I've been following Ryne Sandberg in the minors for four seasons now. I'm not going to pretend to be an insider with any special knowledge of what is going on in the mind of Ryne Sandberg. I've never actually ever seen him manage a game in person, although I hope to soon. I have simply followed his career on-line and through the radio broadcasts. I can't tell you whether he's going to be a great manager or not. I don't think anyone can tell that. But I hope I can give some insight in to what kind of a manager he is likely to be.
I want to dispel the idea that Sandberg does not have enough experience to be a manager yet. In fact, Sandberg has more experience than most former major league players who get their first managerial position. He's now spent four years coaching, which is more time than Mike Scioscia, Ozzie Guillen and Joe Girardi had before getting their first managerial job. It's the same amount of time that Bob Brenly put in before he was hired by the Diamondbacks, although Brenly worked as a broadcaster between his time as a Giants coach and the Diamondbacks manager. If you want to go back farther, it's more experience than Lou Piniella, Tony LaRussa or Joe Torre had. (Torre actually started as a player/manager.) Sure, a guy who never played in the majors like Joe Maddon had to spend over two decades coaching before he got his first job as a manager, but few guys who had long major league careers have paid their dues in the minors like Sandberg has. Certainly no one whose plaque is in Cooperstown has ever done anything like what Sandberg did.
You can make the case that those managers had experience coaching in the majors, which Sandberg doesn't have. I really don't think that's a big deal for Sandberg. For one, he's someone who is quite familiar with the workings of a major league clubhouse. He can hire an experienced bench coach to help him or just keep on Alan Trammell. And since "Pitching-coach-for-life" Larry Rothschild will probably be back, he has him to lean on for advice, and I do believe that Sandberg will be a manager who will listen to his coaches. But I don't think he'll need to a lot. He's seen how plenty of managers manage over his playing career, and he's likely to get a "September call-up" to travel with the team when the Iowa Cubs' season ends, if he really needs to see Sweet Lou manage in person.
I also want to make it clear that while I have some reservations about Ryne Sandberg as a manager, I believe the Cubs have to make him their next manager. Four years ago, Sandberg was told that if he wanted to manage the Cubs, he needed to work his way up through the minors. Sandberg did everything he was asked to do. He was successful at it. While no promises were made, for the Cubs to then turn around and say "Sorry Ryno, but we're going with Joe Girardi," would make the Cubs look very poor. It would tell quality people both within and outside of the organization that they treat a star like Sandberg shabbily and that loyalty means nothing to them. Players, scouts and other personnel would take note of that. Sandberg would certainly leave for another job, likely never to return.
The biggest thing that sticks out about Ryne Sandberg as a manager is that his players seem to love playing for him. It's always hard to judge these things because no minor leaguer is going to blast his manager and unlike most minor league skippers, everyone who has played for Sandberg gets asked about him. But universally, they are effusive in their praise. Tyler Colvin, Casey Coleman, Micah Hoffpauir, Bobby Scales and others have said how much they enjoy playing for him. Darwin Barney in particular seems to have almost a mystical connection to his manager. I don't think their love of Sandberg is an act.
Certainly one can say those guys are minor leaguers, of course they're going to respect Sandberg. But I'd bet some of Sandberg's players in the minors have no idea who the heck he is. Major leaguers might be more cynical, but all but the most incorrigible major leaguers sit up and pay respect to a guy who has the words "Hall of Famer" before his name. You can argue that having a manager that players like to play for is a bad thing if you want, but I don't think Sandberg is one of those managers that lets his players do whatever they want. Like in his Cooperstown speech, he is continually stressing to his players to "Play the game the right way."
The next aspect of Sandberg as manager is going to come as a surprise to those who remember him as a player, but Sandberg is actually great with the media. Those of us who can remember those painful 10th Inning shows when Sandberg never smiled and gave two word answers to Steve Stone's or Harry Caray's questions wouldn't recognize this Sandberg. This Sandberg smiles, gives long answers to questions and never stops promoting the team he's managing. Whether it's just that he's gotten older or he's just happier about his life, sometimes you think it's not the same guy out there. Maybe Ryne would say he isn't the same guy. But he does his media obligations eagerly. There is a caveat here: dealing with the Des Moines Register and the Knoxville News is not the same as dealing with the Chicago media. The media in Des Moines, Knoxville and Peoria are more concerned with attendance figures than wins and losses. But I'm sure Sandberg knows that.
The other part of Sandberg that people won't recognize is his fiery attitude. Sandberg was ejected twice in his entire playing career. In the minors, he gets ejected that many times a month. Why he does it, I don't know, but Sandberg believes it's his job as the manager to stick up for his players and that means getting ejected. When asked, he just says he's trying to win ballgames. I don't expect him to kick dirt or throw bases, but I do expect him to get in an umpire's face a lot.
Sandberg has gotten a lot of credit for player development. How much credit he deserves for Colvin, Castro, Cashner and Russell, I'm not prepared to say. But if the Cubs are going to start relying more on their farm system more, it does make sense to hire someone intimately familiar with it.
For a hall of famer, Sandberg is pretty humble. As I've said, no one of his stature has ever gone down to the low minors and slogged it out with the kids like he has. In the minors, they don't have a staff to do things for you: Sandberg has to hit fungoes, coach third base, throw batting practice and sometimes even clean up and carry the bags. He's done this without complaining. In fact, he's always said it's a lot of fun and that he's working his way up the minors just like everyone else. Maybe he didn't appreciate his first trip through the minors and is now stopping to smell the roses.
Another aspect of this humility is his comment that "I never knew how much I didn't know" before managing in the minors. To me, that's the strongest statement he's ever made that indicates to me he's ready to manage in the majors. It also indicates to me that he's willing to listen to his coaches and that his managerial style will not be a "My way or the highway" style.
Sandberg has also won in the minor leagues. The Chiefs just missed the playoffs in 2007 and he took Tennessee all the way to the Southern League Championship Series last year. Iowa is in first place as I write this. Admittedly, the 2008 Chiefs laid an egg. It's very hard to judge a minor league manager on his W-L numbers because winning is not the primary goal of the team. But winning is always better than losing.
Now for some of the negative stuff. This isn't really negative, but I've always been hesitant to hire Sandberg because of how difficult it would be to fire him. I can remember Bart Starr as head coach of the Packers and how he went on for nine seasons, long after everyone knew he didn't know what he was doing, because no one had it in them to fire him. I think Sandberg will be a successful manager. But I am a firm believer that you can't know that until you actually give him a chance to manage. If it doesn't work out, will Ricketts have it in him to fire a legend? But we're way too far down the road to worry about that now. And Bart Starr only had one season as an assistant QB coach before being hired as Head Coach and GM of the Packers, so the situation isn't really comparable.
Another thing that concerns me is that Sandberg is not exactly the most forward-thinking of baseball minds. While I don't think he's going to make any comments about walks clogging up the basepaths, he likely has no idea what VORP is. Most advanced statistical analysis would likely go right over his head. I'm sure he knows what OBP is, but I'd bet he still looks at batting average a lot. He probably relies on hunches rather than analysis a lot more than a lot of us would like.
Going hand-in-hand with that, Sandberg uses a lot of one-run strategies and will talk some about "productive outs." He likes the running game. Most managers who talk about "Playing the game the right way" seem to think that learning to bunt properly is part of that. Now whether he is doing that as part of instruction or he thinks it's a way to win ballgames, I can't say. It's probably both. Will he be as bad as Don Baylor? I don't know. Maybe.
Sandberg also clearly believes that playing time should be earned. While minor league managers don't have complete freedom to set their lineup, they aren't micromanaged by the Farm Director either. If a guy is hot, Sandberg will play him. Guys who aren't producing get benched. In the end, this is the minors so every guy gets to play eventually and gets a chance to break out of it, but it's possible he has a doghouse in the majors. But this may be one of those things that doesn't really translate from the minors to the majors. Or it may not. Again, I have to stress that managing in the minors is not the same as managing in the majors. But being a bench coach in the majors is not the same as managing in the majors, either.
Finally, I do want to point out the Mike Scioscia parallel. (And let me add that Scioscia isn't a fan of advanced stats and talks a lot about "productive" outs. The Angels haven't traditionally drawn a lot of walks, either.) Mike Scioscia, after his playing career ended, worked as a minor league instructor before spending two years on Bill Russell's coaching staff. Then Peter O'Malley sold the team to NewsCorp. They hired Kevin Malone as GM and instead of making Scioscia the new manager, they found a guy who had won a World Series in New York in Davey Johnson, kicked Scioscia off the major league staff and told him to manage Albuquerque. It wasn't a way of getting him more experience. It was a way of hoping he'd go away. After one season, the Angels called him and the rest is history. Davey Johnson was fired after only two seasons. The Dodgers have regretted it ever since.