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McGRATH: Ryne Sandberg sure would look good managing Cubs

The Phillies gave Ryne Sandberg his first opportunity become major-league manager after Cubs passed him twice. | AP

The Phillies gave Ryne Sandberg his first opportunity to become a major-league manager after the Cubs passed on him twice. | AP

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Updated: May 7, 2014 6:31AM

Whether you know him as Rich, Rick or Ricky Renteria, all three names are appropriate for the Cubs’ new skipper, who did the managerial work of three men in the 34 innings that made up the season-opening series in Pittsburgh.

Challenging umpires, arranging favorable pitching matchups or conjuring a double-play grounder from a five-man infield deployment, Renteria appeared to be on top of his game. That he had only one victory to show for his work speaks to the state of a team whose best player might be Emilio Bonifacio, a 28-year-old utilityman with his fourth organization.

These are, after all, the Cubs. It’s telling that the seasonlong tribute to Wrigley Field’s 100th birthday honors the ballpark itself more than the baseball played therein. A hundred years of Cubs highlights would make for a pretty short celebration.

But that will change once fresh money is onboard to help underwrite ballpark renovations.

New investors won’t have a say in how the Cubs are run, the Ricketts family notes, but why should they when things are going so swimmingly? A third consecutive 90-loss season is almost a certainty. The video board, the signage, the other enhancements that will fund a championship operation . . . it’s going on five years, but they’re coming. In fact, according to a recent TV interview, the word in the organization is no longer ‘‘if’’ the Cubs win the World Series but ‘‘when.’’

Huh? Kris Bryant hit a home run in his Class AA
debut the other night. And new mascot Clark the Cub presides over ‘‘Clark’s Clubhouse,’’ a new children’s play area on the first-level concourse.

Yep, swimmingly.

Maybe the unfailingly upbeat Renteria will turn out to be another Casey Stengel. But a poll of the 38,283 hardy zealots who braved 28-degree wind chill to witness the Cubs’ home opener Friday probably would conclude the ideal Cubs manager was sitting in the visitors’ dugout.

That would be Ryne Sandberg, a Wrigley Field icon who’s in his first full season running the Philadelphia Phillies, rewarded with a three-year contract after taking over for Charlie Manuel last August. Sandberg’s preparation far exceeds the 42-game audition he underwent as Manuel’s interim replacement. A Hall of Fame player enduring a six-year minor-league apprenticeship just to earn a shot as a big-league manager is unprecedented, but that’s what Sandberg did after then-Cubs general manager Jim Hendry told him his lack of experience precluded him from succeeding Dusty Baker after the 2006 season.

Sandberg was the antithesis of a ceremonial manager and made his mark developing young players, but he knew it was over for him in Chicago four years later. When Lou Piniella took early retirement, Hendry turned the dugout over to Mike Quade, a decision that encapsulates why Hendry no longer runs Cubs baseball.

The Theo Epstein regime wanted a clean break from a not-so-glorious past and saw the 12 losing teams Sandberg played on in 15 seasons here outweighing his stature as a franchise legend when they sought a replacement for Quade after one lamentable season. They also wanted a manager they could control.

Epstein and his cronies aren’t much for second-guessing themselves, but in citing the stalled development of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo as grounds for dismissing Dale Sveum, they acknowledged Sveum’s shortcomings in an area where Sandberg is strongest. But Ryno is off to Philadelphia and feeling secure enough to have former big-league managers Larry Bowa and Pete Mackanin on his coaching staff.

It’s still a tough gig. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, the core group of a five-season playoff run, are beyond 30, and Howard hasn’t been much good since popping his Achilles in the 2011 playoffs. Marlon Byrd, the Phillies’ main offseason acquisition, is 36 and playing for his seventh team. The pitching staff looks thrown together, with the closer’s job up in the air.

Terry Francona inherited worse disarray when he replaced Jim Fregosi as the Phillies’ manager in 1996. He was fired after four fruitless seasons, only to surface as a two-time World Series winner in Boston, stature that gave him the power to resist lineup ‘‘suggestions’’ from Epstein’s numbers-crunching underlings.

‘‘I’m doing something I set out as a goal seven or eight years ago, and it’s a great opportunity,’’ Sandberg said before joining fellow Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins for the first-ball ceremony Friday.

Taking part in an opposing team’s event ‘‘felt a little awkward,’’ but Sandberg handled the job with aplomb. He always did at Wrigley.

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