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Ryne Sandberg: The path less traveled

PHOENIX - Ryne Sandberg needs a ride. His wife, Margaret, reserved the light blue SUV, the couple's lone vehicle at this moment - for errands on a serene autumn afternoon in the desert. Sandberg examines the 19 olive trees that line his property. They are blooming. Their pilfered seeds blacken the grass because, wouldn't you know it, the Sandbergs have a quail problem.

Ryne Sandberg at his home in Arizona on Wednesday, November 5, 2013. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Ryne Sandberg at his home in Arizona on Wednesday, November 5, 2013. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

PHOENIX - Ryne Sandberg needs a ride. His wife, Margaret, reserved the light blue SUV, the couple's lone vehicle at this moment - for errands on a serene autumn afternoon in the desert. Sandberg examines the 19 olive trees that line his property. They are blooming. Their pilfered seeds blacken the grass because, wouldn't you know it, the Sandbergs have a quail problem.

Errant golf balls sometimes litter the immaculate backyard. The 13th hole sits a short wedge beyond Sandberg's fence. He boasts a three handicap but plays his home course less than ever. There was instructional league ball to watch in Florida, followed by Phillies organizational meetings, then some charity events in Philadelphia (one of which allowed Sandberg to dress as a pirate for Halloween), and the wedding of his son, Justin, in Baltimore.

The family - five children and five grandchildren - will convene here this week for Thanksgiving. Sandberg will open the two large French doors to his backyard, turn his majestic dining table 90 degrees, add more space for 16 people until the pool restricts it, and they will celebrate.

They will add a third photo to the "Wedding Wall" that lines the staircase. They will sneak handfuls from the glass jar of M&Ms on the kitchen counter. They will toast to family, and to the next chapter of Sandberg's decorated life.

The 52d manager in Phillies history is unlike any before him. Baseball does not produce careers like Sandberg's. He is, according to research by the Hall of Fame, just the third player to become a manager after his induction into Cooperstown - and the first in more than 40 years. When a Hall of Famer stays in the game, he does it on the periphery, and not by riding buses in the Midwest League or by accepting one of the game's most scrutinized managerial jobs in Philadelphia.

Sandberg feigned the cushy lifestyle. He spent the mornings of eight springs as a guest instructor in Cubs camp and fetched his kids from school in the afternoons. He broadcast some games at Wrigley Field with Harry Caray. He golfed with neighbor and PGA Tour member Mark Calcavecchia. He bought a boat, went fishing, and learned to water-ski. The children departed for college. He mastered snow skiing.

"Nobody was home," Margaret said. "How much golf can you play?"

"Yeah," Sandberg said, "I was getting bored."

For now, the olive turmoil must wait. Sandberg procures a 40-minute ride to Surprise, Ariz., where the Peoria Javelinas are playing the Surprise Saguaros. Seven Phillies prospects play for Peoria. Sandberg wants a peek.

He approaches the lone open window at the Surprise Stadium box office, where tickets are $7. Sandberg chuckles at the idea of paying to watch baseball. The day's attendance is 342. This is a thankless task for a job that Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg does not need.

"One," Sandberg says as he surrenders a $10 bill.

Eighteen years ago, Sandberg eulogized his baseball life in the form of a 313-page autobiography. The reticent superstar criticized Cubs management for its personnel decisions. The son of a mortician admonished modern players for their indifference. The book, Second to Home, was raw with emotion. Sandberg's first marriage was in shambles and he forfeited $16 million to try to save it by abruptly retiring June 13, 1994.

"And there will be no comeback. Period," Sandberg wrote. "I'll never play the game again on the pro level, despite media speculation to the contrary."

It reads today as if another man penned it. "How long?" the 54-year-old Sandberg asks, sipping water in his backyard. "The book was 18 years ago?" He has not reread it, although a copy is stashed somewhere in the house. "I bet it would feel weird," Sandberg says. "I have to break it out."

Instead, Sandberg displays the original copy of his 2,699-word Hall of Fame speech on a wall in Margaret's home office. The font is tiny. Sandberg now requires reading glasses to see it because his eyes suffered from the six years of nights spent staring at a laptop screen during bus rides as a minor-league manager.

If Sandberg intended the 1995 book to be his farewell, the 2005 speech served as his managerial doctrine.

"I hope others in the future will know this feeling for the same reason: Respect for the game of baseball," he said. "When we all played it, it was mandatory. It's something I hope we will one day see again."

He invited 225 people to Cooperstown. He asked former teammate and future Hall of Famer Andre Dawson to stand during the speech. Two years later, when Dawson heard Sandberg would pursue managing, he had one thought: "No way."

"You could tell he was a different person," longtime teammate Rick Sutcliffe said. "And there is no question Margaret has had a lot to do with that."

His divorce from Cindy became final July 5, 1995, three months after the book was published. Days before the official proceeding, Sandberg proposed to Margaret Koehnemann, a neighborhood friend and fellow divorcee. His path to managing began there.

Sandberg brought Margaret and the couple's five children to a game at Wrigley in September. He headed for the batting cage. "We could have used you this year," Sandberg's former teammates told him. He returned to the grandstand.

"What are you smiling about?" Margaret asked.

"They want me to come back and play."

"You're going to, aren't you?"

Sandberg played two more seasons for the Cubs, retired for good in 1997, and became a father and husband. Margaret made him more comfortable at social events. The children energized him. The Hall of Fame process inspired him.

"He thought it was time to go back, that he had something to contribute," Margaret said. "And he's never won a World Series. That was huge for him."

He called Jim Hendry, then the Cubs' general manager, and stated his intentions. Chicago offered one job, manager at single-A Peoria, for the 2007 season. A unique path was created.

"He's not going to embarrass himself," Sutcliffe said. "He doesn't need to. There are people who need that job. They need the insurance and all the things that come with being in the big leagues. Ryno doesn't. He's doing this because he truly feels like he can do the job and wants the opportunity to prove that.

"He doesn't need it. That's when you get the best out of a person that you can."

Mookie Betts, a Boston Red Sox second base prospect born one year after Sandberg won his ninth Gold Glove, lashes a two-out single in the fifth inning at the $7 Arizona Fall League game. A San Diego Padres 34th-round pick named Dennis O'Grady pitches and Sandberg offers play-by-play commentary.

"I'm looking to see what the pitcher's got."

Betts steps toward second.

"We have a guy with a big lead at first base."

O'Grady throws strike one. Betts' lead is longer.

"He's trying to steal a base right here, especially with two outs and maybe a singles hitter up there. He's trying to steal a base."

Betts dashes as O'Grady delivers the second pitch.

"There he goes. Got him."

The umpire makes his call amid scattered applause. The public address man reads an advertisement for fitness classes at a local boxing club.

"I'm thinking a little game strategy," Sandberg says. "Might be a good time for a slide step or a pitchout."

Sandberg managed 849 minor-league games. He played 456 before his major-league debut with the Phillies in 1981. Riding the buses as a manager, he said, made him feel 18 again. But this process required more time.

"Why? In my opinion, because I was a Hall of Famer," Sandberg said. "And the path that the Hall of Famers before me paved said Hall of Famers don't make good coaches or managers. They don't know how to deal with the players. They'll be too hard on the players. The players won't be as good as they were.

"I heard all of that stuff. It didn't fit with the way I thought about it."

Don Zimmer, soon to start his 66th season in professional baseball, managed Sandberg for four seasons. Sandberg sought Zimmer's advice. "Do it your way," Zimmer told him.

When asked why Sandberg could succeed where others failed, the octogenarian posed his own question: "Did any of the Hall of Famers manage in the minor leagues?" Few did.

Ted Williams once said, "You couldn't pay me enough to manage." Then Washington, desperate for publicity, offered him $1 million with some stock options to manage the hapless Senators in 1969. This was months after the crosstown Redskins made headlines by hiring Vince Lombardi to coach them. Williams lasted four years; he averaged 96 losses in his final three seasons.

Luke Appling is the closest example to Sandberg, although he managed just 40 games for the Kansas City Athletics in 1967. He spent seven years as a minor-league manager before his 1964 induction into the Hall of Fame. His brief stint was the result of a feud between A's players and eccentric owner Charlie Finley. Kansas City was 10-30 under Appling.

The last seven men hired as National League managers, including Sandberg, possessed no major-league managerial experience. Four of them - Mike Matheny, Walt Weiss, Bryan Price, and Matt Williams - never managed at any level. The Cubs' rejection after the 2010 season tested Sandberg's faith. Fine, Sandberg said, this will allow the other 29 teams to see his existence beyond Chicago. He went to Allentown to manage more triple-A baseball.

"I'm quite surprised," Dawson said, "that he, as a Hall of Famer, would want to go that route."

Margaret grabs a bat in the first of two rooms dedicated to her husband's career. "This is my favorite one," she says. The letter "M" is scribbled in black ink under "23," Sandberg's number. He added Margaret's initial to his bats in 1996, upon his return to baseball, as inspiration.

"It's just a different level of happiness I have grown into over the last 19 years," Sandberg says. "All of that has allowed me to do this."

Sandberg insists he is not on a one-man mission to disprove decades of baseball precepts. Yet, when he returned to Cooperstown as a minor-league manager, his Hall of Fame peers were interested in this experiment. "They were keeping tabs," Sandberg said. He wondered why. Somebody can do this.

The shrine to Sandberg's career is full of memorabilia. One of the grandchildren must have played with the signed Willie Mays ball because it is separated from the photo of Sandberg and Mays. He puts it back in place.

Sandberg debates what artifacts he will display at his Citizens Bank Park office. Margaret points at the nine Gold Gloves positioned around the TV. "You should take those with you," she says. Sandberg flashes a wary smile. He is careful to separate his existence as Hall of Fame player and Phillies manager. This is the lesson he learned in the minors and from the failures of others.

At Surprise Stadium, Sandberg reclines in an empty section. "Right now," he says, "I'm a major-league manager. I went from being a player to being recognized and introduced. People would come up to me and say, 'Great year last year.' Then it was, 'Congratulations on the Hall of Fame.' Now, I look at myself as a major-league manager who worked his way up through the minor leagues, but the other things are kind of back in the past."

An elderly man approaches Sandberg minutes later. Sandberg had filled dozens of autograph requests earlier in the afternoon once he was spotted. He prepares for another.

"Ryno," the sheepish man says, "from a long-suffering Cubs fan, I just want to thank you. I never forget that game with the Cardinals and Bruce Sutter. Thank you."

The fan shakes the Hall of Famer's hand. He never asks for an autograph. Ryne Sandberg shrugs.