CHICAGO – Ryne Sandberg grinned the whole time. On a hot, sweaty day, the Hall of Famer looked cool and comfortable.
Back at Wrigley Field for the first time as a major league manager, this was exactly where he wanted to be.
Sandberg brought his Philadelphia Phillies to Chicago on Friday to open a three-game series against the Cubs. It was his first trip to the ballpark where he rose to prominence during a 16-year playing career since he was promoted to the interim job Aug. 16 after Charlie Manuel was fired.
“It means so much,” Sandberg said from the visitors’ dugout Friday. “A little different view from this angle here looking out but other than that, this was a place that was very comfortable for me as a player. It always solved any slumps that I was in as a hitter.”
Sandberg’s consistent, steady play during 15 seasons with the Cubs turned him into one of the most beloved figures in the history of the woebegone franchise. Nicknamed “Ryno,” he finished his career with a .285 batting average, 282 homers and 1,061 RBIs. The second baseman had his No. 23 retired by the team in 2005, the same year he was enshrined in Cooperstown.
He got quite the reception in his return. The marquee at one neighboring bar read “WELCOME HOME RYNO,” and the Cubs showed highlights from Sandberg’s career on the scoreboard in right field before the game, along with a welcome back message.
The smallish afternoon crowd cheered when he was introduced along with Philadelphia’s starting lineup, and again when he brought the lineup card out to home plate.
“The guy coming back to a place that he was a Hall of Famer deserves a lot of attention,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. “He had one heck of a career here in Chicago. On the field, off the field, the ultimate professional.”
The 53-year-old Sandberg also began his coaching career in the Cubs’ minor league system, working his way up from managing Class A Peoria to Triple-A Iowa over four seasons. But he was passed over twice when the Cubs were looking for a manager, first when Mike Quade was retained by Jim Hendry in 2010 and again when Theo Epstein selected Sveum for the role two years ago.
If Sandberg harbors any ill will over the twin rejections, he showed no signs of it Friday.
“I’m doing what I want to do, so that’s the main thing,” said Sandberg, who managed Philadelphia’s Triple-A team for two seasons before beginning this year as the third base coach and infield instructor under Manuel. “That’s baseball, and moving on was important for me to get back to the major leagues, the way that I looked at it and the way I felt.”
Sandberg actually was drafted by Philadelphia and broke into the majors with the Phillies in 1981, playing 13 games in September and October. He got six at-bats during his first stint, but managed to get his first major league hit in a 14-0 loss at the Cubs on Sept. 27.
That was it for Sandberg’s playing time in Philadelphia, which traded the infielder and Larry Bowa to the Cubs for speedy Ivan de Jesus that January. It turned into one of the most lopsided trades in the long history of both franchises.
The change of scenery helped Sandberg blossom into one of baseball’s best players. He won the NL MVP award in 1984, when he hit .314 with 19 homers and 84 RBIs while powering the Cubs to their first playoff appearance since 1945. He also made the All-Star team for the first time and won his second Gold Glove that year.
While the Phillies are still getting to know Sandberg as a manager, his long playing career certainly helps with his credibility in their veteran clubhouse.
“When he played, being a middle infielder and the captain of the team, he (was) already a manager,” shortstop Jimmy Rollins said. “He (was) a manager on the field, game situations.”
Sandberg said he learned a lot about managing while working in the minors. Structure and organization are important to him, all the way down to his ticket plan for his return to Wrigley — just family, which was up to 15 as of Friday morning, including five grandsons.
Going through all those bus rides in the minors while working his way back to the majors as a coach also deepened his appreciation for working in the majors, making his games in Chicago more special.
“I take it all in now and relish every moment, so I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap