Ryne Sandberg’s new life in baseball

Last week, the still-formidable Chicago Tribune published a column calling for Ryne Sandberg to come home and manage the Chicago Cubs.

But Sandberg, the Hall of Famer who was spurned last year when the job was open, isn’t home. He’s 703 miles due east, inside a depressing concrete doughnut of a minor-league stadium cut into the rocky hills of northeastern Pennsylvania.

And with a call for a Ryno return lingering, so, it turns out, am I.

I wait near the dugout, where a door leads to a maze of dank, dirty hallways with puddles and broken bats, ready to ask if Sandberg still wants to return to the Cubs, what he’s called his “dream job.” The sweat-drenched manager of the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs throws batting practice as yet another question about his Cubs past — and perhaps his Cubs future — hangs a shadow over his present.

But when batting practice ends before the doubleheader on the road, Sandberg follows a group of IronPigs into the stands, away from me, toward a clubhouse entrance I didn’t know about. Sandberg walks briskly up 33 steps. Spikes click on concrete.

I chase him, 10 steps behind. The Hall of Famer opens the clubhouse door, whatever answers he might have about to disappear inside.

“Ryno!” I shout.

He turns. There he is, one of the greatest second-basemen in history. I ask about the Tribune column. Would he want the Cubs job after last year’s insult? Should the Cubs fire first-year manager Mike Quade? Is it finally Sandberg’s time?

Sandberg looks exasperated. As a player he could just shrug it off, but as a manager he’s the voice of the team.

“I haven’t read the article,” Sandberg dodges. “I don’t know what it says.”

You know what it says, Ryno. It’s the same Cubs-fan crescendo that’s been building since 2007 when you started over in Single-A: that you return to Wrigley. Now it’s a plea for the Cubs to make things right.

“I haven’t seen it,” he repeats. “I don’t know what I’m commenting on.”

It’s what you expect Sandberg to say, but not what you hope he’d say. You hope his eyes would light up, he’d repeat it’s his dream job, he’d slice open his wrists and prove he still bleeds Cubbie blue.

But that’s not Sandberg. He’s old-school, a Hall of Famer whose induction speech used the word “respect” 20 times, an all-time great who told me his unique solution for dealing with the steroid era in Cooperstown.

Maybe he’s moved on. Or maybe his heart still yearns for Wrigley. Ryno won’t tell.

And so the former big leaguer who should be a future big leaguer walks into the cramped, smelly minor-league clubhouse. The big metal door closes behind him. Perhaps the words on the door say more about the mind of this enigmatic man than anything Sandberg is willing to say himself: “POSITIVELY NO ADMITTANCE.”

 


 

The Hall of Famer leans against the dugout fence on a recent evening in Allentown, Pa.

Nobody cares about the final score between the Lehigh Valley IronPigs and the Buffalo Bisons. The reason these teams exist is not to win. They’re here to groom players for the big leagues. But as Ryne Sandberg watches the runs pile up against his team, the man who traded his Hall-of-Fame life for the grind of the minor leagues does not look happy.

What Sandberg does look is utterly ridiculous.

That’s because this night is, of all things, Halloween Night in July at the home of the IronPigs. Their jerseys tonight are black with a white skeleton plastered on front and back.

As Sandberg watches the fifth inning unravel, you can see bones outlined on his jersey: pelvis, humerus, spine. A rib cage covers his torso, which Sandberg sweeps his hand across when he gives signs as third-base coach. The man whose Hall-of-Fame speech focused on respecting the game has turned into a billboard for a minor-league promotion.

The sight of Ryne Sandberg, his gray hair barely covering the top of his balding head, wearing a children’s Halloween costume is nearly as surreal as the sight of Ryne Sandberg in anything other than Cubs’ pinstripes.

And so it should come as no surprise that, in this working-class city of battered row houses and an identity centered on what it once was, the Hall of Famer sometimes forgets he’s in the Hall of Fame.

How could he not? All around him are signs that this is not where he wants to be: The grounds crew’s choreographed dances, or the between-inning circus acts that excite fans more than the game itself. The night before, two monkeys were saddled to two border collies and chased a flock of sheep around the diamond. The biggest applause of the game was a toss-up between a dog peeing in the outfield and the sheep disappearing into the visitors’ clubhouse.

These minor-league indignities, Sandberg insists, are part of the fun. He’s changed in his second go-round in the minors. He’s looser, more comfortable in his own skin. The shy player has morphed into an intense manager who, each of the four times he’s been ejected this season, has turned to the umpire and thrown him out of the game, too.

But these indignities are also distractions, and right now, Sandberg is focused on the game. He relays signals to his catcher. Ball one. Ball two. He spits out a sunflower seed. He cups his hands and yells to his pitcher, who has played 25 big-league games compared with 2,164 for Sandberg.

The next pitch is lifted to left, just over the outfielder’s head. Two runs score. Then another. And another. Sandberg gets on the bullpen phone. Moments later, a 32-year-old who has pitched in 477 big-league games gets up to throw.

Part of minor-league baseball is being defined more by your big-league potential — or your major-league past — than anything you do on the field tonight. The same can be said for Sandberg, stuck between a Hall-of-Fame history and an uncertain future.

The IronPigs pitcher records the third out and trudges to the dugout. Sandberg claps his hands. He scribbles on the lineup card and pops on a batting helmet. Two go-karts race around the field, another minor-league stunt. A cloud of dust drifts into the dugout.

There’s a spring in Sandberg’s step as he jogs to his spot as third-base coach. He looks to his batter, smacks his fists together and claps his hands. No time to dwell on the past. The IronPigs are down five, and Ryne Sandberg, the Hall-of-Famer-turned-bush-leaguer, has a game to manage.

 


 

Earlier that same day, five miles down the road in Bethlehem, Pa., Ryne Sandberg holds the door open for his wife, Margaret, at Billy’s Downtown Diner.

The Hall of Famer waits in line. He’s wearing a green polo and plaid shorts, leather loafers and Ralph Lauren sunglasses. He orders coffee and orange juice.

He’s here, in part, because the Cubs said no and the Phillies said yes, and so he takes a sip of coffee at this breakfast joint two doors down from the Major League Barbershop.

No one stares at the Hall of Famer at the next table. No one interrupts. He’s treated no different than one of his IronPig pitchers, sitting by himself on a swivel chair nearby.

Some 700 miles away, in a city where restaurant meals always come with autograph requests, Cubs fans should wonder what’s going on inside the brain of one of baseball’s most notorious introverts. In his early years, teammates nicknamed him “Gabby,” a nod toward Ryno’s reticence. And former Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe said he rode to the ballpark with Sandberg for seven years, and Sandberg hardly said a word.

Yes, he has come out of his shell. But one of the six Cubs whose numbers the team has retired is now a Phillie, and from the sound of it, Sandberg’s loyalty is now directed toward his new team, his Cubbie bloodlines a casualty of last year’s insult.

When Sandberg in 2006 accepted a humbling post as manager of the Peoria Chiefs, a single-A affiliate for the Cubs, there was one goal: to manage at Wrigley Field. That’s how Sandberg’s baseball journey got thrown in reverse, from the hallowed grounds of Cooperstown to the grueling bus rides of low-A minor leagues.

“I was kind of dreading it, to tell you the truth,” says Margaret, who married Sandberg in 1995 after each went through a divorce. “(But) that was one of our best seasons. I loved it.”

“It really was throwing ourselves out there in the water a little bit, not knowing what to expect,” Sandberg adds, stabbing into his eggs Benedict. “It’s scary, if you’re a failure… It coulda lasted one year and it wasn’t for me. Coulda stunk at it.”

He didn’t. Sandberg’s obsessive attention to detail — the pens on his desk face the same direction, crooked picture frames in his house are immediately straightened — made managing a good fit. Sure, there was a learning curve. He learned to coach third base. He learned to work with pitchers. And the man ejected only once as a player learned getting tossed can be a good thing, a way to excite fans and motivate his team.

The first time Margaret saw him get ejected, she was terrified. The guy she’d never heard say a swear word was throwing his hat, kicking dirt, getting in the face of another grown man.

“It’s true!” she says, teasingly grabbing his chin. “You have to go to anger management.”

The Hall of Famer clawed his way back through the minors, an aggressive manager who shuffled lineups and called hit-and-runs. Baseball men believed he was on the verge of the majors, and Sandberg mused about how cool it would be for his four young grandsons to see him on a big-league field.

Then the time came.

On a Sunday in October, Sandberg turned to his wife: “I’m not going to get the Cubs job.” He felt it in his gut. When he went through interviews with Cubs general manager Jim Hendry and owner Tom Ricketts, Sandberg thought things never felt quite right.

Two days later the Cubs picked Quade, citing his 24-13 record as the Cubs interim manager as the reason why the team chose the man who’d managed in the minors for 17 years over the Cub legend. It’s a decision that angered Cub fans, and a one that’s been revisited plenty this year as the Cubs have struggled more than usual and baseball analysts have questioned the team’s faith in Quade. There’s been plenty of speculation as to why Sandberg wasn’t chosen. Perhaps because Quade was popular with the players. Perhaps because Sandberg would have been a better fit with a younger team instead of the Cubs odd mix of youth and high-priced veterans.

The theory with the most traction is even more simple: Mike Quade was part of Hendry’s inner circle, and Sandberg was not.

“I just don’t think Ryne Sandberg was a Jim Hendry guy,” said Barry Rozner, a sports columnist with the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago and the ghostwriter of Sandberg’s autobiography. “Every GM has his guys. Jim Hendry’s not alone. I just don’t believe that in his mind Jim Hendry ever really thought he was going to hire Ryne Sandberg. Now Jim Hendry will tell you that I’m wrong, that that’s not true, that he absolutely considered him and promoted him through the system and gave him a fair chance.”

Hendry, however, would not comment for this article.

Some baseball insiders wonder if Sandberg taking over a bad baseball team would have been a black mark on his unblemished reputation as a manager. Not hiring him was a blessing in disguise, that theory goes, keeping intact his future prospects for managing a big-league team.

Sandberg didn’t even try to guess why he wasn’t hired. It’s baseball, he thought. Things happen in baseball. There’s only 30 big-league managing spots, a handful or so opening up any given year.

The day after the Cubs hired Quade, the Phillies called about their Triple-A managing position with a possibility of moving up. Similar calls followed from the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox.

And so he’s back with the organization that drafted him at 18 only to trade him to the Cubs after six big-league at-bats. Life has come full circle.

Every once in a while this season, between signing Cubs jerseys and Cubs baseball cards, a fan hands him a photograph, and Sandberg does a double-take.

It’s a photo from his September call-up in 1981. The 21-year-old looks fresh-faced and shaggy-haired, younger than most of his current players, and wearing the Phillies jersey all his Lehigh Valley IronPigs aspire to.

The past, it seems, is the present.

 


 

Walk into Wrigley Field on the corner of Clark and Addison and taste the history: It’s in the ivy, in Chicago dogs, in the fans’ yearning for a World Series ring even as 102 years without one becomes 103.

You sense that history from Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, when you ask him where Sandberg could get a big-league job: “With the Cubs! He loves the Cubs! … His personality fits managing more than most of them I’ve seen.”

You sense that history, too, from Tom Trebelhorn, one of Sandberg’s 12 Cub managers: “He was always bigger than life. There is something there, this fella, like a Cal Ripken. You sit in the stands and watch them play, you say, ‘That’s a good-looking player.’ … Certain people have it, you know, and he always had it.”

You certainly sense it in the anger of former Cub broadcaster Steve Stone: “When the tale is finally told and the story is finally written and Ryne Sandberg wins a World Series … one of the major mistakes (the Cubs) made was allowing Ryne Sandberg to leave the organization.”

You feel it, between stories of Sandberg lighting teammates’ shoelaces on fire and Sandberg’s hatred of catching pop-ups, from Mark Grace, his longtime teammate: “For my money he was the only candidate, and yet they didn’t give it to them. He’da been the perfect PR guy. He’s adored in Chicago. He is Walter Payton. He is Michael Jordan. He is Mike Ditka. He’s one of those beloved, beloved Cubs.”

You sense it from Sutcliffe when he talks about Sandberg as a teacher: “One thing that really shocked me about Ryno, and I’ve never seen it with anybody else: How many Hall of Famers are great teachers, or take the time to want to learn to teach?”

You sense it with John Thorne, Major League Baseball’s official historian, as he talks about why Hall of Famers like Ty Cobb, Mike Schmidt and Gary Carter couldn’t cut it as a manager: “If an opera conductor happened to be great bassoonist in his day, it doesn’t mean much.”

And you see it 742 miles from Wrigley, on a Sunday morning before the IronPigs play an evening game, when Ryne Sandberg walks down the red-brick sidewalks of Bethlehem, Pa., listening to a tour guide. The man so loves history that, in rare downtime, Sandberg tours this pre-colonial town’s historic sites with Margaret and two out-of-town houseguests, a gay couple they’re friends with from Arizona.

Sandberg loves to close his eyes and imagine himself in a distant time. He did that in Rome, where he thought the Colosseum looked a lot like old Busch Stadium in St. Louis. And he does this on the streets of Bethlehem, where Babe Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson played during World War I.

Sandberg’s hand rests on his wife’s back as they walk through an old cemetery. Sandberg makes sure he doesn’t step on the tombstones. He doesn’t want to hurt the history.

 


 

Finally, mercifully, to the great relief of anyone who respects the sanctity of the game, Halloween Night is over in Allentown, and the skeleton jerseys will be retired to the forgettable dustbin of Triple-A history. The IronPigs lost, 7-1, never overcoming that fifth inning.

Sandberg peels off his jersey, signs the back and hands it to a fan. He poses for a couple photographs then heads to the clubhouse. A sign on his office door reads, “BOSS HOG.”

A player comes in for a meeting with the manager, and the door shuts. Two beat writers speculate. Trade? Demotion? A talking-to about getting his average up and his strikeouts down?

The player leaves. The writers ask about the closed-door meeting. Sandberg doesn’t say. That’s not how things are done.

By now, it’s late. Sandberg removes his Reebok sandals, showers then dresses. A clubhouse guy takes out the trash.

Sandberg walks past a laundry room where uniforms are already on spin cycle. Boxes of bats lean against the wall, ready for the road trip that starts tomorrow against the Yankees’ Triple-A team.

Sandberg heads down the lonely hallway to the parking lot. Near an elevator are the colorful logos of the International League: Toledo Mud Hens, Durham Bulls, Louisville Bats. Sandberg’s team is still in first place.

He walks to his car, 40 feet from the stadium. It’s dark, and tomorrow begins an 11-game road trip: to the old coal-mining town of Scranton, then an overnight, nine-hour bus ride to Durham, N.C., then a four-hour bus ride to Norfolk, Va., then seven hours back to Allentown. Sandberg will ride in the front of the bus, a major-league legend leading a minor-league team.

 


 

Sandberg is more unorthodox than you’d expect. You wouldn’t expect old teammates like Sutcliffe and Grace to finger the quiet Sandberg as the perpetrator of so many clubhouse pranks. And you wouldn’t expect his answer to how Cooperstown should treat the steroid era to be so honest, so outside-the-box, and so true.

History is still on the Hall of Famer’s mind when, the day of the historical tour, he sits alone in the dugout and talks about the sanctity of the game.

Sandberg retired in 1997. The next year, baseballs started flying out of the yard like never before. Sammy Sosa hit 66 homers, Mark McGwire 70. Baseball became a cartoon sport dominated by suspected steroid users — Manny Ramirez and Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds — and the sport became hard for Sandberg to watch, even as the rest of us rooted for another home run.

“The balls were traveling to new destinations at stadiums that I’d played in,” he says. “I’d just been out of the game one year. What changed?”

The game changed. The baseball nuances Sandberg loved were gone.

“It wasn’t doing the little things and bunting or sacrificing in an at-bat for a teammate,” Sandberg says. “It It was everyone going up there to swing for the fences, because the home runs were what would get them on ‘SportsCenter.’ That really changed the mindset of the players.”

But the game, Sandberg believes, is coming back. Defense matters. Drug testing is stringent. And baseball history is coming to terms with the steroid era.

Which brings us to 2013, when Bonds, baseball’s home-run king, and Clemens, the best pitcher in recent times, will appear for the first time on the Hall-of-Fame ballot.

Would Sandberg vote for them?

“Tainted numbers, I believe, do not belong in the Hall of Fame,” Sandberg says. “I might be in favor of having a section for the players that were outstanding during those years, because it was part of the game. There was playoffs played, there were World Series won, there was championships won. I don’t think you can totally discard that. But I think there’s a section that needs to recognize those players.”

In Sandberg’s Hall-of-Fame speech, he lamented how the game had changed: “I played the game the way it was supposed to be played,” he said.

Now Sandberg has a plan for those who violated the sanctity of the game. It’s vintage Ryno, a simple solution to a complicated problem of baseball history. A player’s statistics ballooned during those years? You don’t need a positive steroid test. You just need common sense.

“I could see them being recognized in the Hall of Fame, but I guess a separate exhibit, recognizing the years and the numbers that were put up,” Sandberg says. “But I wouldn’t put their plaque on the wall.”

That’s right: Ryne Sandberg, the guy whose career defined how to play the game the right way, believes the Hall should segregate stars who dirtied the game with steroid use.

Sitting in the minor-league dugout, watching his players strive to get to the big leagues, it’s clear Sandberg feels the same as when he gave that Hall-of-Fame speech. Integrity means as much as any statistic. If a player cops to experimenting with steroids, apologizes, says it won’t happen again, acts like a man, that’s a consideration in Sandberg’s book. But the players whose Hall-worthy statistics were bookended by the steroid era?

No, Sandberg says. They don’t belong.

Sandberg stands up, grabs his fungo bat and walks onto the field. He throws fluttering knuckleballs to his hitting coach. He pitches fastball after fastball in batting practice. He looks like the big-league manager he should be.

And then, as the Hall of Famer coaches fundamentals in a manufacturing city time has forgotten, the thought pops into your head: It’s here, in a minor-league stadium where you’d never expect to discover it, where major-league baseball can relearn the simple joys of the game, and make everything right again.

You can email Reid Forgrave right here.

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