CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It is a muggy day at Bright House Field, a couple of hours before the first pitch of the Grapefruit League season. And here's the man they call "Ryno," standing on the mound, firing those batting-practice fastballs over the plate, the sweat pouring off him, the arm feeling loose, the anticipation in the air.
Another game, another year, another chance to get better.
To Ryne Sandberg, it never gets old.
"This is what I do," he says. "This is what I know."
And Sandberg only knows one way to do it.
When they inducted him into the National Baseball Hall of Fame eight years ago, Sandberg used the word "respect" 19 times in his speech. To him, that word formed the basic backbone of his career -- respect for the jersey he wore, the fans he played for, the guys he played with and against and, above all else, for the game and the process it takes to be great at it.
That process plays out in moments like this. The batting-practice sessions, the fungo drills, the purposeful pregame prep work. This is the grunt work from which the greats like Sandberg have graduated. But he's here, in his new role as the Phillies' third-base coach after two years managing the organization's Triple-A club, because the game kept calling him.
"I got into pro ball at 18 and played until I was almost 39, non-stop," he says. "When I took off that uniform, I felt like that was enough baseball. But the Cubs had me in training camp as an instructor for eight or nine seasons, and that's when things were starting to build. When they broke camp and left for the season, I got to the point where I was like, 'Oh man, that's it?'"
Sandberg, who had kept a relatively low profile in those initial years after retirement, began to develop the itch to manage. And once that became his mission, there was only one way Sandberg was going to approach the climb toward a Major League managerial seat:
So when you ask Sandberg about the last six years -- years spent in places like Peoria, Knoxville, Des Moines and Lehigh Valley, riding the buses and staying in the cheap hotels that ought to be beneath a man with his credentials -- he can offer only positive perspective. When you ask him about the times he's been passed over for a Major League job -- most notably by a Cubs team with whom he once became a legend -- he can't offer even the slightest trace of bitterness.
"I couldn't be happier," he says, "with the path I've been on."
You have to appreciate the 53-year-old Sandberg's willingness to tread that path.
And now that he's on the Major League coaching staff for a team in transition, you can't help but wonder if Sandberg is nearing his reward.
The Phillies have their fair share of championship-caliber talent, but it is aging talent that may or may not hold up to the grind of a 162-game schedule. They have a World Series-winning manager in Charlie Manuel, but he is a manager in the final year of his contract. The Phillies hope 2013 is the season that re-establishes them as the class of the National League East. If it's not, well, who knows what the not-too-distant future holds?
What we know is that, in Sandberg, the Phillies have a prodigal son who returned to become a manager-in-training, a manager-in-waiting. They are enamored with the work he did at Lehigh Valley, leading the IronPigs to a 155-132 record over the last two seasons. Sandberg won Baseball America Manager of the Year honors in 2011, but, more importantly, he won the affections of the many young men playing for him.
"He's handled himself very professionally," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. says. "He's a Hall of Famer that doesn't act like a Hall of Famer. People respect the way he communicates with his players and how the players play for him, particularly in Triple-A, where you've got a whole host of different personalities. To manage those personalities and have people play at a high level with a high level of effort, he did a nice job."
In the wake of an injury-riddled, 81-81 season, the Phillies made several changes to Manuel's coaching staff, and Sandberg's addition as third-base and infield coach obviously created the biggest buzz.
It was, after all, Sandberg's lack of Major League coaching or managerial experience that Theo Epstein cited as the reason he did not consider Sandberg for the Cubs' vacant managerial job after the 2011 season.
"I think Theo wanted to disassociate himself with all the Cubs stuff and start over brand new," says Gary "Sarge" Matthews, Sandberg's former teammate and Phillies color commentator. "That was his thing. But you know what? Ryno didn't bad-mouth the Cubs or anything. He just went out and was Manager of the Year."
Sandberg left the Cubs' organization in 2010, after the club hired Mike Quade to replace Lou Piniella. And while Sandberg will always be associated with the Cubbies in the hearts and minds of fans, the Phillies have reunited him with his roots and seemingly given him his best shot at taking the next step on his path.
"This is the organization that drafted me in 1978," Sandberg says. "I came back to familiar faces. Ruben Amaro Jr., his dad was my infield mentor for a number of years. Dallas Green is here with the Phillies. I know Pat Gillick very well, and I go back 30 years with a lot of coaches in the organization at the Minor League level. So I came to an organization that was very comfortable to me, from the get-go. And it was a move that I think was very, very necessary to reach my goal of getting back to the big leagues."
Sandberg has been methodical in reaching that goal. He says he learned more from his first half-season of managing -- with Class A Peoria in 2007 -- than he did in two decades of playing. One of the first things he learned was that he had to ditch his intensely focused, quiet demeanor if he was going to have an impact on young minds.
Heck, he learned that from raising five kids.
"Going through the teenage years with them, a big thing was communication and discipline and accountability and staying on top of things," he says. "Communication is, in a lot of ways, number one in this position."
The first thing Sandberg would communicate with his players at Triple-A was that he had a phone in his office. And many times, over the course of the season, that phone was going to ring with the news that somebody was needed in the big leagues.
"Be ready," Sandberg would say to his guys. "Have that be you."
Sandberg is still waiting for that call for himself. A year ago, he saw Major League managerial seats go to two former players -- Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura - who didn't pay the same dues he has paid in his coaching career. But he knows the game is inherently all about relationships and being in the right place at the right time. Besides, if Sandberg is going to get a managing job, he's going to earn it the hard way. That's just his nature, and that's all part of his respect for the process.
"The last six years have been very much worthwhile," he says. "To me, that's a good path to get to the Major Leagues. I want quality at the Major League level from my players and from myself."