Sandberg still fan favorite

The Indianapolis Star, Aug. 23, 2011

C1, Sports

Sandberg still fan favorite

Hall of Famer draws crowds in 5th year of managing

By Andrew Scoggin

Five hours before the first pitch, Chris and Tara Kaser were waiting. They stood outside Victory Field where the teams enter the stadium, hoping to see the most unlikely of sights in a minor league uniform — Hall of Fame player Ryne Sandberg.

Sandberg, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman and now manager of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, is a special attraction for the Kasers and other Cubs fans in towns such as Toledo, Ohio, Rochester, N.Y., and Durham, N.C.

On the first day of the IronPigs’ series against the Indianapolis Indians, which ends today, the Kasers said Sandberg chatted a bit, and he signed a baseball and a program from his Baseball Hall of Fame induction in 2005.

The Kasers, who live in Flora, Ind., met Sandberg twice in 2009 when he managed the Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate in Kodak, Tenn., near Knoxville.

“He’s just such a nice guy,” Tara Kaser, 29, said. “Sandberg is always grateful for his fans.”

It’s a fan following that Sandberg said started with his first game as a manager, in 2007 with the Cubs’ Class A affiliate, the Peoria Chiefs.

That day in Appleton, Wis., it was so cold that Sandberg said he wasn’t sure his team would even take batting practice. But the stadium was sold out.

“It’s been quite a following all these years, at home or on the road,” Sandberg said. Sure enough, at Victory Field on Saturday, a long line of eager fans extended up the lower deck for pregame autographs. (Naturally, the Kasers were fifth and sixth in line.)

Sandberg dutifully signed and posed for photos for about 15 minutes before the game.

“It’s unbelievable how many people he signs for,” IronPigs outfielder Rich Thompson said. “He goes out every day and there’s a line all the way up the row to the concourse.”

Sandberg said he didn’t seriously consider managing until after his 2005 Hall of Fame induction. He hadn’t had much time to think about it during his playing career, and he turned down other coaching chances while getting his five kids through high school and college.

But when the opportunity came with Peoria, he jumped.

“I said, ‘You know what? I want to put the uniform on full-time again,’ ” Sandberg said. “Part of it’s giving back to the game, and part of it’s wanting to be in the game.”

It’s well known that Sandberg coveted the job of managing the Cubs after managing in the team’s minor league system for four seasons. But when then-Cubs general manager

Jim Hendry chose Mike Quade, Sandberg jumped to the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate, Lehigh Valley.

It’s the same farm system in which he came up as a player before being traded to the Cubs in 1982.

If Sandberg is disappointed about having spent five years in the minors, Thompson said, he doesn’t show it. That sets an example for players who might be dissatisfied in Triple- A.

“It’s not like he treats us or this team as a steppingstone,” Thompson said. “He’s here with Lehigh to win and to get the most out of us that he can.”

Lehigh Valley has done plenty of winning this season, with a 73-57 record going into Monday’s game. In the team’s three seasons before Sandberg’s arrival, the IronPigs’ average finish was 21 games below .500.

Sandberg takes a subdued approach to managing. He walked out to his third-base coaching spot at the top of each inning Saturday, and trotted back to the dugout with the helmets of IronPigs base runners in hand.

“He’s humble,” Thompson said. “You wouldn’t know he’s had such a ridiculous career.

That career is usually associated with the Cubs, who fired Hendry last week and are struggling under Quade. Speculation has started again about the possibility of Sandberg managing the Cubs.

Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune wrote Monday that the next choice for Cubs manager will be “Ryne Sandberg or someone who isn’t Ryne Sandberg.” He put the odds as better than even that it’ll be Sandberg.

Sandberg said he’s focused on his Lehigh Valley team, and that there are 30 major-league teams out there, not just the Cubs.

“The goal obviously is to get to the major leagues,” Sandberg said. “Right now I’m happy with what I’m doing here.”

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