An extremely difficult breakup
Beloved in Chicago, Ryne Sandberg had to go elsewhere and moving on isn't that easy
As divorces go, the one between Ryne Sandberg and the Chicago Cubs was the result of irreconcilable differences. It was quick, but it wasn't painless.
Sandberg, the Hall of Famer whose retired jersey number flaps from the right-field flagpole at Wrigley Field, wanted to manage the Cubs. But the Cubs fell in love with someone else in September -- Mike Quade, well-respected among seamheads, but a relative unknown outside of Wrigleyville.
Quade got full custody of the Cubs' job and Sandberg, who was one of three finalists interviewed by owner Tom Ricketts, got a cooler of ice water thrown on his dreams of managing a big league team. So rather than return for a second season as the Cubs' Triple-A manager (and fifth season in the organization's minor league system), Sandberg accepted a similar position with the Philadelphia Phillies' Lehigh Valley (Pa.) Triple-A team.
From Iowa Cub to IronPig, where Sandberg's team now leads its division in the International League and is 11 games over .500 (the franchise had never spent a single day above .500 in its previous three seasons of existence), life is good.
"Up to this point it's nothing but positives,'' Sandberg said in a phone interview from the team's ballpark in Allentown, Pa. "It's just a very good working relationship. Tremendous communication as an organization. Everybody's in it for the same thing and everybody feels part of it."
It's up to you to decide if Sandberg was suggesting his relationship with the Cubs lacked some of those Phillies feel-good features. But according to Sandberg, there was no reason to remain with the Cubs after Quade's hiring.
"I want to do this at the major league level, from a coaching standpoint or a managerial standpoint,'' Sandberg said. "Obviously that did not happen at Chicago. People in the minor leagues are trying to get to the major leagues. I felt like I didn't have the opportunity to go to the major leagues [with the Cubs]. To answer your question, I felt like it was necessary to leave the organization.''
This is no small admission because Sandberg is no small presence in Chicago. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005, the same year his jersey number was retired by the Cubs. In the often wretched, tear-stained history of the Cubs, Sandberg was a baseball safehouse: fourth in career games played, at-bats, hits and stolen bases, third in runs scored, fifth in home runs and total bases, seventh in runs batted in.
I was at Wrigley on Friday and again on Sunday. Sandberg jerseys still dot what's left of the dwindling Cubs crowds. Makes sense: he spent 15 of his 16 big league seasons in a Cubs uniform and another four seasons as a manager for the franchise's Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A teams (he was the Pacific Coast League's manager of the year in 2010).
Sandberg was a finalist for the Cubs opening created by Lou Piniella's overdue departure. But within the Cubs' executive offices, Sandberg's candidacy lagged far behind that of Quade's, and to a lesser extent, behind that of Eric Wedge's pursuit of the job.
Nor was Sandberg given serious consideration by the Cubs to join Quade's big league staff. It would have been a strange, awkward and unfair dynamic -- a point acknowledged by both Sandberg and the Cubs.
The Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates and Toronto Blue Jays all kicked the tires on Sandberg when they were compiling a list of potential managerial replacements. But none of the three teams formally interviewed Sandberg -- and Sandberg said he never knew they called.
"I contacted the Cubs,'' Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said by phone Sunday. "I was told by [Cubs GM] Jim Hendry that I could have permission to speak to anybody in his organization. The employees I specifically asked about, he was effusive in his praise.''
Anthopoulos declined to name names, but one of those employees was Sandberg. And shortly after Quade's transition from interim to full-time manager, Sandberg became an ex-Cubs employee.
Ask Sandberg, who managed more than a few players who have reached the big league roster, if he takes a special interest in Cubs box scores and you get a semi-terse, "I follow all of baseball.''
There's a difference between moving forward and forgetting. Sandberg has moved forward (or at least laterally) to the Phillies' organization (the same organization that drafted him in the 20th round and 511th pick of the 1978 June amateur draft). He sounds happy. Even content.
"Oh, yeah,'' Sandberg said. "Very comfortable. More comfortable in my own skin than as a player, that's for sure. I enjoy coming to the ballpark. I enjoy watching these guys play. I enjoy competing myself. Coaching third base. Putting on plays and having fun with it. I appreciate the game more and understand the game more, all parts of it. And I think maturity has something to do with.
"Being in the situation I was in [as a player], being on losing teams other than two years, that took a toll on me. I was looked at as one of the guys, always [expected to] be the guy to win the game. All that pressure, going to the ballpark, I think that weighed on me.''
This is different. Sandberg is different from when he played his final game on Sept. 28, 1997. He is more vocal. More self-assured.
But Sandberg hasn't forgotten that feeling of disappointment and, sure, perhaps anger, when the Cubs chose Quade over him. It's one of the reasons he left.
"I'm in the minor leagues all over again,'' said Sandberg. "How do I want to put it: I look at myself as a minor league manager trying to get to the big leagues as a coach or manager.''
The irony? In mid-June the IronPigs will visit and tour the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
It shouldn't be too hard for his players to spot Sandberg's bronze plaque on the Hall's oak walls.
He'll be the one wearing the Cubs hat.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.