How long will Sandberg's methods last?

Posted: March 29, 2014

It was probably when the little blue squares of spray paint appeared on the inside corners of the bases at the Carpenter Complex that the Phillies fully realized Ryne Sandberg wasn't going to just talk about stressing the fundamentals of baseball. This guy was going to actually do it, if you can imagine that.

Sandberg played in the major leagues long enough to know how some players at that level would react to being schooled on the proper way to run the bases. And he knew how much they would enjoy the tedium of the situational drills and full infield drills that were regular features of his first spring training camp as manager.

It was as if the new conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra insisted on a half-hour of scales followed by "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" before every rehearsal. There would be eye-rolling among the strings and a lot of loud sighs from the woodwind section.

Ryne Sandberg knew all that, but he did not care even a little bit. He probably also knew - although his level of self-awareness is still being determined - that the fundamental demands, coupled with his quiet, almost flatline, demeanor, would get him labeled as something of a drag within the confines of the clubhouse. Again, if he knew it, he didn't care.

"It's setting the tone and it becomes a daily routine and it's what is expected," Sandberg said. "Pickoffs, rundowns, bunt plays. We'll be stressing all parts of the game. We can be a better baserunning team with baserunning sessions, sliding sessions, really covering every part of the game. And not covering it one time, but multiple times and covering it through the season with drills and sessions and practice sessions when we have the field in Philadelphia."

If it is possible to be excited saying all that - and if it is also possible to tell when Sandberg is actually excited - then the new manager was excited as he laid out the plan. For their part, the players have mostly parroted the party line. Fundamentals are good. Running the bases like a drunken Labradoodle is bad. Their level of excitement about the whole process remains to be seen, however. When it is August and the Phillies are still taking full infield, we'll see how that goes.

"We're here to win baseball games, and do it as a team. That's what I'm stressing," Sandberg said.

There are players' managers, and then there are managers' managers. Charlie Manuel was a players' manager. He treated his team like adults and he expected the players to do the work to prepare themselves to play, but there weren't a lot of sliding drills on a Charlie Manuel team. Not a lot of happy horseshoes just to prove a point. If a team was good enough, it would win. And, guess what? If a team was winning, it would be locked in and would run the bases the right way. If not, it wouldn't play the game properly and no amount of let's-turn-two could change that. And that's what we call baseball.

It worked until it didn't for Manuel, as the players he protected and coddled quit on him and then complained about him behind his back, because, of course, what happened last season couldn't be their fault. Of course not.

The managers' manager didn't like what he saw last season, but there wasn't much he could do about it during his 42 games in charge after Manuel was fired. This season will be different, however, and Sandberg has free rein to run the team his way. The question is whether it will work. There are enough young players who might buy into the program, but there is also a core of aging veterans - has anyone else noticed this? - who might lead the clubhouse the other way. It all depends on how the season goes, and particularly how the season starts.

Sandberg has already had a well-documented verbal standoff with shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who basically shrugged as if to say, "Same day, different manager." And Sandberg was not terribly nimble on his feet when asked if Rollins was a positive influence on the club. "No comment," Sandberg said. No comment? If you want to run a boot camp, that's fine, but you have to be prepared to back it up. The locker room certainly took notice when Sandberg failed to follow through on that one.

The Cubs, for whom Sandberg was a Hall of Fame player, had two chances to hire him as manager and he would have been a popular choice each time. At the end of the 2010 season, after Lou Piniella quit in August, Sandberg was finishing up his fourth season of managing in the Cubs system and was named the triple-A Pacific Coast League manager of the year. The organization decided to stay with interim Mike Quade.

A year later, after Sandberg finished his first season managing Lehigh Valley, the Cubs fired Quade and could have gotten permission to interview Sandberg. They chose Dale Sveum instead, and he was fired in September after finishing 70 games under .500 in two years.

It makes you wonder why the Cubs, of all teams, would have passed over Ryne Sandberg. Twice. It makes you wonder if the Cubs decided their taciturn former star with the penchant for drills and the little blue squares on the bases was a really good minor-league manager whose tactics would fall flat in a big-league clubhouse.

The Cubs are wrong about so much so often that it's hard to say if they got this one right. But in the coming season, as the Phillies adjust to Sandberg or don't, the answer to that will begin to become clear.


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