Sandberg waits for the call to the majors
Ryne Sandberg is back where he started in Philadelphia.
Ryno is hoping to be more than a September call-up this time.
Before he became a Hall of Fame second baseman with the Chicago Cubs, Sandberg was a rookie for the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, trying to earn a roster spot as a utility infielder.
His first at-bat in 1981 against Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Kent Tekulve showed little of his future All-Star form.
Sandberg took strike one on the outside corner against the submarine-style right-hander. Tekulve froze him on the inside corner for strike two.
''Then he dropped down and threw a breaking pitch on the outside corner,'' Sandberg said, smiling. ''I took three strikes and went back and sat down. One-two-three. Welcome to the big leagues. But I remember that September call-up really well.''
Sandberg singled against Chicago's Mike Krukow on Sept. 27 for the first of his 2,386 career hits.
That hit was his only one in 13 games with the Phillies.
Sandberg would be traded to the Cubs in January 1982 in perhaps the most lopsided deal in Phillies history. He was sent to Chicago with shortstop Larry Bowa for light-hitting Ivan DeJesus. Sandberg won the 1984 NL MVP, made 10 All-Star teams and was enshrined in Cooperstown in 2005.
Thirty one years later, Sandberg returns wearing his familiar No. 23, hoping another September promotion turns into a permanent spot in the majors.
Sandberg is spending this month on manager Charlie Manuel's coaching staff after leading the Triple-A Lehigh Iron Pigs to a 75-68 record.
He just finished his sixth season as a minor league manager, his second with the Iron Pigs after four years in the Cubs' organization, and is aiming for a 2013 spot on a major league staff.
Sandberg interviewed with the St. Louis Cardinals last winter and was rebuffed by the Cubs. There's a chance he could land on Manuel's staff next season if he isn't hired to manage another team. If not, Sandberg would return to the grueling bus rides and shuffled rosters in the minors.
''I hope one day to be in the major leagues one way or the other,'' Sandberg said Sunday before the Phillies played a doubleheader against Colorado. ''I think this has been the right route for me, starting from the bottom in A ball and working my way up. There's no replacing that. Without that, I would agree there's no chance to get to the major leagues for me. That's the ultimate thing, to get back to the major leagues in some capacity.''
Sandberg gave up his college football career after the Phillies made him their 20th-round draft pick in 1978.
His connections to the franchise run deep. The father of Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was Sandberg's infield mentor in the minors. Dallas Green, an adviser for the Phillies, was Chicago's general manager in 1982 and traded for Sandberg.
Sandberg said it feels like home to be back with the Phillies.
The 52-year-old Sandberg remains grateful the organization that once gave him away took him back after the Cubs passed him over in 2010.
''I'm a Triple-A manager right now and that's the way I look at it,'' Sandberg said. ''I'd like to get to the major leagues, but that's for baseball to determine that and I understand that. I pretty much stay focused on what I'm doing right now and what my job is, what my role is with the organization. I'm very comfortable with that.''
Sandberg's love for managing was fueled by his stint as a roving instructor with the Cubs after he retired in 1997.
''It's more than managing the game, it's wearing a lot of different hats as a coach,'' he said. ''It's helping in all different parts of the game, it's organizing the day. It's doing the team things to keep the team concept going. I like it all, really.''
Sandberg assists Manuel, who is signed through 2013, in all parts of the game, mostly as an extra arm in batting practice.
In the minors, Sandberg always refused when his players egged him on to take some batting practice cuts.
''It's not what I'm doing,'' he said, smiling.
He would, however, share stories about facing aces like Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and Fernando Valenzuela, or what it was like to play with Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith in All-Star games.
With the Phillies scuffling under .500 after winning five straight NL East titles, they regularly dipped into Triple-A to fill roster spots. Sandberg said he managed 60 players with the Iron Pigs this season. He managed prospects like Sunday's Game 2 starter Tyler Cloyd, the organization's pitcher of the year, to veterans like Erik Kratz and Kevin Frandsen looking for an overdue shot in the big leagues.
''That was the challenging part of the job,'' Sandberg said. ''But to be up here now for the second year, and know a lot of the players, it feels good. We loved to watch our guys perform and too see what they did and how they helped out.''