"The first time around, I wasn't a legitimate candidate at all; I had no experience to bring to the table. Now I have four years under my belt," Ryne Sandberg says.
Updated: November 28, 2010 4:52PM
Each time his phone rings these days, Ryne Sandberg must wonder if THIS will be the call. He has been through this process before, waiting for three tries to get a call from Cooperstown, the one that finally came in 2005.
This time, the anticipation is a little different.
Sandberg's latest dream is to be the next manager of the Cubs. He never has been closer to reaching that dream than he is now.
''I've been through the full process,'' Sandberg said Wednesday. ''I've met with [general manager] Jim Hendry, [assistant GM] Randy Bush and [owner] Tom Ricketts. All I can say, from my standpoint, it was very much a learning process and it went well for me. It is a wait-and-see process for me now.''
At this point, what's another week or two-
It's a dream that started almost exactly four years ago, when the Cubs were searching for Dusty Baker's replacement. Only after the job unofficially had gone to Lou Piniella did Hendry agree to meet with Sandberg. Hendry was as shocked as anyone that Sandberg was interested in the job, seeing as how he never had coached -- let alone managed -- at any level.
Sandberg's top priority those days was landing a decent tee time.
Then he got the itch to manage. So he called what many had seen as Hendry's bluff, agreeing to manage at Class A Peoria -- an almost unheard-of step for a Hall of Famer. He spent two seasons there, another season at Class AA Tennessee, then this season at Class AAA Iowa.
Along that unglamorous route, he compiled a 284-277 record, earned the Pacific Coast League manager of the year award this season and gained a ton of experience.
He also got a more detailed look at the Cubs' farm system -- a new focus for the new Cubs -- than any of the other candidates. So when he went through the interview process this time around, it was nothing like his quiet dinner with Hendry four years ago.
''Night and day,'' Sandberg said. ''I was a legit candidate this time around. The first time around, I wasn't a legitimate candidate at all; I had no experience to bring to the table. Now I have four years under my belt.''
Though the Cubs have interviewed second-half fill-in Mike Quade, former Cleveland Indians manager Eric Wedge and former Arizona Diamondbacks and Seattle Mariners manager Bob Melvin, sources say the two strongest candidates remain Quade and Sandberg, with New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi a wild-card long shot.
Sandberg remains the best man for THIS job. His critics inside the Cubs' organization point to the fact that, despite so many managerial openings around baseball, no other team has contacted the Cubs to interview Sandberg. Even Wedge, a bland tactician who took the Indians to one division title in seven seasons, went from his interview Tuesday with the Cubs to an interview Wednesday with the Mariners in Sandberg's hometown of Seattle.
But Sandberg knows these young players. He knows what it's like to play day baseball -- and play it well -- at Wrigley Field. He knows this market. And, more important, this market knows him. The Cubs no longer have a face of their franchise. With ticket sales suddenly a concern, they need a prominent face. Sandberg's will come cheaply.
There is no other fit for Sandberg.
And this is a team -- maybe taking a page out of the Blackhawks' playbook -- that will spend more time honoring its former star players. Remember, Harry Caray's statue was relocated to make room for Hall of Famer Billy Williams' statue last month.
Forget Quade's 24-13 record down the stretch. The Cubs were playing a bunch of kids, facing no pressure. This was not a legitimate test for the next Cubs manager. And he has no major-league playing experience. That's a fact that shouldn't figure into this equation, but it's a key commodity in dealing with today's players.
Sandberg isn't just a former player, he's a Hall of Famer. And no one knows the 2011 Cubs better than Sandberg.
This process should be over by now.
''I'm just waiting,'' Sandberg said.