I grew up admiring Ryne Sandberg. He was a hard-hitting, smooth-fielding second baseman, and while his hitting statistics look a little wimpy compared to the steroids era, in the 1980s the sight of him in the on-deck circle struck fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers. He went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I’m glad to have had the chance to watch him play. I watched him a lot, because all the Cubs games were on WGN, which was available nationally.
Now Sandberg is the new manager of the Phillies. As a Kansas City Royals fan–bear with me–I have a special perspective on this.
Several years ago, Sandberg went to the Cubs, said he’d like to be a manager some day, and asked if he could manage one of their minor-league teams. They weren’t sure he was serious, but apparently he was. He toiled in A and AA ball, working his way up to AAA more slowly as a manager than he did as a player. But then he stayed at AAA. The Cubs had an opening but decided against going with him, but the Phillies, the team that originally drafted him before trading him to the Cubs for a past-his-prime shortstop named Ivan DeJesus, were willing to let him manage their AAA club and consider him at the major-league level once they had an opening.
After six years managing in the minors and a partial season in the majors as a third base coach, he gets his chance.
Compare that to another Hall of Famer I admire, George Brett. The Royals have approached Brett on multiple occasions about coaching. This year, Brett agreed, and served as the team’s hitting and attitude coach for about six weeks before stepping down. The grind was too much, he said.
That’s the major league grind. Chartered flights. Nice hotels. Big cities. The minor league grind is considerably less glamorous.
Sandberg could have lived the same upscale life that Brett briefly walked away from, but he spent six years riding buses with minor league teams, knowing full well he’d be lucky if once in those six years he managed a single player who possessed the ability he once had. Not only that, if he did find such a player, he wouldn’t have him for long.
I don’t have any way of knowing whether Sandberg will be as good as a manager as he was as a player. Not many Hall of Fame players had much success as managers. It seems men who struggled as players tend to work better with average players than former superstars, generally speaking. For that reason, I suspect it was hard for Chicago to give him a chance because if it didn’t work out, it was going to be really hard to fire him. Sandberg could go 0-162 and firing him would still be difficult because so many Cubs fans remember those two home runs he hit off Bruce Sutter in June of 1984. No, it doesn’t really matter that it happened 29 years ago.
The emotional connection in Philadelphia is different. He’s the one who got away, yes, but if he doesn’t win, the fans will regard him as a bum. This is a city that’s booed Santa Claus and is proud of it, so they won’t get too attached to Ryne Sandberg.
There are no certainties in baseball, but I don’t think Sandberg will be a typical Hall of Famer-turned-manager. Few Hall of Famers are willing to ride a bus for six years. Most of the mediocre players who went on to become good managers had to spend some time riding the same buses and pay their dues. So part of me has to wonder if that’s part of the reason Hall of Famers tend not to make the best managers, and if that’s the case, it puts Sandberg in position to be the exception.
Being able to tell his players that he spent six years in the minors trying to make it back after only spending four years in the minors as a player will give him some credibility that not every manager has.
And you know what? Not every manager is successful in his first stint in the majors. Sometimes it takes two or three rounds to become successful. So who knows. Maybe that Hollywood ending of Ryne Sandberg leading the Cubs to a World Series as a manager could still happen. In baseball, stranger things have.