Sandberg’s time to make Phillies Wall of Fame ticking away

By Bob Ford

Philadelphia Inquirer

Ryne Sandberg had two chances in his baseball career to earn induction onto the Phillies Wall of Fame, the honor that was bestowed recently on Charlie Manuel, Sandberg’s predecessor as manager.

Sandberg could have - should have, most would say - gotten in as a Hall of Fame second baseman, a homegrown superstar who didn’t say much but let his game expound on his philosophy. Two generations of fans would have marveled that the same template would be repeated at the same position just a few years later as Chase Utley came along and also became capable of leading the league in everything except aimless chatter.

That first possibility ended when Sandberg was a young player on the verge of making the big club. General manager Paul Owens said his farm staff projected Sandberg as a career utility player and threw him into the 1982 Larry Bowa-for-Ivan DeJesus trade with Chicago.

It worked out well enough for Sandberg, of course, but it did leave him with just one more chance to make the Wall of Fame for the team that drafted him 36 years ago out of North Central High School in Spokane, Wash. That chance would be to return and achieve the same sort of lasting success as a manager that he never got to enjoy here as a player.

Things can change quickly in baseball occasionally, and one season never tells a complete story, but it sure looks as if Sandberg is going to go 0 for 2.

As the situation stands with the franchise - or as it leans badly, which might be more accurate - it is difficult to imagine Sandberg’s coming out the other side of the rebuilding process required for the Phillies to play meaningful games. Even Ruben Amaro Jr. concedes that the next window for contention might not open until 2017.

Baseball managers painted with the drab brush of losing rarely get a chance to do the touch-up work on their resumés in the same place. That’s not altogether fair. Sandberg didn’t do anything particularly wrong this season. He has been about as exciting and flat as a moving walkway while the season grinded from April toward September, but no one was expecting him to be Chris Rock. Still, when it is finally time for a fresh start, the Phillies almost certainly will sweep with a wide broom.

Managers have to be good to keep their jobs, but they also have to be lucky. The ceremony to honor Manuel, with Sandberg wistfully looking on, provides a great example.

When the Phillies decided to spend a little money and revive interest in their team in 2003, something that would carry over to the following season in their new ballpark, they signed free-agent slugger Jim Thome. They also hired Manuel as a special assistant to the GM, reuniting Thome with his best buddy and personal hitting guru just so he would feel at home.

Something worked. Thome his 47 home runs in 2003, a lot of people came out to bid adieu to the old junkyard of the Vet, and the team moved into Citizens Bank Park on something of a feel-good roll.

That didn’t last long for Bowa, who was fired after the 2004 season, and the Phillies began a convoluted search for a replacement that included interviews with Jim Leyland, Don Baylor, Grady Little, Jim Fregosi, and naturally, John Russell. General manager Ed Wade cast a wide net, no question about it, but decided to land the guy one office down the hall.

It’s hard to remember now, but Manuel wasn’t always revered as folksy Uncle Charlie in this town. He won 88 games in 2005, then 85 games in 2006 - heck, Bowa had done that well - and the Phils were just four games over .500 and seven games out of first place on Aug. 25, 2007.

At that pace, the team would have won 83 games, a second straight backward step, and there was grumbling about Manuel’s game management and a debate over whether he knew a double switch from a double whammy.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been right, but it also wouldn’t have been surprising, had things stayed the same, if general manager Pat Gillick made a change for 2008, looking for the spark that didn’t seem apparent in the clubhouse.

And then the darnedest thing happened.

The Phillies - despite having Kyle Lohse, Jamie Moyer, and Adam Eaton in their rotation on the way to a combined 5.46 ERA with the team that season - got on a monstrous roll out of nowhere, went 23-11 to end the regular season, and captured the first of five straight division titles. They averaged more than six runs per game in that late-season stretch, presaging the greatest period of sustained production in franchise history.

A year later, the Phils won the World Series, but it didn’t “have to happen that way and it certainly didn’t have to happen with Manuel as manager. Those six weeks at the end of the 2007 season, just 34 games out of the 1,416 he managed with the Phillies, could have gone the other way and left a hole on the Wall of Fame for someone else to fill.

With a different set of circumstances, with a different combination of time and place, maybe that someone could have been Ryne Sandberg, but some managers are fated to have good fortune and some get none.

Although Sandberg still has time, it is ticking away. One season is almost gone and, let’s face it, this year didn’t put much money in the meter.