Ryne Sandberg's departure from the Philadelphia Phillies last month came quickly, without warning, surprising both his many critics and few supporters.
Sandberg did not fare well during his brief time in Philadelphia, going 119-159, good for a .428 winning percentage. However, he was also cursed with a team that was falling apart, filled with aging veterans, unsure young players, and a front office in flux.
But he also wasn't very good at what he did, even with a lack of talent. His in-game decision making lacked creativity. He often appeared unprepared, and multiple players openly bristled at his authority, both veterans and younger players. One of Sandberg's closest friends, his bench coach Larry Bowa, said as much in an interview with CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury.
Several pitchers — Hamels, A.J. Burnett, Kyle Kendrick and David Buchanan — openly disrespected Sandberg during visits to the mound last season.
Bowa said Sandberg addressed that with the pitchers in spring training.
“That was one issue that bothered him,” Bowa said.
And while some of those issues were behind the scenes, there were others that were more public, like his dugout spat with reliever Ken Giles, after Giles was visibly upset on the mound after being ordered to intentionally walk a batter a few weeks back.
“It shocked me,” Bowa said. “I’d never seen [Sandberg] that mad. I was like, ‘Whoa, who’s this? Who just came out of his body right here?’ ”
A half-season of frustration?
“I’m sure it was,” Bowa said. “I’m sure it was.
Bowa added, “Giles is a great kid; he got caught up in the moment and he was concentrating on the hitter.”
But for Sandberg, “That was sort of the straw that broken the camel’s back,” Bowa said. “He went over and said, ‘I’m running this team. If I want to put that guy on, I’m putting him on. I’m the manager, you’re the pitcher.’ ”
Was that one of the moments that led to Sandberg’s decision?
“Maybe,” Bowa said. “Maybe.“
In this instance, it certainly seemed as though Giles was the one who was out of line, and when Sandberg screamed at him in the dugout, Ryne appeared to be on the side of the angels. But we're also now seeing that perhaps Sandberg's frustrations over his lack of ability to get his players to go along with him finally overflowed its banks.
There was also what I like to call The Great Jeff Francoeur Incident of 2015. That was the game the bullpen phone broke, Francoeur was left in to pitch for more than 40 pitches in two innings of work against Baltimore, and Chase Utley openly barked at pitching coach Bob McClure.
This was the game when it seemed clear to everyone that Sandberg had absolutely lost the team.
“Ryno knows Utley is intense and all that,” Bowa said. “But what made him mad was Frenchy said, ‘Hey, I can pitch two innings.’ I’m sure if Chase could do that over again he wouldn’t do that. He was looking out for Frenchy. But Ryno couldn’t believe it after talking with Frenchy and him saying he could go two innings.”
Maybe Frenchy did say he could give them two innings. But a smart manager, a competent manager, a forward-thinking manager doesn't sit on his hands while he watches his position player-turned-relief pitcher noticeably tire to the point where everyone in the ballpark feels sorry for him. A smart manager gets a guy up in the bullpen the moment he sees Francoeur start to tire.
It was just another example of Sandberg being caught flat-footed, unprepared, and ill-equipped to do the job that was required of him.
One other issue for Sandberg, according to Bowa, was a lack of willingness by some players to work hard.
“When Ryno came up, I thought he was going to be a good player,” Bowa said. “But did I think he was going to be a Hall of Famer? No. He worked. A lot of Hall of Fame guys have natural ability. He had the ability and he worked. I think he thought if he worked that hard, why can’t everybody work that hard? He was shocked at not everybody, but some guys that were on the fringe. He’d look at them and say, ‘Why don’t you work harder?’ That bothered him a lot.”
In this case, it's easy to see how Sandberg could have reached a point of ultimate frustration. Clearly, this was not a good match between man and team.
There is a fine line between letting players get away with stuff and being a hard core disciplinarian. There are managers who walk that line well, and there are those who struggle with it. In this case, it doesn't appear Sandberg possessed the right combination of authority, comradeship, and horse-sense that was needed for this particularly difficult job.
And make no mistake, managing the Phillies is a difficult job.
But Sandberg failed at the thing a manager is most responsible for, maintaining a harmonious clubhouse. When many players openly disrespect you, and you are a Hall of Fame player with an impressive on-field pedigree, that really says something.
Of course, it's likely the players are just as responsible for this mess as Sandberg is. Allowing them to get off scott-free here would be negligence. But it did not seem as if Sandberg was able to get the guys in his locker room on his side, and when push came to shove, he'd had enough to the point where he just walked out, without telling even his closest friend on the team.
“It caught me 100 percent off guard,” Bowa said. “I didn’t want it to end like that for him. He never hinted he was going to walk away. It was like a bombshell for me.”
Will Sandberg ever manage again? It's hard to see it happening right now. But Terry Francona was laughed out of town after the 2000 season and look how well things turned out for him.
Managers can learn too. Maybe his disastrous tenure in Philadelphia has taught him some things he can use the next time around.
If he ever gets that chance.