DES MOINES, Ia.-It is an unprecedented American journey, a backpack of humble unlike anything professional baseball has seen.
Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg is in his fourth season as a minor league baseball manager. He served two seasons in Peoria, Ill. before moving to the double play shadows of Dollywood in Western Tennessee and now for the Iowa Cubs in Des Moines (metro pop. 563,000).
No Hall of Famer has paid his managerial dues like this.
"Maybe Frank Robinson, who went to winter ball for two years but he was still playing," Sandberg said on his bench before his I-Cubs dropped a double header to the Albuquerque Isotopes.
Yes, teams are called Isotopes in minor league baseball.....
.......I did the five plus hour drive from Chicago to Des Moines to see Sandberg about a week before Cubs manager Lou Piniella announced his retirement effective at the end of the season. As a devoted Cubs fan of 43 years, I'm encouraged by the fact that the last manager to lead the Cubs to a World Series championship was Cap Anson--another ex-Cub Hall of Famer.
I'm also impressed how Sandberg has his players wear their caps straight ahead and all socks are uniform above the ankle. There's none of those droopy cuffs around the shoes that make some players look like clowns at the Iowa State Fair (Aug. 12-22!!) .
"I've got my way of doing things," Sandberg said. "I've done that at every level. I get my message across early in the year of what I expect on a daily basis. It gets to the point they police themselves. I like hats on at all times. Running hard from home to first, running the bases hard."
Sandberg is not the first former Cub star to manage in Iowa.
Randy "The Rebel" Hundley shared managerial duties in 1981, Iowa's first year as a Cubs affiliate. Iowa had been a White Sox affiliate from 1976-80. Hundley and Roy Harsfield led Iowa to an unspiring 53-82 record. Iowa has had three first place finishes in a 19 year relationship with the Chicago Cubs.
Veteran infielder Bobby Scales played for the Chicago Cubs last year and has spent nearly three years in Des Moines.
In a separate conversation, Scales, 32, said, "What I get from Ryno is how regular he is. He's got 'Hall of Fame' behind his name. He could be arrogant if he wanted to. He is so approachable. You can ask him anything on or off the field. I enjoy playing for him."
Scales understands his long journey to the major leagues is what made him a media darling last summer in Chicago. He has played for minor league teams in Fort Wayne, Ind., Mobile, Ala., Portland, Ore., and Pawtucket, R.I.--just to name a few. He hit .242 with 3 HR and 15 RBi in 124 at bats for the 2009 Cubs. Going into the 2010 season Scales had 3,227 minor league at bats (.285, 62 HR, 415 RBI).
Bobby Scales, all smiles.
"At first I was the story because it took so long for me to get there," he said. "And I appreciated that. But my goal was to play and do my job. I feel like I got to that point. And the knowledgeable fan base in Chicago saw that. That's what I appreciated the most. If Lou called on me to bunt, I got the bunt down. I made the routine plays. I'm a blue collar guy. All I know is playing hard. No matter what happens the summer of '09 will always have a special place in my heart."
Scales played in Des Moines all of 2008, parts of 2009 and all of 2010 so far. "Living here is cool," Scales said. "It's weird for me to say that because I want to be in Chicago. If you have to be in Triple AAA this is not so bad. Good people. I'm from (suburban Atlanta) and it reminds me of living at home."
In the off season Scales is a substitute teacher at Milton High School in Alpharetta, Ga., the same school he attended. He often takes books on the grueling Pacific Coast League road trips that the Iowa Cubs must endure. "I try to keep my mind sharp," he said. "Right now I'm reading Howard Bryant's biography on Hank Aaron. One of my teammates is reading the Willie Mays biography so we plan on switching them when we're done. I don't want to turn into a TV watching-ballplaying- vegetable. Its real easy to do that. I do listen to hip-hop, R&B, a lot of Neo Soul stuff."
As an older minor leaguer who attended the University of Michigan, Scales understands the balance of life.
"Sam Fuld (Iowa outfielder), Chris Robinson (Iowa catcher) and I like to go to cities and do different things," he said. "A couple years ago we went to the civil rights museum in Memphis. I love New Orleans. I like to walk around the French Quarter and read plaques on the wallsl. Sam and I did that a couple years back. Its funny we saw each other doing it again this year independent of each other. It was like, 'Hey, I just saw you in the hotel!' I can't sleep until noon. So I'lll get up at 8 a.m. and and walk around the city I'm in. I'm a history buff. I don't read a lot of fiction.
"Hotels here are fine. Obviously it gets better as you climb the ladder. I remember the first hotel I stayed in when I got drafted. We were in Idaho Falls and went to Billings, Montana. We stayed at the Rim Rock Inn. Man, it had the little machine in the wall where you put in a quarter and the bed started shaking. It was like, 'I don't know about this place'."
Scales is down with the hotels, but up in the air about Pacific Coast League travel. He explained, "We have a smaller airport and when you have a smaller airport things are more difficult than Sacramento or even Omaha. We're always on the 6 a.m. flight going somewhere. Its not like traveling individually on charters after the game (like in the major leagues). We have to go through all the regular security. Its very difficult."
Des Moines' Sec Taylor Stadium, 1947-1991 on the site of the current Principal Park. The ballpark was named after a former Des Moines Register sports editor. Would there ever be a Christopher DeLuca Stadium today?
No matter where he goes, Scales wants to stay in the game.
"I don't feel 32," he said. "I'm blessed with good genes. Hopefully I can get more big league time, hopefully with the Cubs but whoever. If Japan called tomorrow, I've told my wife I'd go yesterday. First, for the experience. And let's be honest, the money. I can set my family up playing abroad for years to come. I have a couple friends who played there. I'm not the greatest of friends with Matt Murton (the former Cub who is leading Japan's Central League with a .352 batting average) who is there now but you keep track of them. I love playing the game.
"And you have a short window in your lifetime to make the kind of money you can make inside this game."