Bowa admires 'the burning desire' in Sandberg

BRAD C BOWER / AP
BRAD C BOWER / AP
Posted: January 22, 2014

The odd couple that will run the Phillies from the dugout this season first met 33 years ago in Atlanta. Larry Bowa was a hyperactive veteran unhappy with his contract. Ryne Sandberg was a painfully shy rookie who had been among the September call-ups from Oklahoma City, the Phillies' triple-A affiliate at the time.

Infield was in session.

"I'm taking grounders and he's standing behind me," Bowa, 68, said last week at a City Avenue restaurant. "I'm taking grounder after grounder and he wouldn't jump in. I was like, 'Hey, you want some ground balls?' He says, 'I didn't want to mess up your routine or anything.' If someone had told me that day that he was going to be a home-run hitter in the big leagues, I would have said, 'Yeah, and so will I.' "

Four months later, they were traded together to the Chicago Cubs for shortstop Ivan De Jesus, a deal that still pierces the hearts of Phillies fans who are old enough to remember it.

"I got on the phone and I said, 'Hey, Ryno, when you going to spring training?' " Bowa said. "If the report date was February 15th, the date he named was the 14th. I said, 'Are you [kidding] me?' I said, 'I'm going to be down there the first, I want you down there.' "

Sandberg showed up Feb. 1 at the Cubs' Arizona facility.

"We worked out every day for two weeks together," Bowa said. "We were playing catch and warming up. He was throwing the ball over my head and I stopped him and I said, 'Are you serious? You can't throw the ball chest high?' He goes, 'I was just getting loose.' I said, 'There has to be a purpose behind every drill we do.' To this day, he tells that story."

During his time as a player, coach, and manager, Bowa had a knack for rubbing some players the wrong way. He went 100 miles per hour and he wanted his teammates and players to keep up. Sandberg, despite a far different demeanor, kept up.

"I watched him at the end of his career, and he was doing the same thing he did at the start," Bowa said. "He had an unbelievable work ethic. He was quiet, but you could see the burning desire in him, too."

A boisterous Bowa made for an overachieving player, but his brilliant baseball mind never translated to major-league managerial success. He might have been too young and his team was certainly too untalented during his short tenure with San Diego in the late 1980s. He restored a winning culture during his four-year stay with the Phillies at the turn of the century, but his way of doing things frayed the nerves of enough players that he was fired just before the end of the 2004 season.

Now, he's back with the Phillies as the bench coach, and if you saw that coming a decade ago you, too, knew that Sandberg would be a Hall of Famer that September day in Atlanta when he was so timid he wouldn't take a single ground ball away from Bowa.

As different as they are on the outside, Bowa and Sandberg, 54, really are cut from the same cloth. In his first year as the manager at triple-A Lehigh Valley, Sandberg made a comparison between himself and Bowa. Those in the room thought it was a joke. Sandberg smiled. We know now that he wasn't joking.

Bowa, however, thought his old pal Don Zimmer was joking when he informed him that Sandberg wanted to take a stab at managing.

"Are you kidding?" Bowa asked Zimmer. "I just didn't see him doing it."

Bowa monitored Sandberg's progress in the minors.

"I'd hear stories from people I know with the Chicago Cubs about how tough he was," Bowa said. "He really stresses playing the game hard and the right way. He believes errors are going to happen and guys are going to strike out, but in one particular game - I think it was A ball - he had a couple of guys hit the ball and jog to first base."

The game ended and the players started to undress.

"Ryno walked into the clubhouse and told everybody to keep their uniforms on," Bowa said. "He told them when the stadium cleared out that the players would run the bases the way they are supposed to be run."

That's not going to happen at the big-league level, but Bowa believes that Sandberg's demanding style will remain intact because it is the only way the Phillies' new manager can be true to himself.

"He played that way," Bowa said. "He played hard, he was always ready, and people might think that might be demanding, but I don't think that's demanding at all. But if you want to get on his bad side, I'm telling you right now jog a few times to first, and I'm not telling you he will pull you out right away, but I guarantee you he will have you in his office and let you know."

Bowa, of course, managed that way, but he thinks his new boss has an advantage that he did not. After leaving the Phillies, Bowa coached two seasons with the Yankees in New York and three more with the Dodgers in Los Angeles under Joe Torre.

Bowa sees similarities between Sandberg and Torre.

"I think he's going to be very patient," Bowa said. "I've never seen him panic. He always has things under control. He wants to win bad. He doesn't want to hear about injuries. He'll never make excuses. He was never that kind of guy and I don't think he ever will be."

Bowa said he used to watch things happen with the Yankees and Dodgers that would have made him explode in anger as a manager. Torre never flinched.

"He'd just sit there," Bowa said. "I asked him, 'Joe, how do you do it?' We stink right now and your demeanor doesn't change.' He said, 'Bo, first of all, there is nothing you can do about it during the game. You can do something tomorrow pregame or something after the game if you want to have a meeting, but there's nothing you can do right at that moment to prevent what's happening.'

"I think Ryno can be just like Joe Torre. I watched some of those games at the end of the year last year, and there were some ugly games and the camera was on him and he didn't change. He didn't blink. I take my hat off to those guys who can do that, but I really believe if I did that I'd have about 50 ulcers in my stomach."

Maybe Bowa's way can work when it is presented in a concealed package. Maybe we're about to find out. Sandberg asked the Phillies to do extra work during the final month and a half last season and met no resistance.

"If I did that, they'd be like, 'I wonder what Bo is mad about,' " the Phillies' feisty new bench coach said. "Ryno does it and it's, 'Oh, OK.' "


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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