The wave of memories will come flooding back into Ryne Sandberg’s mind at Wrigley Field.
Sandberg will walk down the long, maze-like hallways from the visiting clubhouse into the dugout. He will gaze out to right field, where his retired No. 23 flies from the foul pole. He will look weird in a Phillies uniform to Cubs fans.
Sandberg wanted the Cubs job bad enough that he managed four seasons in their minor-league system, imagining he would one day take over at Clark and Addison. What almost sounded like a dare in 2007 – Sure, go to Class-A Peoria – turned into his passion.
[CSNPhilly: Sandberg's return to Wrigley a chance to 'reflect']
Sandberg has been politically correct, measuring his words after getting rejected by two different front offices. No matter what feelings of estrangement may exist now, there is still a deep connection to the fan base that should give him a standing ovation during Friday’s homecoming. Forget the initial sting, it’s time to try to rip the interim label from his new job.
“My goal was to get back to the major leagues,” Sandberg told reporters this week in New York. “There is no guarantee to have a chance to manage in the major leagues with the number of teams that’s out there. My goal was to get back to the major leagues at some capacity.
“I wanted to play during a championship season, have a chance to get back to the postseason at the major league level and have the chance to win a World Series.”
Sandberg said it’s been maybe four years since the last time he visited Wrigley Field. Former Cubs general manager Jim Hendry passed over Sandberg when Lou Piniella abruptly retired in August 2010 and again when Mike Quade kept the job after a 24-13 finish.
Sandberg returned to the Phillies organization that selected him in the 20th round of the 1978 draft out of North Central High School in Spokane, Wash., becoming Baseball America’s minor league manager of the year in 2011 with Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
A 2011 season where everything went wrong for the Cubs led to sweeping changes at Clark and Addison. New team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer fired Quade that November.
Epstein immediately reached out to Sandberg trying to explain the situation and released a carefully worded statement saying the 52nd Cubs manager “must have managerial or coaching experience at the major-league level,” eliminating Ryno before picking Dale Sveum from a wide pool of candidates.
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Sandberg was the bigfoot when he climbed the ladder to Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa. Some questioned his communication skills. He wasn’t exactly a computer whiz. He may not have been the last guy to leave the clubhouse every night.
But everyone respects how someone who could have spent the rest of his life signing autographs and playing golf in Arizona – Being Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg – instead chose to ride buses through the Southern League and fly commercial across the Pacific Coast League.
“It’s impressive to have those credentials and want to stay in the game and go back to the minor leagues and teach,” Sveum said. “Everybody kind of says we want to do something. (But) until you do it, then (you realize): ‘OK, yeah, I really want to do this.’
“When you get into player development, (it) turns into a 24/7 job. It’s not for everybody. (It could have been): ‘Whoa, this is a little too much time.’”
Perhaps the biggest thing Sandberg has going for him is the 16 years he spent in the big leagues. That’s the currency inside the clubhouse. James Russell, who pitched for Sandberg in the Cubs system, made that point last August, when it was becoming clear that Ryno would be the heir apparent to Charlie Manuel in Philadelphia.
“The game goes on respect,” Russell said. “How can you not respect a guy that gets to sign ‘HOF’ after his name?”
[More: Sveum trying to contain the frustration around Cubs]
Sandberg stayed on message when cornered by two Chicago reporters at Citizens Bank Park before a Cubs-Phillies game on Aug. 6. The third-base coach said he had no regrets and understood nothing is guaranteed.
When asked about Epstein’s rebuilding plan and the parallels to Dallas Green’s culture change in the 1980s, Sandberg said: “I haven’t paid attention.”
Ten days later, the Phillies announced Manuel – who guided the franchise to five first-place finishes and a World Series title in 2008 – had been fired.
The Phillies are a 61-73 team with an aging core and Sandberg is supposed to lead them through their next transition phase.
Wrigley Field is where Sandberg got his first hit in the big leagues as a kid on a Phillies team that included Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt. He borrowed Larry Bowa’s bat to single off Mike Krukow in the second game of a doubleheader on Sept. 21, 1981.
It’s where he put together an MVP season in 1984. It’s where he played in the first game under the lights in 1988. It’s where he earned nine Gold Gloves, an experience that helped him teach Darwin Barney how to play the position.
But interim managers don’t have much time to get sentimental.
“Once the game starts,” Sandberg said, “it will be business and I’ll feel good about it.”