Sandberg's humble approach is what impressed Chuck LaMar so much when the Phillies interviewed him in November.
"How he came across in the interview process is that he still has a lot to learn," said LaMar, the Phillies' assistant general manager in charge of player development and scouting. "That was one of the most impressive things about him."
LaMar said that during the interview he was in the process of lauding Sandberg for paying his dues as a player and minor-league manager when the Hall of Famer cut him off.
"He said, 'Chuck, I paid them as a player, but this will be my fifth year as a minor-league manager and your [big-league] staff is filled with people who paid their dues in the minor leagues a lot longer than that.' When he walked out of that interview there was a consensus among everyone that this is a special guy."
Sandberg, 51, managed four seasons in the Chicago Cubs' minor-league system before being passed over for the major-league job in favor of Mike Quade after Lou Piniella stepped aside in the middle of last season. If there is any lingering bitterness, Sandberg hides it well.
"If I wanted to open up all of baseball and just increase my chances to be a manager, I think it was necessary to leave the Cubs," Sandberg said Thursday before Lehigh Valley's game in Allentown. "Otherwise, it was going to be the Cubs or nobody, and I don't know how that would pan out. For me, this was the other uniform I wore professionally, so it was a perfect fit for me."
After leading the Cubs' double-A Tennessee team to a Southern League title in 2009 and earning Pacific Coast League manager-of-the-year honors in 2010 at triple-A Iowa, Sandberg inherited a difficult job at Lehigh Valley.
The IronPigs, entering their fourth season, have never had a winning record and, partly because of trades that brought guys like Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia, the triple-A team does not currently have one position player who came up through the Phillies organization. A year ago, Lehigh Valley had 47 players on the roster, and that does not count players who made rehab appearances there.
"I was warned two years ago about the triple-A level," Sandberg said. "Some people say it's the toughest job in baseball for a lot of reasons. You have young prospects here who are learning how to play, and a lot of teaching and coaching is important there. And then you have players who could be 38 years old at the same level. You have players who have gone back and forth from the major leagues, and sometimes there are attitudes about that."
Sandberg said his mission is to get all those guys moving in the same direction, and there are indications from the clubhouse that he is succeeding.
"We have better chemistry all the way around this year," pitcher Vance Worley said. "The guys have fun in the clubhouse, on the field, and even off the field. We can all talk to each other. It seemed like last year it was kind of cliquey. It seems like this year we're more together and we want to win."
Pitcher Scott Mathieson described Sandberg as quietly determined.
"Any time you're talking about a Hall of Famer, it's exciting to play for somebody who played that caliber of baseball," Mathieson said. "You definitely see his will to win out there. He's already talked to the umpires quite a few times out there and you get the feeling he has your back. He's very professional and you can tell he's the kind of guy who is going to work as hard as we're going to work or harder."
Mathieson said Sandberg's conversations with the umpires were typically restrained, but he was ejected from a game for the first time Friday night in Buffalo during the IronPigs' fourth straight loss.
Sandberg said that regardless of a player's age or rank as a prospect, he has the same message for them all.
"I remind them all that this is still an opportunity to get to the big leagues and I remind them to make their time worthwhile while they are here at the ballpark," he said. "I also remind them not to get too caught up in your parent club and what's happening personnel-wise . . . because there are 29 other teams out there and you never know if there is a trade going to happen."
Sandberg, of course, got his chance with the Cubs rather than the Phillies because of one of the more infamous trades in Philadelphia history. Wouldn't it be interesting if Sandberg's next career in the big leagues started with the Phillies after the Cubs passed on him?
Young BlueClaws 'on the verge'
Phillies assistant general manager Chuck LaMar described the team's South Atlantic League affiliate as having "a team full of players who are on the verge of breaking through and becoming legitimate major-league prospects."
One of them is 18-year-old outfielder Domingo Santana, who was batting .267 through his first 12 games after batting .182 with the BlueClaws as a 17-year-old last season.
"He's starting to show signs of more consistency at the plate and recognizing the breaking ball better," LaMar said. "He's coming off an outstanding spring training."
Former first-round draft pick Anthony Hewitt continues to disappoint. He was batting .175 through his first 12 games. Zach Collier, another first-round pick who missed all of last season after undergoing wrist surgery, was hitting .143 through eight games.
"We're just happy to have [Collier] on the field," LaMar said.
Aaron Altherr, ranked as the team's 10th-best prospect by Baseball America, was hitting .170 through 12 games.
"He had an outstanding spring training and then he got off to a slow start," LaMar said. "This is his first full season and it's the first time he has played under the lights and in front of fans."
Jordan Ellis, a Villanova product who made an appearance with the Phillies late in spring training, racked up 11 strikeouts in 72/3 innings through his first five games.
"He is quickly going from a suspect that he was when he signed to a prospect, which he showed last year in Lakewood and at the end in Clearwater," LaMar said. "His fastball and slider are two pitches that are good enough to get him to the major leagues."
Trevor May, after struggling last year at Clearwater then regaining his confidence at Lakewood, is struggling again in the Florida State League. He was 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA in three starts.
"On the plus side, his stuff is still there and he takes the game as seriously as anyone we have in our minor-league system," LaMar said. "However, he has got to continue to work on his command on his fastball, and more importantly, he cannot lose confidence in himself. We're starting to see signs he's starting to question himself. He's got to get over that hump."
Both of Clearwater's Jonathans - Pettibone and Singleton - were off to sensational starts. Pettibone was 2-0 with a 0.53 ERA in his first three starts and Singleton was hitting .310 with a .429 on-base percentage through his first nine games. LaMar said Singleton has had no problem making the adjustment from first base to left field.
After hitting a combined 24 home runs with 82 RBIs at Clearwater and Reading last season, Cody Overbeck is off to an even better start in 2011. Through 14 games, he was hitting .340 with a league-leading six homers and 17 RBIs.
"We think he's going to play in the major leagues," LaMar said. "Where he fits in is up to Cody. He came up as a third baseman, so he has some ability to play third base, but he needs to improve defensively there. He gets most of his reps at first base, which comes a little easier to him. He'll also get some time in the outfield this year. The one thing he can do is he can hit a fastball and he's a good mistake hitter. Those guys have a way of showing up in the major leagues."
Righthander Josh Zeid was the only Lakewood pitcher to make the jump to double-A this year because, unlike the others, he was drafted out of college. Through four starts he is 0-1 with a 5.74 ERA, though he did strike out four in 21/3 innings before rain ended his outing Friday in Akron.
Austin Hyatt, a 15th-round pick out of Alabama in 2009, was 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA after three starts.
"He's one of those kids you just have to keep moving up," LaMar said. "He was the Florida State League pitcher of the year and he's off to a great start. The key for him is how his breaking ball improves."
Manager Ryne Sandberg said he has been impressed by Ronnie Belliard and Kevin Frandsen, two guys the Phillies signed to minor-league deals near the end of spring training. Frandsen, who has played in the big leagues with San Francisco and the Los Angeles Angels, was batting .311 through 13 games with the IronPigs, while Belliard, a veteran of 13 big-league seasons, led the team with a .320 average. Don't be surprised if you see both of them in Philadelphia before the end of the season.
Despite a 1-2 record, the manager also has been impressed by Vance Worley, who had a 2.55 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 172/3 innings through his first three starts. The manager also likes lefty specialist Juan Perez, who allowed two hits and struck out eight in his first five games.
Contact staff writer Bob Brookover
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