It was eight years and about two weeks ago that Ryne Sandberg sat outside a majestic hotel on a perfect Cooperstown evening, reveling in the hours that followed his National Baseball Hall of Fame induction.
Cigar in hand, beverage on the table and smile on his face, Sandberg was asked a simple question.
“Get back to the big leagues,” he said.
What do you mean?
“How about coaching or managing?” he said.
“I need something to do,” Sandberg said. “I can’t just play golf every day.”
Why not? That sounds perfect.
“I’m as good as I’m going to be,” he said. “I’m not making the Senior Tour.”
It was an unexpected admission from an incredibly competitive person, facing the future without the means to compete and — more important — win.
That’s how Sandberg got to the big leagues as a player, it’s why he made it to the Hall of Fame, and it’s the reason he’s the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies today, named Friday as interim manager.
But there’s nothing all that temporary about it. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. brought Sandberg into the system and had him manage two years at Triple-A, developing players and learning the personnel he would eventually manage in the big leagues.
Before this season, Amaro — who has known Sandberg for decades — made sure Sandberg joined the major league coaching staff as the final part of his preparation to take over the major league managing job.
It wasn’t scheduled to occur until after this season, when manager Charlie Manuel’s contract was due to end, but with the Phillies having a terrible season, this is an opportunity for Sandberg to get his feet wet and for Amaro to see how the blend of achy veterans and young players responds to Sandberg over the final six weeks.
Despite Amaro saying Friday that it’s a chance for Sandberg to prove himself, it’s more about players proving to Amaro that they belong in Philadelphia next season.
So for Sandberg, who has long since left the Cubs behind, his baseball life has come full circle.
He worked his way up through a loaded Phillies’ system as a player, largely ignored because of the many infield prospects that were more highly valued. Shortly after making the big leagues as a September call-up, he was dealt to the Cubs, acquired by former Phillies exec and manager Dallas Green.
After a Hall of Fame playing career, Sandberg rode the buses as a minor league Cubs manager for four years. Then, after being largely ignored by the Cubs, he returned to the Phillies in the same role for two years with an eye toward getting back to the big leagues.
He finally got there this year as a coach, and now he’s a big league manager.
“It’s a big opportunity and I’m proud of that,” Sandberg said at a news conference in Philly Friday. “I was on the buses for six years, very much starting from the bottom and working my way up. I did that as a player and I know how much I appreciated that as a player.
“The struggles I went through as a player were (similar) to what I went through as a manager. There was a lot to learn. I don’t think coaching and managing is for everyone, but I found I took to it right away. I love it. I had success at it, and the six years were very well spent.”
Much like Mike Quade, who got the Cubs job instead of Sandberg on Aug. 22, 2010, and then lasted only through 2011 as manager, Sandberg will have his work cut out for him with a team that has many bad contracts, some struggling veterans and a few kids arriving on the scene.
“My main job will be to remind the players that they are major league players getting paid very well and they have a job to do for the remaining 42 games,” Sandberg said. “It’s meaningful for all us, for me, for the players, for the team and for what happens next year. It’s a great opportunity for all of us.”
When the Cubs were in Philly last week, Sandberg got a chance to see several of the players he managed in the minors who are with the Cubs’ big-league club now, and in only two weeks, Sandberg will be back at Wrigley Field in a big league uniform for the first time since September 1997.
“It’s a big thrill for me to see guys I managed since A-ball playing in the big leagues,” Sandberg said. “Going back (to Chicago) in this seat, it’s gonna be kinda fun.”
Fun until he’s assaulted by the media, which will want to know how he feels about being passed over by the Cubs in favor of managers that aren’t considered local heroes.
“Ancient history,” Sandberg told me a couple weeks ago. “That’s baseball. No one gives you anything in this game. You earn what you get and when it’s your time, then it’s your time. If it’s not, it’s not.
“You learn that when you’re living in a garage in Montana in Class-A. It’s no different now. What happened in Chicago is all over and done with.”
So now Sandberg begins the latest chapter in his baseball life. The only certainty is that he will work hard and insist his players do the same. There’s no guarantee it will work.
But it’s the only formula he knows.
ŸListen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score’s “Hit and Run” show at WSCR 670-AM, and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.