Sandberg, Iron-Willed IronPig, Working Patiently Toward Show Time

When he was spurned as Mike Quade’s successor to manage the Chicago Cubs, the team for whom he shone as a Hall of Fame second baseman, Ryne Sandberg on the record was as gracious as he claimed Theo Epstein, the freshly installed president of baseball operations, had been in delivering the verdict.

“Theo called me 10 minutes after they issued the press release and told me that they have a list of guys and I’m not on it,” Sandberg told the Chicago Daily Herald. “He wished me good luck and said he hoped I got a chance somewhere soon. He didn’t owe me that at all. He didn’t have to do that. It was a classy move and I’m very appreciative of the phone call. In the end, I wished him and everybody there good luck.”

Iron willed patience  . . .

Sandberg wasn’t necessarily angry. Ask his one-time mentor, Dallas Green, who engineered the deal with the Philadelphia Phillies that made Sandberg a Cub in the first place, after he’d had about half a cup of coffee (if that much) with the Phillies, and it was something else entirely.

“When the Cubs did what they did,” Green tells ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, as part of a remarkable profile of Sandberg, “I don’t think he was pissed as much as hurt. Ernie Banks is Mr. Cub, but Ryne was like a second Mr. Cub kind of guy. He’s a Hall of Famer who paid his dues starting in ‘A’ ball. I don’t know what else the Cubs wanted him to do to prove he could manage.”

Epstein wanted someone with major league managing and coaching experience. Dale Sveum, his eventual hire, had been the Boston Red Sox’s third base coach in 2004-05, before returning to the Milwaukee Brewers (where he’d begun his career as an infielder in 1986) as bench coach and, in time, the club’s interim manager when Ned Yost was executed. Perhaps amazingly, Sveum took the Brewers into the 2008 postseason with a 7-5 finish, only to lose to the Phillies in the division series and become the Brewers’ hitting coach under Ken Macha.

From 2007-2010, Sandberg cut a respected swath managing up the Cubs’ organisational chain. He started with the Peoria Chiefs (A) . . . and led them to the Midwest League championship game. He got promoted to the Tennessee Smokies (AA) two years later . . . and led them to the Southern League playoffs. That earned him a prompt promotion to the Iowa Cubs (AAA) . . . and accolades as the Pacific Coast League’s Manager of the Year.

When Lou Piniella decided to retire in 2010 (midseason, as things turned out), he made a point of recommending Sandberg as his successor. The pre-Epstein Cubs installed Quade (who’d managed the I-Cubs for three seasons in the earlier Aughts), instead; Quade’s deceptive (24-13) finish helped remove the interim tag. Sandberg, who’d obeyed former general manager Jim Hendry’s advice to manage well and strong in the Cubs’ system first, wasn’t even a topic—except out in Cub Country, where the clamour for his promotion often hit fever pitch.

After Epstein shooed him away, however politely, Sandberg became a kind of prodigal son. The Phillies, his first major league organisation, hired him to take their Lehigh Valley (AAA) farm. All he did was manage the IronPigs to the International League’s Governor’s Cup finals. All he’s done is compile a 438-408 record as a minor league manager including what will be three seasons managing in AAA ball. And all he does, other than further solidify a reputation as a great baseball teacher with a flair for making his teams play and work like teams, is wait.

Sandberg is probably too polite to say it, but it probably vexed him quietly when two teams thought to have him on their radars, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago White Sox, decided after 2011 to hire managers (Mike Matheny, Cardinals; Robin Ventura, White Sox) with zero managing experience. The Cardinals needed a new skipper when Tony La Russa decided it was best to go out on top after a miraculous World Series championship; the White Sox needed someone to begin removing the toxic clouds bequeathed by Ozzie Guillen.

“Sandberg’s dogged pursuit of his goal and refusal to grouse about dues-paying,” Crasnick writes, “have won him a growing contingent of admirers in the industry. He has never vented publicly or shown impatience with his deliberate career track. On the contrary; he thinks all that time in the minors has laid the necessary groundwork for him to be successful when the opportunity arrives.”

Some think Sandberg has been too becalmed to impress Show general managers when they interview their next candidates. “He was very quiet as a player, and that was the only doubt I had,” Green tells Crasnick. “Could he bring emotion or a discipline to the dugout? I didn’t know. But everybody I talked to said, ‘Dallas, he’s really opened up. He’ll go out on the field. He’ll argue with umpires and get thrown out of games. He’s done it here.’ That was the growth part I hadn’t seen. He certainly has it.” If you take Crasnick’s word for it, there’s credit to spare going to Sandberg’s wife, Margaret (his second marriage; he underwent a bitter divorce in the mid-1990s that actually drove him into a first retirement as a player), for bringing him forth from his former reserved self.

Others perceive Sandberg as a Cub to the grave in his heart of hearts. The worst-kept secret in baseball may have been how he lusted to manage the Cubs. Until Epstein told Sandberg he wasn’t even a topic, Sandberg seems to have had no intention of going anywhere else.

Driving baseballs the way he now drives players—smooth, no nonsense, no fuss . . .

Crasnick speculates Sandberg being promoted to the Phillies’ coaching staff for next season. He also thinks incumbent manager Charlie Manuel, who’s trying to finish a deflating 2012 with an aging former champion but whose contract expires after 2013, isn’t necessarily going to reach for the rye bottle over the idea. “[I]f Manuel feels threatened by Sandberg’s presence,” Crasnick writes, “he certainly doesn’t show it. He sounds like Sandberg’s personal campaign manager.” Indeed. Manuel tells Crasnick, “I love talking hitting with him, and I like talking the game. He kind of revs me up. He’s going manage in the big leagues without a doubt, because he’s that good. He puts in the time and the work. In some ways, he’s quiet. But he’ll get what he wants, because he’s that good.”

Green illustrates a point about minor league managing that few seem to think about on contact. That lack of immediate thought could have been working to Sandberg’s detriment, too. “Triple-A is a horse[bleep] place to manage,” the former World Series-winning Phillies manager tells Crasnick. “Guys are always pissing and moaning about not being in the big leagues, or being sent down, or not getting a chance. You have all these grudge-holders with different agendas or an itch under their saddle, and there’s all that ragging going on. [Sandberg] is able to cut that ragging out and make them play the game of baseball. He’s done it everyplace he’s been.”

If you didn’t know better, you could just about take Green’s observation and wonder why it was that the Red Sox—whose freshman general manager, Ben Cherington, wanted Dale Sveum, but whose president, Larry Lucchino, may have led the effort to shove Bobby Valentine down the Red Sox throat—didn’t even give Sandberg a nod, never mind a wink. Like blind horses, the Red Sox threw a lit match into a gas house and watched it explode most of 2012. Sandberg, if you take Crasnick’s word for it, is exactly what the Red Sox were foolish enough only to think they were getting when they hired Valentine:

Sandberg demands professionalism from his players, whether it means running out groundballs or standing at attention for the national anthem. He preaches the team concept, and tells players that individual accolades will come if the team wins games. He urges the IronPigs to pull for each other, and believes in the importance of community service, readily consenting when the club asks him to appear at a local soup kitchen or visit with wheelchair-bound kids in the Miracle League . . . 

During his time in Lehigh Valley, Frandsen noticed that the manager never threw up his hands in exasperation or let out a sigh of discontent if a player swung at a bad pitch or made a mental gaffe. Sandberg would pull the player aside and quietly but firmly tell him the right way to do things, and leave it at that. Although Sandberg never played for Bobby Cox, he has a Cox-like aversion to showing up players or calling them out publicly.

Morganna missed. Sandberg didn’t.

Sandberg, in other words, would never have questioned Kevin Youkilis’s heart, betrayed Kelly Shoppach’s confidence, left Jon Lester in for an eleven-run beating (I’ve never seen a manager watch the bullpens . . . [b]ut it’s just another sign that he cares—Scott Elarton, ten-year major league pitcher now with Lehigh Valley), gone public with a lame crack about a young infielder’s hard inning with the glove, or dismissed most of his aura as a matter of players having to accept they might become collateral damage in the middle of the shooting at him. But neither would he have sanctioned the very idea that any of his players had quit on him down a rickety stretch.

This is the guy who was so even-keeled that not even Morganna the Kissing Bandit could rattle him. Granted that he got a little help from Wrigley Field security when she tried to nail him—it was the first night game ever played in the old yard, in 1988—but Sandberg still stepped back into the batter’s box and hit the next pitch into the bleachers. About the only thing that can rattle him now is badly executed baseball. Waiting it out to get his hard-earned shot at major league managing isn’t exactly the worst burden Sandberg’s ever carried. And he knows it.

WHO MIGHT HAVE SANDBERG IN SIGHT NOW?

I don’t apologise for beating a bit of a drum on Ryne Sandberg’s behalf. I’ve supported him getting a major league managing chance for three years and counting. If Jerry Crasnick is right, and it’s just a matter of when, not if, who might be Sandberg suitors down this year’s stretch or after the season?

Valentine—still going, possibly?

Boston Red Sox—Just because they rid themselves of a few players thought to be somewhat less than his allies doesn’t exactly mean Bobby Valentine’s going to survive to manage the second year of his two-year deal. General manager Ben Cherington looked more like a genius for swinging The Deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers than president Larry Lucchino looks for having led the cramming of Valentine down the Red Sox’s throat, and while there’s a lot less public turmoil from the Red Sox clubhouse it doesn’t mean they’re that willing to give Valentine a chance to finish cleaning up the mess. Normally, it’s just a matter of time before Valentine’s divide-and-conquer style re-toxifies. And, right now, you can pretty much write the 2012 Red Sox off as badly lost, a point hammered home (literally, too) Friday night when the Oakland Athletics battered them, 20-2. (Battered? More like human rights violations.)

Cherington, remember, first wanted Dale Sveum—whose Show managing experience amounted to one eleventh-hour stretch drive and an early postseason exit. Sveum seems to be safe in Wrigley Field for the time being, since the Cubs are strictly in rebuild. There’s much speculation about the Red Sox pondering a trade to bring John Farrell, their former pitching coach, back from Toronto to take the bridge, but the Blue Jays haven’t indicated (publicly, anyway) they’d be open to the deal. If they’re not, and if the Red Sox’s plans include picking and choosing from among their younger prospects to help re-fortify the parent club, Sandberg’s rep as a minor league manager could only add to his prospects as a Red Sox manager, for a team in dire need of learning and re-learning the right ways.

Sandberg, by the way, isn’t an obscure commodity in Boston: the Red Sox interviewed him in 2010 for the managing job at Pawtucket, before the Red Sox decided to stay within the existing organisation and promote Arnie Beyeler.

Cleveland Indians—A pleasant surprise in 2011, when they had baseball’s best record through May and stayed in the pennant picture until September, this year’s Tribe looked like a better encore—they spent most of the first half near or at the top of the American League Central (they spent a little over half of April leading it, in fact)—until a 5-28 spell,  including Friday night’s loss to Texas right after a sweep by the Oakland Athletics, seemed to hint Manny Acta was on the hot seat.

Acta—sacrificial lamb?

Acta can’t be blamed for injuries and underachievement, since his players seem mostly to like playing for him. But there’s speculation that if general manager Chris Antonetti fears his own job is on the line he might execute Acta, maybe as a bid to show he’s not backing down. Might. But would they have Sandberg in the Rolodex?

Houston Astros—They threw former Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills over the side after a couple of years in which Mills, admittedly, had about as much solid stock to work with as the Pontiac Aztek. Interim manager Tony DeFrancesco may have a comparable handicap, but he’s also 1-10 since taking the bridge. Say what you will about the Astros as the team to be named later to complete the deal making a National League team out of the Brewers. But if there’s to be a new atmosphere of reaching for winning baseball and team ball, Sandberg certainly couldn’t hurt.

Kansas City Royals—Ned Yost may be managing himself out of another gig, since the Royals—who were widely believed to be on the threshold of breaking into competitiveness if not quite a run at even a wild card—have broken only into another long season’s mediocrity. Remember: this is the same Ned Yost who managed himself out of a job with twelve games to play in 2008 and watched his bench coach Sveum finish with a trip to the postseason. Don’t be terribly shocked if Sandberg might be among those in the Royals’ sights.

Will the Blizzard of Ozz freeze himself out of Florida?

Miami Marlins—Their winter 2011-12 spending spree, and their prying Ozzie Guillen out of Chicago, have both blown up in their faces. Guillen’s fresh rant that practically implied his injured players were really quitters probably didn’t do him any huge favours, either. If the Fish—whose upper management isn’t exactly famous for deep thinking—decide to stuff and mount the Blizzard of Ozz, don’t be surprised if Sandberg turns up on a candidate list at least.

New York Mets—As late as a fortnight ago I assumed Terry Collins was safe. If I were making the call I’d keep him that way—he’s Bobby Valentine without the divide-and-conquer, no-secret’s-safe style. But the whisperings have actually begun that he may not be as safe as many think, even though it’s hardly his fault that the Mets couldn’t (and haven’t) lived up to their first-half results. They might be—would be—foolish to execute Collins over their second-half deflation, since he actually has done his best with what he’s had to work with. But if they do, Sandberg could be on their to-do list.

Farrell—please come to Boston?

Toronto Blue Jays—The Jays have been battered by injuries in 2012, a season in which some thought they could contend for a wild card spot at least. ESPN says the Red Sox actually thought of making a play for Farrell after 2011 until the Blue Jays pulled him back, but that was then and this could be now. Analyst Buster Olney has told The Mike and Mike Show he thinks the Jays will ask Farrell at season’s end (he, too, is signed through the end of 2013) if he wants to stay and, if the answer’s no, pull the trigger on a swap with the Sox. The likely trade: Farrell for pitcher Daniel Bard, or so the incessant speculation would have it.

If the Jays discover Farrell might want out and they make the Red Sox deal, don’t be surprised if Sandberg turns up among their candidates.

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