CHICAGO — There are only 30 big-league managing jobs, and everybody agrees that Ryne Sandberg paid his dues and then some to get one.
Right around the time he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as a tribute to his playing career with the Chicago Cubs, Sandberg decided he wanted back in as a big-league manager and he was more than willing to take all the long bus rides and climb through each rung of the minor leagues to do it.
Sandberg, 54, has said often that he wouldn’t have had it any other way. He believes it was the best way to prepare for the job that he now has with the Phillies. Those six seasons in Peoria, Ill., Kodak, Tenn., Des Moines, Iowa, and Allentown no doubt helped Sandberg, especially with his ability to communicate with players, management and even the media.
He’ll be the first to tell you he needed a lot of work in that area and his former teammates are more than willing to confirm and embellish it.
“When did you start talking?” ESPN broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe asked Sandberg before Wednesday’s game against Texas as the Phillies’ manager held his daily press gathering in the visiting dugout at Globe Life Park.
“Look how white your teeth are,” Sutcliffe needled some more. “I didn’t even know you had teeth.”
Sandberg and Sutcliffe played eight seasons together with the Cubs and they’d often drive to Wrigley Field together. According to Sutcliffe, they’d mostly talk about nothing because Sandberg wouldn’t talk.
If you never knew the silent Sandberg, it’s difficult to imagine him being that shy because he seeks out conversations and feedback from just about everyone these days. Communication, however, is only part of a big-league manager’s job and there are some lessons that cannot be learned regardless of how much time you spent in the minor leagues.
Sandberg is just starting to learn them now. Sure, he was around for 42 games after he replaced Charlie Manuel in mid-August last season, but that was really just an extension of his minor-league managing days. The Phillies were depleted by injuries and buried in the standings, allowing Sandberg to experiment and audition without worrying too much about the won-lost column.
He went a respectable 20-22 with that patchwork roster, but the real challenge for the new manager didn’t begin until Monday when he started his first full season in charge. When both the general manager and manager are on record as saying a division title is the goal, then there’s no time for developing or experimenting.
Winning is all that matters, which is never the case in the minor leagues.
Sandberg’s journey got off to a fascinating start with a wild 14-10 win over the Rangers on opening day. The team that struggled to score for most of spring training and didn’t score at all in its final three exhibition games couldn’t stop scoring on opening day.
That should have been the start of a series sweep for Sandberg and the Phillies. They got six gritty innings from A.J. Burnett in his first Phillies start Tuesday and seven sensational innings from Kyle Kendrick Wednesday. Each starter allowed one run and left with a lead. Each starter eventually watched the Rangers celebrate walk-off wins in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Sandberg made a dubious decision in the second game by bringing in rookie Mario Hollands with the score tied at 2. The lefty walked leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo on four pitches, got an out on a sacrifice bunt and walked Prince Fielder before B.J. Rosenberg surrendered a game-ending single to Adrian Beltre.
Instead of burying the kid, Sandberg handed him the ball the next night with a two-run lead and the dangerous top of the Rangers’ order up again. Hollands retired Choo, Elvis Andrus and Fielder in order, leaving the game in the hands of Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth.
The closer, of course, crumbled because initially he couldn’t throw a quality strike and eventually he couldn’t throw a strike at all.
Papelbon blamed a mechanical flaw — “flying open and coming out of my delivery” — and second-guessed Sandberg’s decision to play the infield in with the Phillies still ahead by a run with runners at first and third with one out. The pitcher thought he induced a double-play grounder from Leonys Martin.
Instead, it became a game-tying single. Two walks later, the game was over. Papelbon and his teammates walked slowly off the field and Sandberg was forced to answer questions about the first really important series loss of his managerial career.
“Three good games,” Sandberg said, trying to remain upbeat after such an energy-sapping defeat. “The guys competed for the three games and it could have come out differently. It didn’t this time around. A lot of good stuff (happened) on the offensive side, which was something that was missing in the spring. So that was something good.”
Bright spots on dark days do not shine nearly as much at the big-league level as they do in the minors, even if you’ve become quite adept at talking about them. Winning is the only thing up here and the losses exact a much bigger toll on the man in charge.