Sandberg has plenty of tough decisions ahead

Phils manager Ryne Sandberg (left) chats with bench coach Mick Billmeyer during Sunday's loss. YONG KIM / Staff
Phils manager Ryne Sandberg (left) chats with bench coach Mick Billmeyer during Sunday's loss. YONG KIM / Staff
Posted: September 25, 2013

Eddie Sawyer, a science teacher with a master's degree from Cornell University, was better known here as the manager of the Whiz Kids team that made it to the World Series, although somewhat disastrously, in 1950.

He retired from baseball but was lured back for a second term with the Phillies in 1958 and that return lasted until the first game of the 1960 season. Even by their standards, the Phils were going to stink out loud that year - they would finish 59-95 - and Sawyer took a hard look at what he had and quit immediately following the opener.

"I'm 49 years old and I want to live to be 50," Sawyer said.

Hard to quibble with that one.

The reality is that Sawyer was still the same guy who managed a National League champion. No better, no worse. A hit-and-run was still a hit-and-run. A home run still cleared the bases. Just not as often. Players win games. Managers watch.

Ryne Sandberg, who can now sign the lineup cards with ink, knows all about that immutable fact of the game. He played 15 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, built a Hall of Fame career, and was part of exactly four winning teams. His career was the NL mirror of that period to that of Don Mattingly, who toiled 14 seasons for the Yankees before finally taking part in a postseason series (and hit .417 in that), only to lose in what was his major-league playing farewell.

The great players who remain on the Phillies roster - along with whatever remains of their greatness - got a lot luckier than their new manager. They came together at a time when there was enough collective talent to string together five straight division titles, two World Series appearances and one championship. In the last four years of that run, they averaged 96 wins.

They accomplished that with a less-is-more manager in Charlie Manuel. Just like Sawyer, the Manuel who was fired Aug. 16 was the same one who rode down Broad Street through a raining sea of ticker tape. Manuel's approach to the game is more intestinal than cerebral. He managed by gut instead of printouts and liked to look a player in the eye before sending him to bat. He was a damn good manager here, but he also had a damn good team. That helped.

Earl Weaver, the Orioles Hall of Fame manager, always said that a manager can win his team five games a year. No more than that. He can do it, as Weaver did, with game strategy that puts the other dugout in a less favorable spot, or as Manuel did, by creating an atmosphere in which players can relax and let their talents flow freely. (This was not a specialty of Weaver's, who was more likely to stalk through the clubhouse after a game screaming profanely at the top of his lungs.)

We don't know yet what kind of manager Ryne Sandberg will be, or even if he will have a chance to succeed. He has shown a tendency to be more aggressive with his offense, but it is hard to play small ball with a team that has very little speed and doesn't practice good situational hitting. His handling of pitchers is difficult to gauge because he has been given such a mismatched set to finish out this season.

As for his relationship with players, he has shown a willingness to impart tough love. After becoming the interim manager, one of his first acts was to challenge Jimmy Rollins to improve his mental approach to the game. Rollins was far from the only player to drift the wrong way this season, but he was also the biggest sleeping tiger in the room, and one whom Manuel only prodded on rare occasions. When Sandberg publicly said a leadoff hitter should worry more about getting on base and less about hitting home runs, everyone realized the new guy wasn't going to play scared.

That should serve him well, because there are some very difficult things in store for the manager of this team in the next few years. Does he eventually bench Rollins and Ryan Howard (35 and 34, respectively, next opening day) to make the transition to younger players? Does he shake Dom Brown, the most promising hitter on the rise, and tell him his perplexing outfield play has to improve or else? There are a lot of questions like that, and it will be difficult for Sandberg to survive the fallout of having to be the bad sheriff for the next three seasons.

The Cubs privately said they worried about putting a franchise hero into that position and didn't promote Sandberg when they were in need of a new manager and Sandberg had just been a triple-A manager of the year. Maybe that's true, or maybe they weren't sure he was the guy for the job.

We'll find that out soon enough. Sandberg is 54 years old. Making it to 57 in this job will be a challenge. Eddie Sawyer would have agreed.


bford@phillynews.com

(@bobfordsports

|
|
|
|
|