Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Essentially, Sandberg Fired the Phillies

By Jeff Kallman

When Whitey Herzog resigned as the Cardinals' manager in July 1990, there were those who said what he really did was upend the usual saying (you can't can the whole team, so you can the manager) and fire his team. "Herzog had only four rules," wrote Thomas Boswell. "Be on time. Bust your butt. Play smart. And have some laughs while you're at it. The Cardinals broke the rules. So Whitey canned 'em."

Ryne Sandberg once caused Herzog enough grief during a Hall of Fame playing career as a Cub. (And it wasn't just limited to the so-called Sandberg Game of 1984.) Now he may have taken a page out of the White Rat's manual. You can spend only so much time doing your best with what you've got until you've got no choice in your own mind.

Sandberg decided not to wait for the coming front office shakeup that everyone except possibly the Phillies themselves really knew was well overdue. Why, they've got Andy MacPhail waiting to succeed Pat Gillick as team president.

Sandberg's no dummy. He may have said all the right things in his verbal anticipation of a new regime not necessarily wanting him to preside over the actual or alleged coming rebuild. But he had to think in his heart of hearts that with these Phillies what's said is one thing and what's done is something else entirely. This proud man who hates to lose didn't like being told, in effect, too bad.

So he did what a lot of bosses only wish they could do. He fired the entire organization for it.

"It's not an easy decision," he said at an abrupt June 26 press conference announcing his quote resignation. "In a lot of ways I'm old school, and I'm very much dissatisfied with the record and not pleased at all with that. I think that goes hand in hand with being a manager. So it's been a difficult thing to swallow, but I have thought about it for some time, and we've come to this day. The accumulation of losses was something that I take responsibility for and something that really took a toll on me."

Just as Boswell noted Herzog's resignation translated to, "They quit on me. Now I'm quitting on them. Get me a new team," so could Sandberg's translate as, "They quit on me. Now I'm quitting on them. Get me a new organization." Sandberg said twice he didn't want to be an impediment of sorts if the Phillies were about to bring in a new guard in the front office. Maybe he was also afraid of what the new front office might bring in, in turn.

General manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. gave Sandberg nothing much other than aging veterans nailed down through dubious contracts and a sense that the organization didn't really know what the hell it wanted for any rebuilding to begin. This isn't what Sandberg signed up for when — realizing the Cubs had no intention of letting him take the bridge after toiling five long and respected years in their system — he let the Phillies seduce him to Lehigh Valley and then to succeed Charlie Manuel.

Some have wondered if Sandberg's done nothing while he had the bridge. Well, he didn't age Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins (now with the Dodgers), Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, and Carlos Ruiz. Or, sign at least two of them to unrealistic contract extensions that showed only an inability to read the most likely future.

He didn't create the injury that sent Lee to the disabled list and made him untradable, and he didn't create the shoulder issues that finished Roy Halladay at 36.

He didn't try plugging the Phillies' holes with more aging and indifferent veterans, and he didn't overpay for a closer who might be one of the best in the business but has no real place on a team with nothing much to close.

And he didn't refuse to swap still-useful assets for anything that might begin replenishing the Phillies' parched farm system or bring aboard major league-useful youth who could be shepherded the right ways.

You can't pin those raps on Sandberg.

Some think MacPhail is all but itching to push a plunger on Amaro, the real architect (if that's the right word) of the Phillies' mess. He'll have to wait until Gillick steps away, alas. "Ruben is going to be the GM through the end of the season,'' Gilick has since told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick. "He's going to make any of the deals that we make. He still has that authority. That's his job — to change personnel. That's not going to change."

Bet Phillies fans can't wait until that's going to change.

Has Sandberg had a few dubious moments? Name one manager, Hall of Fame or otherwise, who hasn't. None of them were perfect. Every one of them could and did find critics as well as sycophants. You can travel in far worse imperfect company.

Sandberg wasn't exactly adept at dealing with complacent or inattentive players. He wasn't always able to avoid overworking his bullpens as his starters not named Hamels proved less than capable of keeping the team in games. Sometimes his in-game tactics looked questionable at best.

Of course, asking Ken Giles to give an intentional walk in Pittsburgh wasn't expected to turn into a beef on the mound and a row in the dugout between Giles, Sandberg, and pitching coach Bob McClure.

Asking Jeff Francoeur, reserve outfielder, to pitch two innings in a game in which the Phillies were blown out early and often — normally a reasonable preservation of a bullpen, especially when it's the team's best incumbent asset — got second baseman Utley lookin visibly displeased at the mound after Francoeur was asked to pitch that second inning.

Francoeur publicly denounced the second inning's assignment, all but questioning McClure's — and by extension Sandberg's — sanity. And it turned out the bullpen phone was off the hook. Forget his players, Sandberg now had to be wondering whether his own pitching coach had his head in the games.

What we have is what Philadelphia Daily News columnist David Murphy calls "a near-total organizational failure that renders the farm system so devoid of talent that the manager is forced to run out a lineup without a single player who would get picked up on waivers by a contending club."

Yet Francoeur was most sympathetic when the news of Sandberg's departure reached the Phillies players. "I thoroughly enjoyed playing for him," Francoeur said. "He's an old-school type guy. He enjoyed guys who played hard and that's kind of my mold."

Saying he didn't think Sandberg quit on the club, Francoeur continued in a way that made it sound like indeed he did fire the team. "[H]e showed up every day early, ready to do work, do early work, all that stuff," said the veteran journeyman "I think there just comes a time that I'm sure like anything you feel like it's time to let someone else do it and let's see if this staff can do it. He told us there are changes coming up, but at no point did he quit on us."

Ben Revere doesn't think Sandberg quit on the Phillies, either, but he didn't sound unhappy to see the old-school Sandberg go, either. "You know," he said, "sometimes some managers ain't made to be a manager sometimes."

But isn't it also true that, sometimes, some teams just can't be managed? Even by a lead-by-example skipper who preaches respect for the game. Sandberg believes in fundamentals. The Phillies might have needed that to be re-drilled into them. "A team of jaded veterans and misplaced minor leaguers," the Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford described them, "none of whom wanted to be told how to run the bases."

For long enough it seemed like the only ones who didn't know the Phillies were due for a top to bottom shakeup ere the Phillies themselves. Sandberg knew it. His head was beginning to kill him from all its contacts with the brick walls against which he'd been banging it.

Right now it looks like when, not whether Amaro will face the guillotine. But you'd like to see Sandberg get another major league shot, even if he is 55. Preferably with a team that doesn't need much teaching but does need a little fundamental re-orientation while not being somewhere between the old folks' home and the nursery, either.

"John McGraw couldn't have won with this team," ESPN's David Schoenfeld says. "Will he get another chance somewhere else? Hard to say, but, hey, Terry Francona did OK after not winning in Philly." That's one piece of good news for Sandberg. But as would happen in due course with Francona, it'd hurt too much to see Sandberg have to fire a second team.

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