Early scouting report on rookie manager Ryne Sandberg: strong leader, terrific with details, excellent with fundamentals, ability to teach old dogs new tricks, weak stomach.
Good thing for the Philadelphia Phillies that the weak stomach part doesn’t extend to the dugout.
The Hall of Famer, who is embarking on the next stage of his career (“Chapter 7: The Cheesesteak Years”), so far seems absolutely fine on the bench, leaning against the railing, writing out the lineup card, pulling the managerial levers during a game and even, when the moment has called for it, staring down veterans like Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins.
It’s just the occasional burger that ruffles him, as you might have heard during the recent Shake Shack shakeup, when he noted he had come down with food poisoning and lost six pounds in two days. BURP.
Quiet by nature, you wouldn’t exactly expect Sandberg to wind up as part of a hilarious Jon Stewart tirade, but there he was, as you can see here.
Everyone knew it was going to be a different year in Philadelphia without jolly ol’ Charlie Manuel in charge. Sandberg, who replaced Manuel last Sept. 22, wasted no time in sending that message by feeding the Phillies a steady diet of fundamentals this spring.
“It’s definitely been different,” first baseman Ryan Howard says. “His style is a lot more work-oriented.”
That point was driven home quickly in the spring when Rollins found himself on the bench for three consecutive days because Sandberg thought the veteran shortstop was too lackadaisical during spring camp.
It was underlined again earlier this month when Sandberg called out closer Jonathan Papelbon for being unwilling to pitch for a third consecutive game.
It is not easy to change the culture of an entire club, which Sandberg was hired to do. It especially is not easy for a new manager to redirect a veteran club.
The Sandberg-Rollins imbroglio this spring was reminiscent of an incident early in Bobby Valentine’s one-year disaster with the Red Sox. Early in the season, he called out Kevin Youkilis, and Dustin Pedroia responded with his Shot Heard ‘Round Kenmore Square: “That’s not the way we go about our stuff around here.”
In that case, Valentine was a veteran manager inheriting a grizzled club that had been around the track a few times. And the situation quickly reached the point of no return.
In this case, Sandberg is a new manager working to establish his authority and earn the respect of veteran players who have done things their own way for years. His personality is totally different from that of Valentine, and no two situations are the same. Yet there are similarities, and in this case, the Rollins Moment now is a blip in the past.
“We covered a lot of things in spring training,” Sandberg said when we chatted late last month. “I tried to change the mentality a little bit about stressing fundamentals and practicing at it. So when we get on the field often back at home, we practice fundamentals, we review it.
“The coaching staff I have, which I’m very pleased with, we work with the players to help them stay on top of their game, whether they’re young players or veteran players. I see some of the veteran guys tweaking their games a little bit for better production and, for this stage of the game, what I feel they need to do to be good players and help our team win games.
“And there’s been good response from that.”
Sandberg, who has Larry Bowa as his bench coach and Bob McClure as his pitching coach, is a quiet and thoughtful man. Because he does not carry himself with an aggressive demeanor, it is easy to forget how great his career was and that he’s probably forgotten more baseball than many of those whom he is now managing will ever know.
He did not exactly inherit a powerhouse club (no matter what the Phillies may think internally), so it is difficult to judge his managerial chops on a mere 43 games. This is a flawed team with a bad bullpen, aging stars and health issues, the most recent of which came this week when ace Cliff Lee went onto the disabled list with a sore elbow.
“He had to break the club back down because the club had gotten away from fundamentals,” one National League executive said. “It became a power team, but now it’s not a power team, so he had to change the way they thought of the little things like the hit-and-run, bunting and all kinds of defensive adjustments.”
Whether the Phillies are able to fully adapt given their current roster construction remains in doubt. But that’s a flaw with the roster, not with Sandberg or his expectations. Whenever the Phillies consistently win again, it probably is going to have to be with a handful of different players who can do many of the things Sandberg preaches.
For now, at least, give the Phillies themselves credit for working to adapt. The Rollins thing does not appear to have any lingering effects, and more importantly, the veteran shortstop seems to have changed some of his ways. Notoriously one of the last to arrive in the clubhouse each afternoon, Rollins has moved up his arrival time.
And it is not just Rollins. Things are more regimented, tighter, across the board.
“Ryne has implemented a little more discipline,” reliever Mike Adams said. “He’s a stickler for small things. He makes sure things are organized. He wants everybody on a schedule, to have a routine.
“That’s just his preparation style. He’s really into the small things.”
It’s hard not to admire what Sandberg stands for and what he’s trying to do. From the start of spring training, if a Phillie did a drill wrong, he did it over. There is a right way to do things. And it doesn’t happen by being lazy or sloppy.
“Sometimes in this industry, we forget how important the basics are,” the NL executive said. “If you’re as sound of a fundamental team as the Cardinals have been, it can add two, three, four wins a year. Sometimes seven, eight, 10 wins. Get the bunt down, hit the cutoff man, be in the right location.
“Those things win games. [Sandberg is] very cognizant of what it takes to win a game.”
There’s not much Sandberg misses. There wasn’t when he played in Wrigley Field, and there isn’t from the dugout at Citizens Bank Park. It’s part of what gives him every chance to succeed in this managerial gig.
Why, you might even say the only thing that stands a chance of stopping him is a bad burger. And in the end, he even overcame that.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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