As a manager, soft-spoken Ryne Sandberg finds a temper

Originally Published: June 26, 2007
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

PEORIA, Ill. -- It's a little after 2 o'clock, some five hours before the first pitch on this steamy, sun-soaked, triple-digit afternoon; yet there's the Hall of Famer, shagging balls in the outfield and pushing a grocery cart filled with baseballs to the pitcher's mound. There's the Hall of Famer, throwing batting practice, hitting fungoes, practicing rundowns and gathering his players for a pep talk.

While the 20-somethings he manages chug Gatorade and hover in the shade-covered dugout, the 47-year-old Hall of Famer doesn't stop.

Ryne Sandberg
AP Photo/Peoria Journal Star, Fred ZwickyIt's a pretty safe bet that Sandberg didn't pitch much batting practice during his playing days.
Ryne Sandberg is still obsessed. The same fear of failure that motivated him through each of his 15 seasons as the second baseman for the Chicago Cubs now pushes him as the first-year manager of the Peoria Chiefs, the Cubs' low-Class A affiliate in the Midwest League.

"Even at this level, where it's 80-90 percent about development, I'm constantly thinking about what our record is," Sandberg says. "When we don't play well, I take it very personally."

The obsession isn't a surprise. That's textbook Sandberg. His 2005 Hall of Fame speech about "playing the game the right way" and "respecting the game" still reverberates through the Hall today.

What's different is how the chronically soft-spoken second baseman has gone about this new experiment, managing with a Lou Piniella-like fire he rarely flashed in his playing days. The same quiet, introverted kid from Spokane, Wash., who was ejected just twice in his 16-year playing career has been tossed four times and suspended once in his first year as a manager. And the Chiefs' season is barely half over.

"I don't understand it," chuckles former Cubs teammate and close friend Rick Sutcliffe. "I rode with him for seven straight years to the ballpark and couldn't get him to say a word. Now he's getting thrown out of games? Maybe it has something to do with his hair turning gray or falling out. I'm not sure."

Sandberg shrugs off the ejections as part of his new job. Just like coaching third base. Setting his lineup. Aligning his defense. Managing his bullpen. Filing reports after every game. And playing father figure to the 25 young men on his roster.

He retired with more home runs and a better fielding percentage than any second baseman who ever lived. (Jeff Kent has since eclipsed him for the record for home runs by a second baseman.) He was a 10-time All-Star and won nine straight Gold Gloves. But down here, down on the farm, Sandberg is again a baseball bottom feeder, back in the land of six-hour bus rides, two-star motels and jerseys with iron-on numbers.

Ryne Sandberg
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesUntil Jeff Kent came along, Sandberg's 282 career home runs put him above every other second baseman who ever played the game.
It had been 26 years since Sandberg, a 20th-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1978, had bused between games. Back then, the stops included Helena, Mont.; Spartanburg, S.C.; and Reading, Pa. Now, the bus trips take him to places like Fort Wayne, Ind.; Clinton, Iowa; and Geneva, Ill.

But his goals remain exactly the same: to prove he belongs.

A different person
Ask his players about the day it clicked that Sandberg has what it takes to manage, and they almost unanimously point to May 6, the day he went toe-to-toe with plate umpire Bronson Martinez.

That day, in the third inning of a game against the Fort Wayne Wizards, Martinez ejected Chiefs pitching coach David Rosario for arguing balls and strikes. Sandberg, equally irritated by Martinez's tight strike zone, voiced his own displeasure. With Martinez inches from his face, Sandberg explained -- colorfully -- how his pitcher was being squeezed. Within seconds, he, too, was sent to the showers. But not before accidentally bumping into Martinez, a move that would result in a two-game suspension.

He was no Phillip Wellman, the minor league manager who became a YouTube sensation last month for his rosin-bag-throwing meltdown. But considering the source, Sandberg's histrionics were just as eye-opening. Once he retreated to the clubhouse, he called his wife, Margaret, back in Peoria.

"I answer the phone, and I'm like, 'What happened?'" Margaret says. "'Why are you calling? Is the game over?' And he's chuckling. Then he tells me, 'I just got ejected.'

"He almost sounded like he was proud of himself."

On the field that day, the Chiefs responded, turning a 4-3 deficit into a 10-4 victory. After the game, the players brought Sandberg into the clubhouse, where he was greeted with an ovation.

Ryne Sandberg
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesRyno's career fielding percentage (.989 ) makes him second to none among second basemen.
"We kept wondering if he had it in him," infielder Russ Canzler says. "Then all of the sudden, he saw something he didn't like and he just ran out there and laid down the law. It was awesome."

Since that game in May, umpires have ejected Sandberg from three other games -- once for arguing balls and strikes, once for what Sandberg says was a "not so close" play at first base and once for a checked swing Sandberg argued because he felt the umpire "had an attitude." Each time, the Chiefs seemed to respond. After Sandberg was ejected from a game against Clinton on June 17, Peoria erased a seven-run eighth-inning deficit, only to lose to the Lumber Kings in 10 innings.

"When I'm arguing, I'm competing," Sandberg says. "I'm trying to win a game. And if that's what's called for, it's just a reaction. I defend my players and coaches. And the guys seem to get a kick out of it. At this age, I guess they're pretty easy to amuse."

Bumping into umpires and voicing his displeasure over bad calls is just one piece of a personality makeover many of Sandberg's friends, family and former Cubs teammates have noticed over the last decade. Although Sandberg plays down the changes, he admits he feels more comfortable in his own skin and more confident with who he is these days.

He's also happy with both his personal and professional life. When Sandberg retired from the Cubs in 1994, it was a poorly kept secret that one of the reasons was his troubled marriage with his first wife. But since he married Margaret in 1995, Sandberg has been riding on cloud tops.

"I'm just more comfortable with what I have to say and what I have to offer," he says. "It's been a process for me, but I'm getting there."

Ryne and Margaret Sandberg
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhSandberg's life took a dramatic upturn when he married Margaret in 1995.
To Sutcliffe, the change has been staggering. Besides all those quiet rides to the ballpark with his teammates, Sutcliffe remembers the day Sandberg came to his home to visit the pitcher after his shoulder surgery. He barely spoke.

"I knew he was there to see me, but he couldn't tell me that," Sutcliffe says. "He had a hard time communicating."

Sutcliffe first noticed the change a few years ago, when Cubs President John McDonough asked Sandberg and him to speak for 20 minutes at a Cubs function.

"I laughed out loud," Sutcliffe remembers, "figuring if we were supposed to speak 20 minutes, 19-and-a-half would be me. But then he got up there and just wouldn't stop. And I sat in awe. He was funny, entertaining. It was perfect.

"He's like a different person. His whole personality, everything has really come out. I don't think he could possibly be any happier. And I couldn't be happier for him."

Back to the big time
It was that Sandberg, the confident one, who picked up the phone this past winter after the Cubs fired Dusty Baker, calling general manager Jim Hendry to ask about the manager's job. His only coaching experience was eight years as a Cubs spring training instructor, but he made the call anyway.

"Jim explained that my lack of experience was a concern," Sandberg says. "Which was understandable."

But shortly after he hired Piniella, Hendry offered Sandberg the manager's job in Peoria, suggesting it was a good place to start. After mulling it over for a few days and talking about it with Margaret, he accepted.

Ryne Sandberg
AP Photo/Peoria Journal Star, Ron JohnsonIn Peoria, they experience Sandberg-mania when Ryno takes the field.
"He accomplished everything you could possibly accomplish, but that was as a player," says former Cubs teammate Doug Dascenzo, who manages the low-A Fort Wayne Wizards. "As a manager, it's a whole different ballgame. If you go up [to the major leagues] messing around, you're going to get your butt whipped. Ryno was smart enough to know that."

His first two months on the job haven't been easy. Sandberg has had to relearn how to watch the game. Instead of just focusing on one player's responsibilities on the field, he has to focus on all nine players. And the bench. The bullpen. The other team. And he has had to alter his expectations a bit, reminding himself that these 21- and 22-year-olds aren't seasoned major league veterans but rather first-year pros fresh out of college or high school.

He's tried to teach his players everything from what pitches to look for in RBI situations to the right way to play catch before a game. After one road game, Sandberg, to whom fans flock like a Beatle each night, signed autographs for a half-hour in the rain while his players waited on the bus. Once Sandberg finally joined them, a player asked, "Why did you do that?"

Said Sandberg: "Because it's part of being a professional baseball player. Don't ever take that for granted."

Put it all together and you have one of the up-and-coming young coaches in the Cubs organization. Although the Chiefs finished fifth in the first-half standings of the Midwest League's eight-team Western Division with a 31-38 record -- they're 2-3 in the second half as of Tuesday -- Cubs management already is praising Sandberg's work.

"The way he's gone about this is everything you would assume from Ryne Sandberg based on that Hall of Fame speech," says Oneri Fleita, the organization's director of player development. "We think he's doing great. I don't know how much more you could ask for."

Where Sandberg's new career takes him is anyone's guess. Although the Hall of Famer won't come out and say it himself, those around him insist he has but one goal: to become a major league manager. If history is a guide, that won't be easy. The list of Hall of Famers who have made the jump from Cooperstown to a major league bench is a short one. Earlier this month, the Dodgers fired Eddie Murray as hitting coach. Robin Yount, Rod Carew and Wade Boggs all served stints as major league coaches, but they are no longer in the game. Neither is Paul Molitor, once the hitting coach in Seattle.

Ryne Sandberg
AP Photo/John DunnHe made the Hall of Fame as a player in 2005. Now Sandberg has his sights set on managerial fame.
Then there are Gary Carter and Mike Schmidt, the only other Hall of Fame players believed to have followed up their enshrinement with a trip to Class A ball in hopes of climbing up the managerial ladder. Schmidt grew tired of the minor league lifestyle and is no longer in coaching. Carter reportedly is taking this year off after butting heads with the Mets organization about the direction of his managerial career. Neither made it beyond Class A.

Sandberg knows their stories. He knows the odds are against him. But he doesn't care.

On this night, after an 8-6 loss to Burlington, Sandberg sits behind the brown desk in the beige manager's office, wearing the look of someone who has just lost Game 7 of the World Series. His cheeks are red, his stare is blank and his words are few. He already is focusing on the next day's lineup, the next day's pitcher and the moves he needs to make to ensure this one loss doesn't turn into two.

Sure, Peoria is low-A. Sure, few of these players -- if any -- will make the major leagues. And sure, only a couple thousand fans showed up to watch. But Sandberg doesn't care about any of that. He doesn't like to lose. He's still motivated by a fear of failure. He wakes up every morning hoping the day will end with his players surrounding him on the field, shaking hands after another victory.

"I guess the thing that's surprised me most is how much this has consumed me," he says. "I think about it all the time -- when I'm at the ballpark, when I'm at home with Margaret. I'm constantly thinking about lineups, strategies, where I can put guys. It just doesn't get out of my head."

Perhaps it never will.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.