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Double play for Cubs? Clock is ticking on Ryne Sandberg, Theo Epstein

Recent developments seem be pointing toward Ryne Sandberg’s return Cubs. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Recent developments seem to be pointing toward Ryne Sandberg’s return to the Cubs. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 15, 2011 9:43AM

PHILADELPHIA — If Theo Epstein is the key to the Cubs’ future, then Ryne Sandberg is the key link to their past as they prepare for next year.

Each could be almost equally important targets in the coming weeks — if for different reasons — and the clock appears to be ticking on both.

Which means the Cubs need to take the uncommon approach of opening an official line of communication with Sandberg, if not offer some level of commitment, even before getting the general manager hiring done.

Sources both in Chicago and Philadelphia say Cubs ownership wants to reconcile with their estranged Hall of Famer, one disastrous Cubs year since Sandberg lost out on the team’s managerial job to Mike Quade and left the organization to manage the Phillies’ Class AAA team.

Sources close to Sandberg say he vowed to stay away from Cubs functions, such as the Cubs Convention, after the split, and he didn’t attend the first one since then, last January (though he told the New York Times he wasn’t invited). Those sources say he’s open to returning after the firing of former general manager Jim Hendry.

The problem for the Cubs is they might have to act fast — maybe faster than the GM process takes — to assure a shot at hiring back a guy Phillies officials believe will get considerable attention for openings this winter after managing Class AAA Lehigh Valley to the International League finals.

This after four seasons managing in the Cubs’ system, including back-to-back first-place seasons with the Iowa Cubs (2009-10).

‘‘I don’t know what else he could do,’’ said Pat Gillick, senior advisor to the Phillies’ president and GM, and a Hall of Fame general manager. ‘‘I think he had a fairly successful run over with Chicago and he did a great job with us here. And he’s had playing skills. So if anybody else wanted something on his resume, it would be maybe that he was a major league coach. Myself, I don’t think he needs to take that stuff. I think he’d make somebody a fine manager.’’

One major league source with ties to both the Cubs and White Sox said Saturday he wouldn’t be surprised to see the White Sox make a run at Sandberg to “stick it” to the Cubs by putting one of their retired numbers on the back of an active Sox jersey — if only as a member of the Sox’ coaching staff.

Sandberg, who was not available Saturday and didn’t immediately return phone calls, is said to be willing accept a coaching job in the majors if a big-league manager’s position isn’t available.

So even if the Cubs can’t offer Sandberg a managing job before getting a general manager in place, a formal meeting with assurances of a prominent place for Sandberg at the big-league level might at least assure the Cubs of staying in the picture for his services while finishing the GM search.

And that might not require the lengthy wait chairman Tom Ricketts seemed willing to take when he talked with Cubs beat writers before the final game of the season.

With the Boston Red Sox completing their historic collapse that night, followed by manager Terry Francona’s resignation/dismissal, Red Sox GM Epstein is in play already. Given the chance to quell all the building talk of an Epstein-to-Chicago move in the wake of Francona’s departure, Red Sox officials stoked the talk by conspicuously avoiding answers on the issue Friday night.

‘‘We’re not prepared to answer that question here,’’ team president Larry Lucchino said during the Francona announcement. ‘‘This press conference is about the contributions Tito [Francona] made to this franchise.’’

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