A very good Sun-Times piece about Ryne Sandberg has been making the rounds since yesterday (it must have been fact-checked). The article discusses Sandberg’s managerial tenure in the Chicago Cubs’ minor leagues, the circumstances of his departure from the organization, and his transition to a job with the Phillies’ AAA affiliate.
The whole thing is worth a read, not only for the first-hand candor from Sandberg (he says that, after he was told he didn’t get the job, Chicago Cubs’ GM Jim Hendry told Sandberg that he “wasn’t even the third or fourth guy in line” for the Cubs’ managerial opening this year), but also for the quotes from Darwin Barney, who played under Sandberg in parts of three different seasons.
But, as I’m wont to do, I’m going to pick on one small part of the article, which really took me aback. On the subject of the conversation Sandberg had with Hendry regarding Sandberg’s future with the Cubs’ organization after he was not chosen as the manager, Sandberg was more pointed than he’s been in the past.
In short: Sandberg says he was not invited back as the manager of the AAA Iowa Cubs, whom he had just led to the best record in their division, winning yet another manager of the year award along the way.
“There was no other job offering [from the Cubs for 2011] other than, ‘We’d like you to come to spring training, hit a couple of fungoes and walk around’,” Sandberg said. “At that point, I knew it was time to move on.
“I said I was talking to somebody else that has an appealing job for me to stay on the path I’ve chosen.”
That somebody else was the Phillies. And the rest is history.
If, in fact, this is how things played out, I am surprised, angered, and saddened.
Sandberg had hinted in the past that he wasn’t welcomed back, though Hendry has denied it. I chose to believe that the issue was nuanced, and would remain obscured from our view, probably forever.
But there’s no nuance in what Sandberg is now saying. The Cubs told him he didn’t get the big league job, and then flipped him the bird in the form of a proposed demotion to a Spring Training instructor job.
People openly wondered why Sandberg would leave the Cubs for a lateral move. Do you still wonder?
To be sure, the decision not to hire Sandberg as the Major League team’s manager not only made sense at the time, but also, in retrospect, it was probably a good thing for his relationship with Cubs fans. Although Sandberg had accumulated four years of minor league experience, he still had no experience at the big league level – even as a coach. If Sandberg weren’t a Hall of Fame legend, would he even have been considered? How many big league managers get their job on the strength of a handful of (admittedly very good) minor league seasons? Telling, I think, is the fact that Sandberg was not asked to interview for any other big league jobs.
Combine that with the value of hindsight, which tells me that Sandberg could not have salvaged this mess, and it’s fair to conclude that his not getting the big league job was probably a good thing. Moreover, it remains not-entirely-implausible that the Chicago Cubs’ front office foresaw the coming disaster, and looked to spare Sandberg from being held up as a failure. I tend to think it is actually just a happy coincidence, but it sure does make for a nice narrative.
The decision not to make Sandberg a bench coach on the big club also made a great deal of sense. While you’d certainly like to get him that experience before installing him as manager, can you imagine the daily sniping in the media every time Quade made a bad decision? Can you imagine the awkwardness – if not infighting – in the clubhouse? You can’t have the legend Hall of Famer who was passed over for the job sitting next to the unpopular manager.
But the decision not to welcome Sandberg back to AAA Iowa with open arms is absolutely baffling. Yes, maybe Hendry believed Sandberg would say no. Maybe Hendry even had very good reason to believe Sandberg would say no. But Sandberg had been one of the most successful managers the minor league system has seen in a long time. That, if for no other reason, is why the Cubs should have tried like hell to hang onto him.
Minor league records are subject to the vagaries of promotions, developmental pitch selection, and rehab stints, but, in case you’re wondering, Sandberg’s Iron Pigs are in first place, 15 games over .500. Last year, they finished 28 games under.
Not only could Sandberg’s continued presence at AAA have improved the Cubs’ minor league prospects (and I mean that in both senses of the word) this year, it would have left him happily in line for a promotion when/if Quade was broomed.
Ryne Sandberg deserved better.
No, his status as a Chicago legend and a Cubs’ Hall of Famer shouldn’t have been a reason to give him the big league job. And it wasn’t. But it certainly should have been a reason to do everything in the organization’s power to keep him around. They might say that they did just that.
But I can’t help feeling like they all but packed his bags for him. And, as long as the current regime stays around, I think you can assume his bags will stay that way.
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