PHILADELPHIA – Hours before first pitch, light rain fell on South Philly, where Ryne Sandberg helped pick up the balls during early batting practice. He walked in from the outfield to hit extra grounders to infielders before carrying two bags into an equipment room off the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park.
Sandberg could be doing anything else, signing autographs, being an ambassador, popping up on TV or simply enjoying the Hall of Fame lifestyle. Anyone who questioned whether the Cubs icon would really make the commitment to coaching, well, here’s the answer.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Sandberg said. “It’s what I like to do.”
In an alternate universe, maybe Sandberg would have been managing the Cubs on Tuesday night, trying to figure out what happened to Edwin Jackson (seven runs, five innings) in a 9-8 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, wasting homers from Donnie Murphy (first) and Anthony Rizzo (18th) and a late rally against closer Jonathan Papelbon.
Dressed in white and bright red, the Phillies third-base coach didn’t have a “C” on his chest, and he’s disconnected from the organization that paved his way to Cooperstown.
Passed over by former general manager Jim Hendry when Lou Piniella stepped down near the end of the 2010 season, and again when Mike Quade used that 24-13 finish as a springboard to keep the job, Sandberg is still waiting for his chance.
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As soon as Theo Epstein fired Quade in the fall of 2011, the new team president specifically laid out criteria that eliminated Sandberg – experience coaching or managing in the majors – and wound up selecting Dale Sveum.
“I had a fair shake,” Sandberg said. “They gave me a job for four years to lead me down the path of where I am today in the big leagues. There’s no unfairness in baseball. I’ve been around long enough to know that things aren’t handed to anybody, whether you’re a player, whether you’re a batboy or a clubhouse guy.
“What I wanted to do after going to the Hall of Fame in 2005 was to get back into the game of baseball full-time. The Cubs gave me that opportunity and I was able to do it up to Triple-A. There’s no substituting that experience that I gained in the four years.”
Starting in 2007, Sandberg rode the buses and moved from Class-A Peoria to Double-A Tennessee to Triple-A Iowa, stopping short of Wrigley Field. He tutored future Gold Glove second baseman Darwin Barney and managed players like Jeff Samardzija, James Russell and Welington Castillo, but didn’t blow away either regime.
“Quade was the guy for the job,” Sandberg said. “Players can’t dictate where they go. People can’t dictate what you do in baseball. That’s baseball. I’ve been around long enough to know that. No regrets at all.”
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. He spent two seasons with Triple-A Lehigh Valley, becoming Baseball America’s minor league manager of the year in 2011 before earning the promotion.
Philadelphia insiders view Sandberg as the heir apparent to Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who’s 69 years old and in the final season of his contract.
What kind of job would this be?
The core of that 2008 World Series team is aging fast. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are both 34 years old. Ryan Howard (knee) and Roy Halladay (shoulder) are on the disabled list. A 257-game sellout streak ended here last August. The Philly fans were booing Papelbon in the ninth inning on Tuesday night, watching a four-run lead almost disappear.
“You never know about managing at the big-league level,” Sandberg said. “But getting to the big leagues – that was a goal of mine – and there’s no other guarantees that come with anything.”
As for Epstein’s rebuilding project and the parallels some have seen with Dallas Green’s culture change at Wrigley Field in the 1980s, well, Sandberg said: “I haven’t paid attention.” There’s still work to do in South Philly.
“I feel good about where I’m at,” Sandberg said. “(This) was the next step after being in the minor leagues. I’m experiencing that. Like I said before, there’s no guarantees in baseball for anything. But I like what I’m doing. I’m going to focus on that. I’m going to focus on what I’m doing right now, as opposed to the future.”
That won’t stop Cubs fans and the Chicago media from wondering what might have been.