Ryne Sandberg will make his second big-league debut with the Phillies in April and it will be fascinating to see where this career path leads him.
The last time Sandberg debuted in a Phillies uniform, he was a 21-year-old infielder launching what became a Hall of Fame career. It became a painful experience for the Phillies and their fans to witness. Sandberg's resumé was crafted in Chicago after Cubs general manager Dallas Green persuaded his former team to "throw in" the young infielder as part of a deal that shipped shortstop Larry Bowa out of Philadelphia.
Sandberg, 53, officially learned that he was rejoining the Phillies as their third-base coach and infield instructor after the team's final game, against the Washington Nationals. Green, a senior adviser to general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., was among the first to congratulate him.
"He congratulated me on getting back to the majors and the way I went about it," Sandberg said. "I know he played a big part in it. He played a big part in my career a long time ago and in the middle of it and now in this role. He has always been there as a voice in my corner since I was 18 years old and he continues to be in my corner. I can't think of a better guy to have on my side."
Sandberg's journey back to the big leagues took six years as a minor-league manager, including the last two with the Phillies' triple-A Lehigh Valley affiliate.
"I think it was time well spent," Sandberg said. "Six years could seem like a long time, but now I look back and it doesn't seem long at all. I just know I learned a lot each and every year."
Perhaps the most valuable experience for Sandberg will be the lengthy amount of time he spent coaching third base, a role that minor-league managers are required to handle. It's a thankless position at the big-league level because third-base coaches typically get noticed only when something goes wrong. It's a role, however, that Sandberg loves.
"I like doing the scouting of a defense and knowing the arms and the strengths of the guys from the other team," he said. "It's most important that you know your own players. Who gets good jumps, who rounds the bag the best and then you work with them to help them get better at baserunning.
"I also like to mentally anticipate what balls are going to do in the outfield before they are hit. I did that as a baserunner and I think it helps to be able to do that."
What Sandberg will not be doing next season is thinking about replacing Charlie Manuel as the next manager of the Phillies. That's a role that many believe he will assume, perhaps as soon as the 2014 season, and it would make for a terrific story since it was the Cubs who passed on him as their next manager a couple of times in recent seasons.
"First of all, there are no guarantees in baseball," Sandberg said. "I'm a guy who stays focused with my job. That's always how I handled things as a player and as a minor-league manager. I know what my job is next year as a third-base coach and infield instructor and that's what I will focus on. I'm real pleased about being in the capacity I'm in with the Phillies and I don't look any further than that."
Sandberg would not say what he would do if another team offered him a managerial job this offseason. At this point, the only openings are in Colorado and Boston, and Sandberg has not been contacted by either team.
"That's a hypothetical," he said. "I'd deal with that if my phone rang, and my phone hasn't rung. I'm looking forward to being the Philadelphia Phillies' third-base coach."
He's most looking forward to working with Manuel. The two men met for the first time two years ago at the winter meetings in Buena Vista, Fla., and quickly developed a strong relationship after Sandberg was named the Lehigh Valley manager.
"I was there for a Hall of Fame event and we hit it off right away," Sandberg said. "The last two years he has bounced things off me and asked me to confirm what he's looking at. He's asked me about the hitting mechanics of players and whether I thought a guy was getting a good or bad read off balls in the field. We both enjoy talking about the game and that to me is the biggest thing right there."
Perhaps the player Sandberg can best relate to is second baseman Chase Utley. Sandberg is considered one of the greatest of all time at the position, but at right around Utley's age, his career was in rapid decline. Utley, limited to 186 games the last two seasons because of knee injuries, will be 34 at the start of next season. Sandberg retired for the first time as a player at that age in the middle of the 1994 season.
When Sandberg watches Utley, however, he does not see a player ready to call it quits.
"I just watched Chase play about 28 games in September," Sandberg said. "He didn't miss a game. I thought he was a quality player with what he brought to the table defensively and offensively. I think next year you'll see some of his power come back just by him being on the field every day. I understand he's changing his workout plan this winter and hopefully everything will fall into place for him."
Sandberg, who managed Freddy Galvis briefly at Lehigh Valley in 2011, also said he sees no reason the 22-year-old infielder cannot make the transition to third base if that's the route the Phillies decide to go at the position.
"Defensively, he can play shortstop, second or third," Sandberg said. "I saw him play a major-league type shortstop and we all saw what he could do at second base, so there is no reason he can't switch to play third."
Sandberg was a shortstop who switched to third base and eventually became a Hall of Fame second baseman with the Cubs. Now, he is starting his next big-league career in Philadelphia again. Time will tell where this passionate pursuit takes him.