- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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KODAK, Tenn. -- As you leave Knoxville and head east on Interstate 40, it's only a few miles before you find yourself mired in a world of huge outlet malls and glitzy tourist traps, towns with strange names like Pigeon Forge, Strawberry Plains and Dumplin Valley, and the biggest attraction in these here parts, Dolly Parton's Dollywood amusement park.
I'm not saying there's not a lot to do around here, but one of the highlights of the year will come in mid-July, when several cast members of "The Dukes of Hazzard" -- including Rosco, Cooter, Enos, Cletus and Daisy -- will be featured in the two-day Smoky Mountain Fan Fest.
It also is amid the lush, green mountaintops and valleys that Chicago Cubs great and Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg is back paying his dues in minor league baseball for the second time, 30 years after his first go-round as an aspiring big leaguer.
Only this time, Sandberg is serving a different type of apprenticeship. Instead of learning how to hit a hanging curve or the intricacies of the double shift in the infield, Sandberg is teaching 20-some youngsters many of the same lessons he learned over his 16-year playing career in the major leagues.
He still suits up in his familiar No. 23 jersey, but instead of Ryno, the Cubs' nine-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman, he's Mr. Sandberg -- "Skipper" for short -- otherwise known as manager of the Double-A Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League.
"Baseball is what I know and what I do, and that's what I'm continuing to do," Sandberg said Wednesday afternoon before his team took on one of its biggest rivals, the Huntsville Stars. "I drive to the ballpark every day, can't wait to get there, can't wait to share something with the players, can't wait to see a guy try something that I've suggested in a game and have some success."
It seems like just yesterday, not 12 years ago, that Sandberg's playing career ended. It's even harder to believe that the 49-year-old already is a grandfather for the first time -- with two more on the way by the end of the year.
And even though his hair is both graying and thinning, Sandberg is unquestionably enjoying his third year of minor league managing like a starry-eyed rookie.
"I like where the action is," Sandberg said. "I like being among the players, I like the strategy, I like the game, and there's no better seat to watch the game than right there at the top step of the dugout. I feel like I have the best vantage point for that.
"I'm competing again. Once the game starts, it's about the guys performing well and putting the players in a position to do well and to thrive themselves to have them one day be major league players. That's really something that I want to share. The ultimate thing from this is to have some of these groups of players that I've had over the last three years one day get to the major leagues and enjoy some of those times I had and create some memories of putting on a baseball uniform at a major league level."
Admittedly, things in the minors are a bit different than what Sandberg was used to at Wrigley Field. You don't hear the country staple "Rocky Top" just before the first pitch at Clark and Addison, but you do hear it in the friendly environs at 3540 Line Drive, Kodak, Tenn. You also don't hear Fred Flintstone boom, "Yabba dabba do!" over the public address system at Wrigley -- but you do hear it for every extra-base hit by the Smokies at home.
It's fine with Sandberg. Being in the minors again isn't culture shock; it has unique charm, particularly with the Smokies.
"This is a great spot," Sandberg said of managing in central Tennessee. "There's a nice little tradition here for baseball, there's good fans that come out, we have a beautiful facility, it's a different part of the country that I haven't been in since being in baseball, which makes that unique and interesting for me. The whole league has been good, venturing into Alabama, Mississippi, northern Florida and Carolina. It's a change of scenery for me, a different level, which is a positive thing."
And while winning is still important, minor league ball doesn't have many of the pressures that are inherent with being in the majors.
"It is entertainment; it's not all cut and dry, win or lose," Sandberg said. "It's about the families coming to the game with the kids and enjoying the game regardless and seeing the action and the players, spending a night at the ballpark where it's still affordable. That's what I've noticed in the minor leagues. I have a bigger appreciation for what goes on down here, not only from the baseball side and developing side of it, but also what it brings to the community and a town."
It's ironic that Sandberg is back riding buses between minor league cities and staying in less-than-luxurious accommodations, for he spent much of his playing career saying he had absolutely no interest in managing.
But an eight-year stint as a spring training instructor for former Cub managers Don Baylor and Dusty Baker convinced Sandberg that his destiny was indeed back in the dugout.
"It's been a pleasant surprise," Sandberg said. "Baseball is really what I've done since I was 18 years old and signed on the dotted line to be a professional baseball player and go to the minor leagues and work my way up and then have my major league career."
It was Sandberg's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005 that whetted his appetite to get back into the game. Since his playing days were long past, it was an epiphany that told him his future was atop the dugout steps.
"There was just a reflection in 2005 of going through the Hall of Fame process that just struck me," Sandberg said. "There was just a new appreciation for the game of baseball. I said, 'This is really a fun way to spend your life, to be in front of people, to have people come out to watch the game of baseball, whether we're managing or coaching third or playing. It is a lot of fun.'
"When that new appreciation struck me, I said, 'That's what I do -- I want to get back in and compete and get to a World Series and be amongst the ballplayers and put the uniform back on.' That's what I envision myself doing, all this at the major league level one day."
Seemingly always in the right place at the right time as a player, Sandberg was in the right place when a managerial vacancy occurred before the 2007 season at the Cubs' Class A affiliate in Peoria, Ill.
As a rookie skipper, Sandberg took the team to a 71-68 record, reaching the Midwest League championship game before falling short. Last season, with a team that was short on talent, Sandberg learned about handling adversity, as the Chiefs finished seventh with a 60-78 overall mark.
Despite the mediocre sophomore managerial season, Sandberg impressed enough to earn a promotion to Tennessee, where he's gone from working with raw talent to preparing potential future major leaguers.
"I like the level of ballplayer here," Sandberg said. "For the most part, it's prospects throughout the whole league. It's a good caliber of play, and I remind myself being around these guys and talking to them on a daily basis, they could be a step from the major leagues from this league up. That's the kind of talent we're talking about here, and it's fun being around that every day."
Sandberg and the Smokies have promoted seven players thus far this season to Triple-A Iowa.
"I can't wait to call a player into my office and let him know he's going up to Triple-A," Sandberg said. "That's very fulfilling to me at this stage of what I'm doing.
"If I could have all these players that I have here experience at least one day in the major leagues, that would make this all worthwhile to me. That's kind of why I come out here every day and why, after a ballgame, I drive home and think about what I can bring out to the park the next day and put into the program and help these players hopefully have that chance."
The Smokies are 21-26 after getting swept in a Thursday doubleheader, third in the Southern League's North division. But prior to that, Tennessee had either led or run second in the division for the better part of the season.
Sandberg's demeanor as a manager is much the same as it was during his playing days: laid-back and low key.
"He lets you go about your business," said outfielder Jim Adduci, a native of suburban Evergreen Park, Ill. "All he expects from you is to work hard and play hard. He's a very tough competitor in this game. You see that as a player and you feed off that."
At the same time, Sandberg doesn't take any guff from Southern League umpires or teams that might want to show up a member of baseball's Hall of Fame.
"Obviously, he's a Hall of Famer, so he knows what he's doing," said closer Brian Schlitter from Park Ridge, Ill. "He's an easy guy to play for, he goes out and wants to have fun, but at the same time, he wants to win.
"He knows the importance of it being a long season, knows you're going to get into slumps and just tries to keep the guys motivated, to keep going out there every day and playing the game hard like he did. It's fun. It's easy to play for him."
When first approached about possibly becoming a manager in the Cubs' organization, Sandberg reached out to two of his former managers, Jim Frey and Don Zimmer, to see whether they felt he was managerial material.
"Both said the same thing: The No. 1 rule is to be yourself," Sandberg said. "That right there gave me a vote of confidence that I could be myself and be a good baseball manager. Those two guys played a big part in my career along with many a coach in the minor and major leagues and former teammates.
"There's a lot of influence through all those people with what I'm doing now with my managing and my style and who I am today and who I am as a baseball person. A lot of influential people in my life have kind of all combined into making me who I am in the baseball world, and that's who I am as a manager."
Sandberg's managerial style is as unique as his playing style. He teaches by example and experience, which has helped put his players at ease, rather than remain in awe of playing under one of the greatest players to ever play the game.
"We have a pitchers' meeting before every game," Schlitter said. "Sometimes, he'll come out and say, 'As a baserunner, when I was doing this, I always was paying attention to what the pitcher was doing, certain things.'
"We take that out to the mound, and what he told us, it's in the back of our head, and we're paying attention and that makes us better. Even with certain situations, like during a count with a hitter, certain guys will be looking for this, a guy who hits for average will be looking for certain pitches, and you can use that to your advantage."
Just like he did three decades ago as a minor leaguer, Sandberg affirms that his big goal in this new role is to get promoted to the big show. He feels he could bring a great deal to a team as a major league manager one day.
His players wholeheartedly concur, not because they have to, but because they truly believe in Sandberg and the future that could be in store for him.
An argument could be made that Sandberg is in a training program to become a candidate to replace current Cubs skipper Lou Piniella. Sandberg bristled at the suggestion, saying that while he wants to manage on the major league level, he has no intention of pushing Piniella, who will be 66 later this year, out of the way.
"Sweet Lou has nothing to worry about, he's doing just fine," Sandberg said.
When pressed further, Sandberg admitted he wouldn't mind succeeding Piniella one day -- but only on Piniella's terms.
"Absolutely, once he would decide to step down and retire, yeah," Sandberg said. "If I could make the most of this opportunity and be ready at that point, absolutely."
As you might imagine, having a celebrity like Sandberg in the area has caused quite a stir around central Tennessee. In appreciation of the fans' treatment of him, Sandberg has made it a policy to sign autographs for at least 10 to 15 minutes before every game, home and away. It's his way to show fans throughout the league that he's just an average guy, not someone to be awestruck over due to his achievements as a player.
"You see him around the fans and what he represents to them and to the Chicago Cubs, you do get a little bit awed," Adduci said. "But when that game starts and that first pitch goes, you see him as a manager, as the leader of the team."
But, that autograph policy and fan interaction does cause an irony of sorts, Schlitter said with a laugh.
"It's a little different with all the fans automatically going up for his autograph and the players don't wind up signing as much."
Ryne Sandberg might be in the Hall of Fame, but he's enjoying the minor leagues