviser, pushed for the Phils to hire Sandberg as Triple A manager. Sandberg spent two years skippering Lehigh Valley before joining the Phillies as third base coach in 2013 and succeeding Charlie Manuel in August.

Green had been the Phillies' farm director when Sandberg was drafted and went on to manage the club to its first World Series title in 1980 before moving to the Cubs as general manager in 1981. In one of his first moves, Green swapped shortstops, sending Ivan De Jesus to the Phillies and bringing Bowa to the Cubs. As a throw-in, Green asked for Sandberg, who at the time was a shortstop. The Phillies had Julio Franco coming. They threw in Sandberg. Oops.

Late in Sandberg’s first spring training with the Cubs, Green released Ken Reitz and made Sandberg the opening day third baseman. So what if he’d never played there. Late that season, Green summoned Sandberg to the clubhouse and told him he was moving to second base. Green believed Sandberg, with his range and bat, could be a Bobby Grich-type of second baseman. The move paved Sandberg’s path to Cooperstown. Shortly after Sandberg’s move to second, the Cubs were playing the Phillies. Bowa was conversing with Pete Rose, who was on second base. Sandberg stood a few feet away.

“Our new second baseman,” Bowa told Rose.

“He’ll be an all-star,” Rose said.

Sandberg was. Ten times.

***

Sandberg became fed up with the game and abruptly retired, walking away from nearly $16 million, in June 1994.

“I was caught between two generations, the one I came up with, which still cared about the game, and the one I left behind, which hardly cared at all,” he wrote in the book. “In the '90s, I saw too many guys having fun after losses because they got a few hits or did something good for themselves. That didn’t appeal to me at all. There’s a lack of respect today for the game and for each other.”

Sandberg wrote about players being more concerned with hitting the streets in Montreal after a game than the game itself. He complained about players being obsessed with personal stats. He explained that while he could have become a 30-homer, 30-stolen base guy, he never did because he did not care about personal stats.

A decade before his hiatus from the game -- his fire returned and he made a comeback in 1996 -- Sandberg enjoyed an MVP season with a storybook Cubs team that won the NL East in 1984. With some advice from manager Jim Frey, and using a Larry Bowa-model bat, Sandberg became a power hitter that season. He won his second Gold Glove as all those extra fielding sessions with the driven Bowa paid off.

Sandberg writes about Green’s trades for Dennis Eckersley and Rick Sutcliffe as the keys that helped the Cubs get to the postseason for the first time in 39 years in '84. Sutcliffe joined the Cubs in June and went 16-1 in 20 starts on his way to winning the NL Cy Young Award. Wow.

Several months earlier, in spring training, Green got Gary “Sarge” Matthews and Bob Dernier from the Phillies. Sandberg praises Matthews for helping bring the '84 Cubs together. According to Sandberg, Matthews was “a gamer who brought positive energy and aggressiveness” to the club. There was no video preparation in those days. Scouting reports on pitchers were passed down by word of mouth. Sandberg described Matthews as sitting in the dugout an hour before games talking about the opposing pitcher and how to approach him. Soon, 10 guys were gathered around, listening to the Gospel according to Sarge.

Is it any surprise that Sarge will be a guest instructor in Sandberg’s first camp as a big-league skipper? Is it any wonder that Bowa, who mentored Sandberg in the Cubs’ infield, will be Sandberg’s bench coach? Is it any wonder that Green will be upstairs rooting for Sandberg?

***

The 1984 Cubs blew a two-game lead and lost in the NLCS to San Diego, but it was clear that Sandberg cherished being part of that team.

“The way we played was the way Dallas insisted -- for the team and for each other,” he wrote.

In his six weeks as Phillies manager in 2013, Sandberg often spoke about trying to instill this same philosophy in his players.

In the summer of 1987, Sandberg suffered an ankle injury and went on the disabled list for the first time in his career. Back home in Spokane, Wash., his father, Derwent, was gravely ill.

“Go home and be with your dad,” Green told Sandberg one morning.

Sandberg arrived in Spokane that afternoon. His father died that night.

“I was devastated,” he wrote. “Thank God I had the chance to say good-bye. If it wasn’t for Dallas, I wouldn’t have.”

The Cubs slipped in the standings after 1984. Over the years, Matthews was traded away and Bowa was released. A guy named Andre Dawson arrived and, like others, had a significant impact on Sandberg. Green eventually got tired of interference from Cubs ownership and moved on. Several years passed and Larry Himes became GM. Sandberg was not a fan of the way Himes did business and makes that very clear in the book. Sandberg even writes about his personal life, specifically the breakup of his first marriage.

Even though the book is 19 years old, it has relevancy in our corner of the baseball world. It’s an illuminating portrait of a man we’ll see a lot of in the coming years, a man who credits so much of his baseball life to roots that stretch back to Philadelphia.