Chase Utley called Ryne Sandberg's arrival as a major-league manager after years spent riding the bus "pretty cool" on Sunday, and praised Sandberg's ability to relate to his players. (USA Today Images)
When general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. gathered the entire Phillies team together to announce that Ryne Sandberg had officially been named the manager of the Phillies for 2014 and beyond, Jimmy Rollins was a little angry.
No, not because Rollins was upset with Sandberg’s hiring. Quite the contrary. In fact, if one player has stepped up his game in the time since Sandberg has been the interim manager of the club, it’s been Rollins.
Actually, Rollins knew that Sandberg’s hiring was a foregone conclusion, and he was happy to be taking a pregame soak in the clubhouse hot tub to prepare for Sunday’s game.
“He pulled me out of the hot tub for that,” Rollins said. “It wasn't news to me.”
True, but sometimes even official announcements need a bit of pomp and formality to go along with them. And in keeping with Sandberg’s modus operandi, it was important for the team to understand what was going on.
Communication, as the players have learned this past month, is Sandberg’s forte.
“He definitely communicates,” Chase Utley said. “He’s accomplished, and he hasn’t forgotten how difficult it can be to play this game. There are times when the further you get away from the game, the easier it gets.”
A Hall-of-Fame player, Sandberg has seemingly gone out of his way to remember how hard the game is. He spent six seasons as a manager in the minors, working his way up from Single A (see story). For Utley, one of the game’s top second basemen, the fact that Sandberg was so willing to put in that kind of work with his credentials is no small thing.
“You don’t see a guy of his baseball caliber come up through the minor leagues and spend a lot of time on a lot of buses,” Utley said. “To get this opportunity is pretty cool.”
And Sandberg wants to share it with the players. Though he was known to be very quiet in his playing days, Sandberg has made sure to have conversations with the players. He’s talked to Cliff Lee and Utley about taking leadership roles. He did the same with Rollins, too, but added some insight into what the shortstop can do to enhance his game.
“The first day he came over and pretty much told me his agenda,” Rollins said. “I was fine with that. I never really have a problem with who is the head and what they want to get done. I have to do my part and figure out how to get the guys on board and push them in that direction. He's a different energy. It definitely carries to the younger guys. The guys who have played for him, they know him well. They know the type of manager he is and his style. The other guys have gotten used to him. He's a great baseball mind. It would be not smart to let him sit over there at third base when an opportunity like this was in place.”
Oh yes, there are plenty of young players on the Phillies’ roster who know what it’s like to play for Sandberg in the minors.
“It's great. I couldn't be more happy,” lefty reliever Jake Diekman said. “The applause he got after he told us in the locker room was unbelievable.”
Diekman said Sandberg is still a quiet presence, but he’s a stickler when it comes to things like showing up on time and pregame preparation. That hasn’t changed since Sandberg took over on Aug. 16.
Then there is the cachet that goes with being a Hall-of-Fame player. In baseball history, there are very few players to finish their careers, get elected into the Hall of Fame and then start a second career as a coach or manager. And rarely has there ever been a Hall of Famer willing to go back to the minors and work up from the bottom.
But maybe that’s what makes Sandberg different. Rollins said it was a big deal to see the Hall of Famer on the coaching staff during spring training, but it didn’t take long for Sandberg to become another one of the guys.
“In spring training it meant a lot,” Rollins said. “After that, he was Ryne. A great mind. We talked the game. He brings a positive energy every single day. That comes much before being a Hall of Famer. It doesn't make you a great guy or a great manager. He knows that.”
And by the way Sandberg goes about things, the players know that, too.