Commentary

Ryno in waiting

If Lou Piniella doesn't return, is the modern face of the Cubs the ideal replacement?

Updated: July 18, 2010, 10:54 AM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

You almost feel sorry for Ryne Sandberg already.

[+] EnlargeRyne Sandberg
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThough it's been more than a decade since he last took the field, Ryne Sandberg is universally loved by Cubs fans.

A beloved Cubs Hall of Famer managing the Triple-A Iowa Cubs in Des Moines, the good soldier and hero-in-waiting. You just wonder if he realizes it may never be this good again.

Careful what you wish for. Isn't that what they always say? And whether it's Ryno or Joe Girardi or Joe Torre, Cubs fans in a hurry to move out Lou Piniella and get one of them in place as the new Cubs' manager seem certain the next guy will be the answer.

Sandberg, who has been the "next guy" forever, is not going to pretend he's not ready to make the move. When the Baltimore Orioles' job opened, he told the Des Moines Register he would listen if Andy McPhail called.

"I feel more comfortable every year," he said.

It's a Cubs' organizational rule that if the big league team is being televised, every TV in the offices and clubhouse are tuned to the game. Kind of a misery-loves-company kind of thing.

"It's been a frustrating season for the whole organization," Sandberg said. "We're all in it together, all in it to have good years and reach the maximum, and that's a World Series. That affects all of us."

If the opportunity comes up, there will be a large segment of fans clamoring for Sandberg, as if he's going to come to Chicago and trot out to second base again. As if his love for the Cubs, which certainly can't be questioned, will lift his players to new heights.

As if four years as a minor-league manager and a year at Triple-A, no matter how successful, will somehow provide more wisdom than the nearly 23 seasons and more than 1,500 victories Piniella brought to the job four years ago.

Sandberg's Hall of Fame speech about playing the game the right way was stirring, as has been his professional work ethic. And he already has some ideas about how he'd manage at the big league level.

[+] EnlargeRyne Sandberg
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallSandberg has spent four years managing in the minors, but is he prepared for the added scrutiny of doing so at the big league level?

"I like to play everybody, nobody sits for more than two days for me. That's my thing," he said. "I don't want to get in the way of somebody playing, and what I've found is that players really respond to that and I've seen teams perform better when everyone is contributing.

"You can do it to some extent on the big league level. It keeps everyone sharp and keeps part-time players at the top of their game, as well as keeping them feeling a part of the team. It's good for the locker room and the chemistry of the team, and I think you see it [in wins] over the course of a long season."

Last offseason, Piniella was quoted as saying Sandberg would be "in the mix" to replace him one day, but pointed out that there is no real substitute for managing in the majors.

"Managing in the minor leagues gives you an insight into the game," Piniella said. "You don't really have six or seven coaches like you have up here. You've got to dwell in a lot of different areas and, at the same time, you get a chance to find out if you really like this or don't like it. But I'll tell you this: Handling young players at the minor league level and handling players at the big league level, they're a little different."

Sandberg said he loves teaching his young players, hitting fungoes and throwing batting practice daily. But he enjoys them more now in his first season at Triple-A.

The last three seasons at Class A Peoria and Double-A Tennessee "were very worthwhile," he said. "I learned a lot about the whole system and how it works and I gained an appreciation for each of those levels, and that's been a good thing. I've enjoyed adapting to each level. Now I find myself not worried about how players are wearing their uniforms and are they getting their rest at night, showing up to weightlift and are they on time to the park. That's how it was two, three years ago, just teaching guys to be professional baseball players.

"Now it's more about having these guys playing well and having them ready."

If Sandberg replaces Piniella -- and the odds of that happening are significantly greater than the New York Yankees letting Girardi get away -- it will be all about winning, regardless of the team management hands him.

Sandberg's relative inexperience does not necessarily mean he'll fail. Piniella's first time managing on any level was his first year managing the Yankees in 1986, and his teams won 90 and 89 games his first two seasons and his Cincinnati Reds were World Series champs four years later.

But Piniella's career highlights, even his most recent consecutive postseason berths in his first two seasons with the Cubs, won't mean much when he's gone. And Sandberg's favorite-son status won't either if he doesn't win it all.

That's how it works when you're the Cubs' manager.

Eventually, they're all bums.

Hall of Famer or not.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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