Once the proforma interviews of non-candidates are over, and the last possible ounce of publicity has been milked from a three-month buildup, I think most of us know who will emerge as the next manager of the Chicago Cubs. And, as that man plants one foot on the dugout steps next April Fools’ Day to let the crowd see him a little better as he leans forward to watch Carlos Zambrano throw the first pitch of the 2011 season, he not only will be taking one small step for himself, but also one giant leap into the unknown for the Cubs, the National League, and for the handful of other baseball immortals who secretly dream of managing a big league baseball team.
Surprisingly, as Ryne Sandberg begins next season as the 35th Cubs manager since the Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1936, he also will be the first-ever National League skipper to start his rookie year in the dugout as an established member of the Hall of Fame. In fact, since 1936, precious few HoF player inductees have managed under any circumstances: only Hornsby, Frisch, Lemon, Berra, Appling, F. Robby, Tony Perez and Teddy Ballgame. Except for Williams, each of these greats were short of HoF induction when starting out as managers.
Of the few names on this list, only Lemon and Berra reached the postseason in the years after the Hall opened, each twice managing New York teams in the World Series. Lemon, of course, lead the famous Yankees comeback in ‘78 to win it all, probably the greatest managing achievement by a sitting Hall of Fame player in the last 75 years. But of these immortals, only Williams and Sandberg carried Hall of Fame certification into a dugout from day one, so it may be worthwhile to compare Ryno today with Ted in 1969, as Sandberg prepares to launch himself into the same uncharted territory that Williams explored in his four-year managing soujourn away from the Florida Keys.
TED IN 1969:
• 51 years old, nine years after the end of his playing career.
• A media star and idol to millions, coast-to-coast. Generally regarded as second only to Ruth as a hitter.
• Last of the .400 hitters. Never hit below .310 until he was 41 years old.
• An indifferent fielder focused on Triple Crown stats only. Never known as a situational hitter.
• Hit .200 in his only postseason appearance. Most memorable hits were in the ‘41 and ‘46 All-Star Games.
• Still nursing a 30-year-old grudge against sportswriters and fans in ‘69.
• Sacrificed five prime playing years to military service, after being accused by Boston writers of draft dodging in 1942. Korean War combat hero.
• At one time, the highest paid player in baseball.
• Outspoken, irascible, notoriously profane, yet a man loved, respected and admired by teammates, opponents, and the public at large.
• Last time seen wearing a minor league uniform: Minneapolis, 1938.
• Managing Experience when hired: Zilch.
• Brought to Washington by a rookie owner and personal friend to oversee a bad team and rescue a dying franchise in a city indifferent to baseball.
• Personally down-to-earth, but constantly surrounded by idolaters and provoked by media. Ted’s hiring was treated by sports media as an event only slightly less-significant than the first Moon Landing or Elvis returning to Vegas.
• Despite the negatives seen above, achieved a very surprising 86-76 record in his first year as Senators’ manager.
RYNO IN 2011:
• 51 years old, 14 years after the end of his playing career.
• A legend in the Heartland, but generally unknown in media capitals, where casual fans likely are ignorant of his Hall-of-Fame status. Generally regarded as the best all-around second baseman since Collins, Frisch and Gehringer (except on ESPN and in parts of southern Ohio.)
• First 40 HR second basemen since Hornsby. Broke Rajah’s lifetime HR record for the position.
• Fielding records and Golden Gloves galore.
• Clemente-like performance in postseason games, with at least one hit in every contest. Lifetime .385 postseason average. Famous clutch performer renowned for the "Sandberg Game."
• Positive media relations, even in the days surrounding his first retirement.
• Sacrificed two prime playing years recovering from injuries, personal setbacks, and organizational mismanagement.
• At one time, the highest-paid player in baseball.
• Quiet, honest, notoriously polite, yet doubted by many who fail to recognize his integrity in sacrificing two years of multi-million-dollar income, or the sincerity of his HoF induction remarks.
• Last time seen wearing a minor league uniform: Des Moines, early this month.
• Managing Experience when hired: Last four years, with winning records in the Cubs’ system at Peoria, Des Moines, and Jackson, TN.
• Brought up to the big team by a rookie owner and fan to manage a mediocre roster with some talented youngsters who played well for him in the minors. Ryno’s personal appeal is expected to reverse downward trends in attendance at one of baseball’s showcase venues.
• Personally down-to-earth, a famous clubhouse prankster as a player, tough on umpires during his managing apprenticeship. His hiring will cause only a ripple in major media outside the midwest, and by mid-season, we too may forget that he’s a Hall of Famer.
• 86-76 sounds like a reasonable goal for ‘11.
Face it, for reasons good and bad, Girardi’s not coming here and Sandberg’s many positives are evident. Even if he fails, he will have taken one small step for that handful of Hall-of-Fame players who yearn to manage, a group that presumably includes our surrogate pitching coach who I hear just re-up’ed for another year in the front office.