ALLENTOWN, Pa. It had been one of those nights for Domonic Brown. Certainly all ballplayers go through them, but given the circumstances, this one was particularly harsh.
Brown had just gone 0 for 6 with four strikeouts in a doubleheader where he and his teammates with the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs had failed to score a run. Worse, Brown had figured into a few for the Syracuse Chiefs with his glove or lack thereof in left field.
By the end of the night, fans that had once rushed out to Allentowns Coca-Cola Field to see Brown as if he was a rare shooting star streaking across the sky, turned to booing the 23-year-old prospect and even surrendered to mock applause when he simply fielded a foul ball.
Indeed, one of those nights.
But before he could peel off his uniform and sink into the shower so that he could forget about another night in a season filled with such episodes, Brown was called into his bosss office. This time it wasnt for one of those dont-let-it-happen-again talks Brown received when he lollygagged up the first-base line when he could have hustled for a hit with the Phillies earlier this year. No, this was something different.
This was an everything-is-going-to-be-OK chat with his manager, Ryne Sandberg.
No doubt, Sandberg has delivered a few of those chats over the past five years he has spent managing in the minors. At every level in the Chicago Cubs chain and now in his first season in the Phillies system, Sandberg has been part teacher, part coach and a lot of a psychologist when working with young ballplayers on the way up (or out) over the past few baseball seasons. Its both a difficult and rewarding job not meant for the faint of heart.
But the question some have asked since Sandberg began his new profession in professional baseball is, why? Why would a Hall-of-Fame player, one of just 65 still living on this earth, want to spend the summer bouncing around on long, grueling bus trips just so he can teach some kids the game that made him famous?
Why wake up early after a fitful nights sleep spent second-guessing ones self just to go back to the ballpark to pitch batting practice, hit fungoes and help counsel young men trying to find their way? Considering that many of Sandbergs fellow Hall of Famers earn as much money in a month by simply signing autographs than he does managing in the minors, its a curious thing.
Then again, maybe a quote from Phillies assistant general manager Chuck LaMar can best describe what Sandberg is all about.
The word Hall of Famer was never mentioned, LaMar said. He talked about what hes learned and how eager he was to continue to learn. That spoke volumes.
We wanted the best Triple-A manager and development person with the Philadelphia Phillies and he is that.
From Hall of Fame to big leagues?
The reason why Sandberg has spent the last five seasons rumbling around from minor-league ballpark to minor-league ballpark is quite simple. In fact, he isnt any different from the kids hes coaching. Sandberg, one of the greatest second basemen of his era as well as one of the most popular Cubs players ever, is trying to get to the big leagues.
A Hall of Famer trying to get to the big leagues?
Sandbergs goal, he says, is to get to the big leagues as a manager or coach though it seems as if hed prefer to be a manager. Its as a manager in the minors where Sandberg has shined. Not only have his teams advanced to the playoffs, with Lehigh Valley on the cusp to give Sandberg his third straight postseason berth, but the players also respond to him.
For instance, last season with Triple A Iowa, Sandberg had a shortstop named Darwin Barney. The problem for Barney was that even though he was ready for the majors, the Cubs already had 21-year-old All-Star Starlin Castro at the position. There was no way Barney was going to play shortstop for the Cubs.
So after four years in pro ball, and a college career at Oregon State where he played nothing but shortstop, Barney spent the 2010 season learning how to play a new position. Better yet, he learned second base with a Hall-of-Fame second baseman teaching him. The result? Barney has batted .284 in 119 games for the Cubs this season.
Though his 12 errors at second base are second-most in the league, Barney has shown above-average range at the new position and Cubs insiders say the rookie will form a strong combo in the middle of the infield with Castro.
For the Phillies, the ideal situation would be if Sandberg were next in line to replace Charlie Manuel at the helm of the Phillies. But how much longer can he wait? Manuel signed a contract extension through the 2013 season, which means there wont be an opening in Philadelphia anytime soon.
I have aspirations to get to the big leagues with the Phillies in some capacity, thats just human nature, Sandberg said. But if the opportunity came and somebody wanted me to manage their club or be a coach for their major league team then Id listen. I feel like Im getting all the necessary experience to be ready for that opportunity.
It seemed as if Sandberg was the perfect choice to replace Lou Piniella as manager of the Cubs this season. Considering a few of the players on the team had been coached by Sandberg on the way up coupled with the fact that he is one of the most popular players in franchise history, Sandberg seemed to be the logical choice.
But for whatever reason, Cubs general manager Jim Hendry hired Mike Quade, a minor league journeyman as a player and coach who joined the Cubs system in 2003. Under Quade, things could not have gone much worse. The Cubs are limping to a fifth-place finish in the NL Central in a season in which Quade has battled with players while pitching ace Carlos Zambrano abandoned the team and GM Hendry was fired.
It makes one wonder how differently things would have been had the Cubs hired Sandberg.
When asked if he had been following how the Cubs season has unfolded, Sandberg didnt elaborate much.
A little bit, he said.
As far as managing or coaching in the big leagues, Sandberg was equally as cryptic.
Im open to any opportunity, he said.
As far as landing on the staff of a big league team, Sandberg wasnt interested in entertaining the subject.
Next year is next year. This season is this season, so there is no focus on next year when this year is still going on.
Certainly Sandberg has his hands full with the remaining five regular-season games with Lehigh Valley. After the extra-inning loss on Tuesday night, Sandbergs IronPigs (77-62) are tied for the lead in the International Leagues wild-card chase and remained two games behind Pawtucket in the leagues North division.
We have some big ballgames to play, some meaningful games to play, Sandberg said. Were not done by any means, so its better that than any other way.
Regardless, give Sandberg credit for paying his dues. With four years spent managing his way up the ladder in the minors, Sandberg is taking a path most Hall-of-Fame players arent willing to tread. Moreover, baseball history is filled with Hall-of-Fame players who couldnt cut it as a manager. As a result, there are very few players elected to Cooperstown who have then gone on to the World Series as a manager.
Yogi Berra took the Mets to the World Series in 1973 a year after his election to the Hall of Fame and Bob Lemon won it all with the Yankees in 1978 two years after he was enshrined. Otherwise, a storied playing career doesnt always set the stage to be a successful manager.
Could Sandberg be different? Perhaps, but hes going to have to get his shot first. Whether that happens with the Phillies or elsewhere remains to be seen.
E-mail John R. Finger at firstname.lastname@example.org.