Updated: August 30, 2013 11:10AM
NEW YORK — It just looked so odd. And, yes, to this nostalgia-laden visitor’s eyes, so sad, so plaintive.
There, leaning against the railing in the visitors’ dugout at Citi Field on this sunny Thursday, stands Ryne Sandberg, wearing a gray uniform with red trim, a red cap perched on his head. He looks tan and fit, which he is. (He hits fungos and throws batting practice before each game.) The famous No. 23 is on his back, also in red.
Red, mind you.
Not Cubbie blue.
And therein lies the sadness. Or, if you will, the poignancy and heartbreak of a native son lost to odd decisions and fate and, as he himself will offer, ‘‘the nature of baseball.’’
Sandberg, 53, a Cub for 15 seasons, a Hall of Fame second baseman — quite possibly the best second baseman who ever played, by the way — is the interim manager of the Phillies. Previously the Phillies’ third-base coach, he took over for fired manager Charlie Manuel on Aug. 16 and has led the sub-.500 team to a decent 8-6 record.
This day game, however, happens to be a 10-ton truck wreck, with the Mets winning 11-3, aided by a walked-in run, a balked-in run, a three-run triple, two home runs and a pop-up double that landed near first base. Plus, lousy Phillies hitting.
‘‘Those were unfortunate things that we’d like to see improvement on,’’ Sandberg says calmly after the game.
We all know Sandberg is calm. It used to go beyond calm when he was a player, to a kind of repression of analysis, a refusal to go anywhere verbally beyond cliché and self-deprecation. When you interviewed Ryno after a game back then, you got the distinct feeling he was actually suffering like a shocked lab mouse with each new — and almost always harmless — question.
That is likely one of the reasons the Cubs never made Sandberg their manager.
Skippers have to talk and explain. And do it a lot.
Which is the point here. This man who has developed as a person so much in the 16 years since he quit playing, who paid his bush-league dues like no other Hall of Fame manager-to-be ever has, who found — startling even to him — that he loved coaching the game to lessers with only a fraction of his talent and desire — this man was passed over by the Cubs so often that he finally left the organization and joined the red guys.
Lou Piniella, Mike Quade, Dale Sveum — all were picked by the Cubs to be managers while Sandberg stood there, blue hat in hand, silently shuffling his feet.
But it didn’t happen, even after he spent two years managing in Peoria. How serious must a Hall of Famer be to go down to the low minors to learn a new craft? Usually, big-name ex-players are simply given manager’s jobs. You think Frank Robinson, even Robin Ventura, spent time in the cornfields?
But Sandberg was sincere. He wanted to reinvent himself. He wanted to find out if managing was in his blood. It was.
‘‘In Peoria, I found out right away, in half a season,’’ he says after the game, as the Phillies pack up and prepare to fly to Chicago, where Sandberg will enter Wrigley for the first time as a non-Cub. ‘‘The teaching part, being with young guys, riding buses . . .’’
Staying in crappy hotels, even?
‘‘They weren’t hotels, they were motels,’’ he says with a grin. And he loved those, too.
‘‘I was doing it all over again.’’
He was changing as a person, too, as he found players respected him, wanted to hear him talk. That and the Hall of Fame interviews in 2005, the finding of a good second wife, it all helped.
‘‘It was a growing thing,’’ he says. ‘‘I matured.’’
But he never grew out of being a Cub. Sure, he was drafted by the Phillies, but he had six at-bats with them in 1981. From 1982 to 1997, he had 8,379 at-bats with the Cubs. And can we remember he played four of those seasons without making a throwing error? Good grief.
Today nobody in the listless crowd did much at all when Sandberg was introduced.
‘‘Friday at Wrigley, they’ll give him a standing ovation,’’ says former Cub Gary Matthews, a Phillies broadcaster. ‘‘Not only that, he deserves it.’’
The last question is this: Is Sandberg bitter about being spurned by the Cubs, the team about which he says, ‘‘I was a player, a Hall of Famer, a retired Cub and then a minor-league manager for close to 30 years of my life.’’
His answer about bitterness comes quick.
‘‘No,’’ he says. ‘‘All the people who knew me are gone. You hire who you’re comfortable with. That’s baseball. I understand.’’
Even if we don’t.