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MCGRATH: Ryne Sandberg faces tall order in first chance as major-league manager

PhiladelphiPhillies interim manager Ryne Sandberg hits ball for fielding drills before baseball game against Los Angeles Dodgers Friday Aug. 16

Philadelphia Phillies interim manager Ryne Sandberg hits the ball for fielding drills before a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photos/Christopher Szagola)

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Updated: September 19, 2013 9:43AM

Ryne Sandberg’s oft-professed goal of managing in the big leagues was realized when the Phillies chose him Friday to replace Charlie Manuel with the team in a 4-19 free fall that has exposed gaping holes on the roster and throughout the organization.

If Sandberg wanted to manage in the worst way, he got what he wished for. The aging Phillies are bad, battered and burdened by some onerous contracts that make immediate extrication unlikely. Meanwhile, the smoothly running Braves and the curiously mediocre Nationals are younger and potentially capable of being good for a while, so the balance of power in the National League East isn’t likely to shift soon.

Good thing those even-keeled Philly fans are known for their tranquility and patience.

Sandberg’s ascension has seemed to be in the works since the disillusioned Hall of Famer left the Cubs’ organization upon being passed over for the manager’s job before the 2011 season. He had put his hand up four years earlier, when Lou Piniella was hired to replace Dusty Baker, but was deemed unready despite a playing résumé that suggested an unerring grasp of the intrinsic character and fundamentals of the game.

Simply put, Sandberg became a Cooperstown-caliber performer because his attitude, effort and commitment matched his talent.

At general manager Jim Hendry’s suggestion, Sandberg went to the minor leagues to learn the craft of managing, logging time at the Class A, Class AA and
Class AAA levels. He was anything but a ceremonial manager, putting in long hours to develop talent and winning more games than he lost. And never mind the incongruity of a millionaire Hall of Famer riding bush-league buses and staying in half-star hotels.

But when overmatched Mike Quade got the call after Piniella took early retirement in 2010, Sandberg knew he never was going to manage the Cubs as long as Hendry was running baseball operations. Being left off the guest list for the 2011 Cubs Convention was further proof of his diminished stature in the organization he had served with such distinction.

Hendry didn’t make it through the 2011 season once the Ricketts family decided to clean house, and Quade was excused shortly thereafter. But Sandberg had no chance with the Theo Epstein regime.

Along with Ernie Banks and maybe Ron Santo, ‘‘Ryno’’ is as beloved a figure as exists in Cubs lore — a great player, a model citizen and a quietly proficient symbol of a rollicking era in which Wrigley Field, Harry Caray and the Cubs became a cultural phenomenon.

But two playoff appearances in Sandberg’s 16 seasons hardly diminish the aura of futility that has surrounded the franchise for more than a century. They’re more diplomatic about it than bombastic Dallas Green was, but the Epstein crew wants a clean break from all that. It’s hardly his fault, but hiring Sandberg to manage would have embraced it.

So Ryno moves on to Philly, where the tag is interim and the task is monumental — and not just because Manuel was one of the most popular and successful managers in franchise history, with a World Series victory in 2008, a repeat appearance in 2009 and five consecutive division titles from 2007 to 2011. The homegrown nucleus largely responsible for that run is either aging, injured or both, and win-now trades made for the sake of extending it cost the Phillies some of their best prospects.

Sandberg, having managed the Phillies’ Class AAA team the last two seasons, at least knows what’s coming. Or what isn’t.

Frank Robinson was the last Hall of Fame player to make the transition to manager. When the Giants fired him in 1984, Robinson was criticized for being too demanding.

Not true. Robinson never sought a Cooperstown level of performance from his players any more than he expected them to match the relentless competitive fire that defined him. What he demanded was the consistent, grind-it-out daily effort that is essential for any player — Hall of Famer or 25th man — to maximize his talent. In that regard, he and Ryno are kindred spirits.

Sandberg has a 42-game audition in which to instill that philosophy in his team. It’s all he ever asked.

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