'Ryno' returns to Wrigley as big league skipper
Hall of Famer made an impact with current Cubs players as Minors manager
CHICAGO -- Nearly eight years to the day after the Cubs retired his No. 23, Ryne Sandberg will finally get a chance to manage at Wrigley Field. He'll be doing so from the visitors' dugout.
Now the interim manager for the Phillies, Sandberg arrives for a three-game series against his former team this weekend.
"I know it's only an 'interim' in front of his name, but I think he's going to do a good job, and hopefully he can hold onto that job," Chicago second baseman Darwin Barney said.
Barney is one of a few current Chicago players whom Sandberg managed in four seasons in the Cubs' Minor League system. Sandberg had hoped to bypass the bus rides and peanut butter sandwiches, and he was interested in taking over the Cubs after Dusty Baker was dismissed. But Jim Hendry, who was the general manager at the time, told Sandberg he needed experience.
Offered the Class A Peoria manager's job, Sandberg took it. And in 2007, he led the Chiefs to the Midwest League championship game. Sandberg spent two seasons in Peoria, then was promoted to Double-A Tennessee, and he moved up the next season to Triple-A Iowa. In 2010, he was named the Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year.
"He never forgot how hard it was to play this game," said Jeff Samardzija, who played for Sandberg at Iowa. "That's a really amazing quality about him that goes unnoticed. He never expected any more than what you could give him, and as long as you were giving him that, he was fine. He was a good guy to talk to about the game. He loved the game, too."
When Lou Piniella announced he would retire in 2010, Sandberg lobbied again for the Cubs' job, but he was bypassed again. Hendry picked Mike Quade. In 2011, both Hendry and Quade were dismissed.
Sandberg was not on Theo Epstein's list either. Epstein took over the Cubs after the 2011 season, and when the team issued a release saying Quade would not return, Sandberg was one of the first people to know. Epstein called Sandberg about 10 minutes after the release was posted to tell the Hall of Famer he would not be considered. Instead, Epstein interviewed three people, and the club hired Dale Sveum.
At the time, Epstein issued a statement saying the Cubs were looking "for someone with whom and around whom we can build a foundation for sustained success." Epstein wanted a manager with "leadership and communication skills; he must place an emphasis on preparation and accountability; he must establish high standards and a winning culture; he must have integrity and an open mind; and he must have managerial or coaching experience at the Major League level."
Sandberg failed on the last item on Epstein's check list.
"[Epstein] didn't owe me that at all," Sandberg said at the time about Epstein's phone call. "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."
Sandberg then left the Cubs organization and returned to the organization where he began his career. He was hired as the Phillies' Triple-A manager and led the team to its first playoff appearance and the International League championship series. Sandberg was on Charlie Manuel's big league staff this year, and he was promoted to interim manager when Manuel was dismissed earlier this month.
To Cubs fans and players, Sandberg was the ultimate professional. A 10-time All-Star, he played 16 seasons with the Cubs (1981-94 and '96-97), winning the National League MVP Award in '84 and nine Gold Gloves. Sandberg was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005.
Sandberg also made quite an impact on the Cubs' players. Samardzija gives Sandberg credit for getting him on track in 2010.
"We pretty much went from ground zero and built everything back up, and I had a really good year," Samardzija said. "I remember being upset because I had a really bad game in Albuquerque, and there were maybe two starts left. It blew [my numbers up]. I remember 'Ryno' talked to me after that and had a good point, saying it's the whole body of work, not one game or two.
"That kind of describes him," Samardzija said. "He's not the most fiery, emotional guy, but he knows the game and he knows how to communicate with players, too."
Actually, Sandberg did show some spark.
"I remember we were in Clinton, and I was sitting in the bullpen with my head turned and someone said, 'Oh look, there he goes,'" Cubs reliever Blake Parker said. "[Sandberg] ran out between second and third, and had a few words with their manager who was going to get the helmet from a guy stranded at second. The benches cleared."
Sandberg was upset that the Clinton team had bunted with a 6-0 lead. The Midwest League slapped him with a three-game suspension.
"The thing that sticks out for me," Parker said, "is how much of a players' manager he was. He always had your back, and you knew that. You knew that if you went to war for him, he'd go for war for you.
"He's so into it," Parker said of Sandberg. "He loves it, and it shows."
Sandberg may not fill a reporter's notebook with quotes, but when he speaks, his players listen.
"Sometimes, that's the best thing, because when they do say something, you listen," Samardzija said. "Someone who is always talking, you tend to just funnel it out. A guy like 'Ryno,' who doesn't say much all the time, when he does have something to say, he's probably been thinking about it for awhile."
Before Minor League games, fans would line up near the dugout, waiting for Sandberg, who would sign autographs, adding the "HOF" to his name.
"He'd sit there by the dugout and there'd be a line all the way up, and he'd be there until either the game started or he got everybody," Parker said. "He always talked about giving back to the fans. He didn't have to [sign autographs], but he'd do it before every game. It just speaks volumes about his character."
Parker joined Sandberg's pitching staff in 2008 at Peoria, and he moved up in the ranks with the Hall of Famer, pitching for Sandberg for three seasons at three levels.
"Going into '08, it was like he'd been a manager his whole career," Parker said. "I felt he was an established manager and he knew what he was doing from the get-go."
Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro also played for Sandberg at Double-A Tennessee, and he appreciated all the time they spent working on infield drills.
"He knows how to treat the players," Castro said. "He did everything. He was pretty awesome."
And Sandberg's No. 23 flag still flies at Wrigley Field.