Commentary

Ryne Sandberg's baffling wait

Six seasons managing in the minors. How many dues must he pay?

Updated: September 1, 2012, 4:46 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- Ryne Sandberg takes a brief hiatus from his managerial duties each July and heads to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. It's a nice opportunity to play some golf, relive old memories and enjoy the membership privileges of the game's most elite fraternity.

For several years, Sandberg relished the time in upstate New York catching up with Gary Carter, another Hall of Famer who was pursuing the same goal of managing in the big leagues. Sandberg, the quiet, focused guy, and Carter, the chatty extrovert, shared their experiences in the minors, from the rigorous travel to the challenges and rewards of working with young players.

"He seemed to be frustrated with the lack of movement upward with the Mets organization, so he spent some time in independent ball," Sandberg says. "We compared notes, and I know that he was pulling for what I was doing."

Carter, tragically, died of multiple brain tumors in February at age 57, without having reached his objective. For Sandberg, the quest endures -- one inning, one game, one anonymous, perspiration-filled day at a time.

[+] EnlargeRyan Sandberg
Mike Janes/AP PhotoDoesn't matter if it's pregame or after the first pitch, Ryne Sandberg doesn't miss much.

Sandberg, 52, is about to complete his sixth season as a minor league manager -- the first four in the Cubs' organization and the last two with Philadelphia's Triple-A Lehigh Valley club -- and he remains a portrait in tunnel vision. Last year, he led Lehigh Valley to the International League's Governors Cup finals, where the IronPigs fell to Columbus. This year, he continues to earn rave reviews from his players, who say he has done a wonderful job instilling a team concept and getting the most out of his talent. Lord knows, it has been a chore, with a staggering 58 players passing through Coca-Cola Park this summer. All told, Sandberg has five winning seasons and a 438-408 record down on the farm.

"I have no doubt that he can be, should be and will be a big league manager at some point," says Scott Elarton, a 10-year major league veteran who has spent the entire season in the IronPigs rotation.

Don't be surprised if Sandberg joins the big league club in September, as he did last fall. And if the Phillies shake up their coaching staff -- a good bet in light of their hugely disappointing season -- Sandberg is likely to be working under manager Charlie Manuel in Philadelphia in some capacity in 2013.

Phillies senior advisor Dallas Green, the team's scouting director when Philadelphia selected Sandberg in the 20th round of the 1978 draft, worked with former Phillies GM Pat Gillick to help bring Sandberg back to the organization in November 2010. He's perplexed why the Cubs let him get away, but is convinced that Sandberg is destined to achieve big things in a major league dugout.

"I'm scared to death we're gonna lose him ourselves," Green says. "He's in our plans, I will say that."

The obvious question: Why does a Hall of Famer who needed only 456 games of minor league seasoning as a player require 846 games in Peoria, Knoxville, Des Moines and Allentown to prove that he can manage?

No favors expected

Sandberg is, to his very core, a grinder -- without a shred of an iota of a sense of entitlement that 2,386 career hits, a 1984 National League MVP award, 10 All-Star Game appearances and nine Gold Gloves should put him at the front of the line for advancement. In his mind, he's just another clock puncher who is fortunate to be working in baseball and obliged to put in his time.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of guys in my situation in the minor leagues," Sandberg says. "I have peers and managers and coaches I go up against, and we're all in the same boat. If you're in the minor leagues, you want to get to the majors. I don't expect any red carpet to the big leagues. If the opportunity comes, then it comes. But I don't think I'm owed anything."

Sandberg's quest is nevertheless compelling, because it's so rare. Ted Williams is the only man in history to land his first big league managing job after entering the Hall of Fame as a player. Williams went straight to the Washington Senators in 1969 without managing an inning in the minor leagues, and found, to his consternation, that hitting a baseball wasn't nearly as easy for others as it was for him.

[+] EnlargeRyne Sandberg
Mike Janes/Four Seam Images via AP ImagesA sign of his maturation? These days, Sandberg makes himself more available than he did as a player.

Sandberg's task is doubly hard because he now appears to be aiming at a moving target. For years, it has been an article of faith that even great players need a certain level of experience to manage successfully at the big league level. That might be truer than ever in the modern era, as managers throughout the game try to navigate huge payrolls, pitch counts, the scrutiny of Twitter and second-guessing from team executives armed with reams of new-age statistics.

So it was a stunning development when the rules of engagement suddenly changed last fall. In October, the Chicago White Sox hired Robin Ventura as their manager even though he had zero experience at any level. A month later, St. Louis replaced Tony La Russa with Mike Matheny, another managerial novice. The White Sox and Cardinals are in the mix for playoff spots this year, so it's difficult to argue with the two teams' choices. But throughout the game, baseball lifers and foot soldiers had a little more empathy for Sandberg's plight.

"With all due respect to Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura, what message does it send to your Double-A and Triple-A managers and hitting coaches -- guys who aspire to work in the big leagues and put in all those years and sweat equity and time away from their families for $40,000 a year -- when you hire someone with absolutely no experience as your manager?" says a scout.

Sandberg's dogged pursuit of his goal and refusal to grouse about dues-paying 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.

"I will be more ready to manage at the major league level doing what I've done, as compared to six years ago, when I might have been overmatched and not done a good job," Sandberg says. "I knew nothing about managing when I started. I know what I've done has been very, very worthwhile."

So why the wait?

No one can say for sure why Sandberg has spent so much time waiting for a shot. But in baseball circles, four theories have made the rounds to help explain his lengthy minor league apprenticeship.

1. He doesn't interview well

Scouts and front office people occasionally surmise this is the case, but it doesn't appear to have much basis in reality. Sandberg has had only one major league interview -- with St. Louis last winter. The Cardinals hired Matheny. But by all accounts, Sandberg was confident, prepared and up to the task.

[+] EnlargeHarry Caray
AP Photo/Eric RisbergAt spring training in 1996, one Chicago icon (Harry Caray) interviewed another (Sandberg).

"I think he is qualified," St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said in an email. "I think he can interview well, and feel he has a passion for the game. He just was not the fit for us, but I was impressed."

Sandberg interviewed with the Red Sox for their Triple-A Pawtucket job in 2010, but Boston wanted to promote from within and gave the job to Arnie Beyeler. Sandberg probably would have taken the Lehigh Valley gig regardless. And that's the extent of his opportunities. It's not a case of poor interviews as much as very few interviews.

As one AL general manager told ESPN.com, managerial interviews are probably overrated, anyway. Maybe an owner is going to be dazzled by a candidate's glibness over lunch, but baseball operations people who oversee the process are inclined to take a lot more factors into account.

"Most candidates for manager jobs have been on the field all of their lives and not in board rooms," the GM says. "It's understandable that an interview wouldn't be their most comfortable setting. Watching them at work and seeing their performance over time should be a bigger part of the equation."

2. He's too vanilla

This perception is a remnant from his playing days, when Sandberg rarely spoke for public consumption. In hindsight, Sandberg concedes that he was immersed in his own little world in the batter's box and at second base and had no desire to hold court with beat reporters at his locker stall each day.

But even Green, who knows him better than most, wondered if he was assertive enough to oversee 25 players in a clubhouse. Several years ago, during a trip to Cooperstown, Green sought out Cubs great Ferguson Jenkins and others who had watched Sandberg manage in Class A Peoria for their opinions.

"He was very quiet as a player, and that was the only doubt I had," Green says. "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."

That same sense of assertiveness applies off the field as well. When Sandberg gave a thoroughly engrossing Hall of Fame speech in 2005, it was a far cry from the wooden, colorless Ryno who seemed so devoid of personality during his playing days. Sandberg's friends credit the influence of his second wife, Margaret, who helped bring him a new sense of purpose and peace after his highly publicized divorce in 1995.

"I've watched tremendous personal growth in him," says Jim Turner, Sandberg's agent since 1980. "He's far more outgoing. He always had a good sense of humor, but it's more evident and visible to those around him now. His comfort level has dramatically increased since the mid-90s."

3. He isn't great at networking

Sandberg's illustrious career with the Cubs won him countless fans and admirers in Chicago, but also limited his circle of baseball benefactors. Through the years, he had relatively few people in high places lobbying on his behalf.

The same applies to influential opinion-makers in the media. It was telling recently when Peter Gammons, a powerful voice in the industry, posted a list of seven names that should be on any managerial list: It included Tim Wallach, Dave Righetti, Joey Cora, Dave Martinez, Joe McEwing, Gabe Kapler and Brad Ausmus. For baseball writers who found Sandberg to be such a mystery man during his playing days, his name does not instantly spring to mind as a managerial rising star.

4. Cub for life?

For about a quarter-century, the conventional wisdom was that Sandberg would die a Cub. But when Lou Piniella abruptly resigned as Chicago manager in August 2010, the Cubs gave loyal organizational man Mike Quade first crack at the job. When Quade's star faded and the new, Theo Epstein-led regime laid out the qualifications for his replacement, big-league managerial or coaching experience was at the top of the list. The Cubs hired Dale Sveum; and Sandberg, disqualified from consideration, decided to expand his horizons and look for new opportunities beyond Chicago.

[+] EnlargeRyne Sandberg and Margaret Ryan
AP Photo/Jim McKnightSome credit Sandberg's wife, Margaret, for helping bring his personality out. They got a pre-induction tour of the Hall of Fame in April 2005.

"When the Cubs did what they did, I don't think he was pissed as much as hurt," Green says. "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."

Sandberg has found plenty of love in Philadelphia, the place where he began his professional career as an 18-year-old multisport athlete out of Spokane, Wash. If he does, indeed, join the Phillies' coaching staff in 2013, the storyline will inevitably emerge that he's being "groomed" to replace Manuel, who will be entering the final year of his contract. But if Manuel feels threatened by Sandberg's presence, he certainly doesn't show it. He sounds like Sandberg's personal campaign manager.

"When I first met him, I liked everything about him," Manuel says. "I love talking hitting with him, and I like talking the game. He kind of revs me up.

"He's going to 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."

Perpetual motion machine

Talk to people throughout the game, and they'll invariably tell you that Triple-A ball is the most challenging level for a manager. The skill level might be raw in Class A ball, but the kids are usually receptive to instruction. In Double-A, the rosters are stacked with the best prospects. Then there's Triple-A, a melting pot of stalled lifers, fading veterans and prospects who are chafing to make it to the Show.

"Triple-A is a horse[bleep] place to manage," Green says. "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."

The stoic demeanor that some might describe as "blandness" serves Sandberg well in the clubhouse, where his players universally laud him for his consistency.

"There are times when all of us would like to complain about something," Elarton says. "Maybe it's a 10-hour bus ride when you're getting in early in the morning. But when you look and see a Hall of Famer sitting in the front of the bus, it becomes pretty hard to start griping."

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. Margaret, similarly, is on board to help the team's wives, fiancées and girlfriends bond away from the field. Infielder Kevin Frandsen, a former IronPig who's now in Philadelphia, refers to her as "Mama Sandberg."

[+] EnlargeRyne Sandberg
AP Photo/John DunnHe was a Hall of Fame major league player. Isn't it time to find out what kind of a major league manager he'd be?

Players who want to catch Sandberg in his office better do it while he's getting dressed or filling out the lineup card, because that's the only time he's sedentary. Before a recent game, Sandberg arrived in the dugout at 2:30 p.m. for a prearranged interview. Then he threw a round of batting practice. Then he grabbed a fungo bat and hit ground balls from both sides of the batting cage. Then he took a breather and staked out a spot beside the cage to monitor batting practice.

On a given day, Sandberg might tutor young infielder Cesar Hernandez on the art of the double-play pivot, or haul out the Jugs machine with coach Sal Rende and watch outfielders work on their reads and routes. He even goes out to the bullpen at 3 p.m., routinely, to watch pitchers throw their between-starts side sessions.

"I've never seen a manager watch the bullpens," Elarton says. "The first couple of times, I actually felt a little bit of extra pressure. But it's just another sign that he cares. He wants to know what's going on with everyone."

Ask the scouts who watch Sandberg's teams play, and they'll tell you the incessant focus on subtleties pays off in numerous ways.

"I've always thought the best way to judge a manager's effectiveness is, how does his team run the bases?" says a scout. "I've watched his teams in Iowa and Lehigh Valley, and not only do they perform, but they run the bases well. Guys go from first to third. They'll score from first on a double. They're very aggressive, and you can see the attention to detail. His coaches love working with him and the players love playing for him. You can see that."

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.

"He's the most humble Hall of Famer I've ever met in my life," Frandsen says. "It's funny. He remembers how difficult it was as a player, even if it wasn't really difficult for him, if you know what I mean. He truly remembers what it was like to be a player and the struggles that we go through."

When Sandberg landed his first managing gig with the Cubs' Class A Peoria team in 2007, it was a heartwarming nostalgia trip to his formative years in the Phillies organization. He always felt more comfortable with the grunt work than the glory, absorbing advice from Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt, learning his craft from Larry Bowa and Manny Trillo and transforming himself from a talented prospect into a Hall of Famer. Now he's scripting a second act at his own methodical pace, without a trace of bitterness or impatience.

"My Hall of Fame speech was about respect for the game," Sandberg says. "Get your work in. Work hard at it. Give it your best effort. And if you get an opportunity, be ready for it. That's respect for the game."

Sandberg respects the game enough to let baseball determine his new career timetable. There's no question he will make it in the end. It's strictly a matter of when.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer