Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ryno to Replace Sweet Lou? Not So Fast

With Lou Piniella recently announcing that he'll retire at season's end, speculation on who will be the Cubs' next manager has already begun. Here in Chicago amongst a sea of Cubbie fans, there's a growing chorus for that person to be Hall-of-Famer and current Triple-A manager, Ryne Sandberg.

I'm not one of the people in that chorus.

In a way, I've been wondering about this day for years. Back in 2007 when I first heard that Sandberg would take over as the manager of the Cubs' Single-A affiliate, Peoria Chiefs, I thought, "That's kinda neat. Good for him." But when I later learned that his goal was to eventually work his way up and become a major league manager, warning flags went off in my mind. After all, what is a Hall-of-Fame player who has aspirations to manage in the big leagues doing in Single-A with the Peoria Chiefs? (Full disclosure: I tried for a radio stats internship with the Peoria Chiefs in the spring of 2004. I wasn't hired. But somehow a legend has grown through the years that has me instead attempting to become the mascot of the Peoria Chiefs, complete with having to dress up in costume and run the bases during tryouts...)

Over the past four seasons, I've picked up little nuggets from Sandberg's managing career. Apparently in his first season, his Chiefs made it to the championship game and lost. That's admittedly a good season for a rookie manager. But I also was hearing reports that Sandberg would argue with umps and get ejected a lot. A LOT. Some people will say that shows he's got the fire. I don't know, though. If you're frequently getting ejected from Single-A games, that just seems lame. Keep your head in the game.

I've never seen Sandberg manage a game. And even if I did, I'm no judge of what makes a great in-game manager. But for the time being, let's put aside the fact that Sandberg started managing in Single-A and that he's frequently ejected from games. Here's a bigger question: Why does Ryne Sandberg still have zero coaching experience at the day-to-day major league level?

In order to make an interesting comparison to Sandberg, all we have to do is look across town at the Chicago White Sox skipper, Ozzie Guillen. Guillen's last season playing in the majors was 2000, and about a year later he had a coaching job with the Montreal Expos. Then in 2003 he got a coaching job with the Florida Marlins - and by the way, the Marlins won the World Series that year.

So when the White Sox had their manager position open up in 2004, here is how Guillen's resume read:
  • 13-year White Sox veteran
  • Last played in the majors in 2000 (just 3 full seasons had passed)
  • Played for the Atlanta Braves and learned firsthand from one of the best managers ever: Bobby Cox
  • Coached in the majors for two teams, one of which won the World Series just last season
  • Numerous professional references who vouched that Ozzie Guillen would be a great manager, ranging from people he played with to the Sox announcer, Hawk Harrelson. (I've heard at least a few people say they "always knew" even back when Guillen was playing that one day he'd be a manager. He was a natural for it.)
Now let's take a look at Sandberg's resume:
  • 16-year Cubs veteran
  • Last played in the majors in 1997 (13 full seasons will have passed)
  • Spent 8 springs helping the Cubs as an instructor during spring training
  • Spent 2 seasons managing at Single-A (which is basically remedial level baseball for a Hall-of-Famer like Sandberg)
  • Spent a season managing Double-A, then a season at Triple-A
In this NewsOK article from last week, Sandberg says he got the itch to get into managing during 2005 when he got inducted into the Hall of Fame. That's probably true. But I also think that seeing Guillen's success with the White Sox winning the World Series in 2005 also got his competitive juices going.

The feel-good storyline with Sandberg, aside from being a Cub fan favorite, is that he's working his way up the minors as a manager the same way he did as a player. And I can see why that story sounds good on the surface. The only problem is that this isn't how a Hall-of-Fame player, who is already well known throughout the majors, should be discovered as a managerial talent. If Sandberg indeed has a special skill as a baseball communicator and tactician, shouldn't there be at least a half dozen major league teams asking him to coach on their staff? Not necessarily as a manager at first, but at least as a hitting coach, third base coach, or bench coach? By being a coach in the major leagues, Sandberg would be able to see how today's major league organizations operate on a day-to-day basis, learn the nuances of the various new ball parks (he's probably played in less than half of today's parks), and most importantly, it would be the best way for him to scout all the major league managers and players, learning their tendencies and getting his own ideas as to how he'd compete at this level.

In this ESPN article a few days before Piniella announced his retirement, the topic of Sandberg possibly being the next Cubs' manager was explored. Here's an excerpt:

Last offseason, Piniella was quoted as saying Sandberg would be "in the mix" to replace him one day, but pointed out that there is no real substitute for managing in the majors.

"Managing in the minor leagues gives you an insight into the game," Piniella said. "You don't really have six or seven coaches like you have up here. You've got to dwell in a lot of different areas and, at the same time, you get a chance to find out if you really like this or don't like it. But I'll tell you this: Handling young players at the minor league level and handling players at the big league level, they're a little different."

It will be interesting to see what the Cubs do. From a PR standpoint, Sandberg would probably be a good hire. And who knows, maybe it would work out. But if the Cubs are looking to hire the best manager possible, it's hard to believe that Sandberg would top their list.

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