ALLENTOWN, Pa.---The journey of Ryne Sandberg is unprecedented in baseball history.
No Baseball Hall of Famer has devoted five years his life to spinning through America's backroads like a slow knuckleball. Along the way Sandberg has worked at becoming a different guy than he was as a player; he has learned to be more vocal and direct.
The ability to embrace change is a challenge for all of us.
Ryne Sandberg (Courtesy of Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs)
The Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer spent two years managing the Peoria Chiefs of the Midwest League, the Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League, the Iowa Cubs who for some reason remain in the Pacific Coast League and now the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs of the International League.
Sandberg, 51, has earned a seat in booth one of the Ellipisis Lounge..........
.......He has been to Albuquerque. N.M...Fresno, Ca....Memphis, Tenn....Oklahoma City.....Portland, Ore....and that's just the Pacific Coast League.
"Its fun to see the International League," Sandberg said in a conversational conversation before last week's Iron Pigs game in Allentown. "I didn't get to play in this league so to be on the east coast and to get to go to Scranton....Syracuse...Rochester...Buffalo, all minor league places that have great tradition. Our tradition here is only four years old but it is a great fan base."
The St. Louis Cardinals had a farm team in Allentown between 1942 and 1956.
The immortal Benny Bormann was manager of the 1942 Allentown Wings in the Interstate League. This year's Iron Pigs lead all of minor league baseball in attendance. "We have nearly 10,000 people at every game," Sandberg said. "State of the art facility. Its a great set up."
The Philadelphia Phillies Class AAA Iron Pigs new $48 million Coca-Cola Stadium is just three miles from the site of the Bethehem Steel Corp., which pumped blood into the local economy from 1857 until its closing in 2003. Bethlehem Steel manufactured the steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden.
Lehigh Valley was built on dreams.
"The perfect way to start is at the bottom and work your way up," Sandberg said of his managing career. "Im all into that and it was very worthwhile. There was a lot to learn especially in the first two years. Two early phone calls were to Don Zimmer and Jim Frey. I also talked to Dallas Green. All of them felt I could handle it.
"All three, in different ways said, 'You know the game. Just be yourself and do it your way.' Which they were convinced was the good way and the right way. I can be myself along with going into the job of being vocal and a man who learns how to teach, coach and manage. In the minor leagues I wear a lot of hats. Its a great path to becoming a major league manager or major league coach."
There's a lean streak of Dallas Green in Sandberg.
Sandberg has a no-nonsense approach, he looks at you straight-on and the game is taken seriously. Excuses don't fly like they do around Wrigley Field.
"I was around Dallas all my minor league seasons and for at least half of them he was farm director," Sandberg said. "Then he was manager of the Phillies when I was a September call up. Then he brought me to Chicago. I saw and benefitted from the way winning players from elsewhere formed a team that went to the post season in '84. He was not around for the '89 season but he played a big part in that with the minor league guys and some of the guys he brought over. So Dallas Green for me was a big part of the Cubs through the 1980s."
Chuck LaMar, the Phillies assistant GM for player development led the team who hired Sandberg.
"I know Dallas has had a major impact on Ryne's career," LaMar said from Philadelphia. "They have immense respect for each other and there are similarities in their respect for the game. Dallas and I have talked about this. Just for Ryne Sandberg--the Hall of Famer--to make the calls to Dallas and Don Zimmer--shows that he feels there's things for him to learn in this game. And how refreshing that is for someone who has had the success he has had. It would be very easy for him to think he is owed a job in baseball.
"He has ambition without an agenda."
The Cubs rookie second baseman Darwin Barney played for Sandberg at three different levels.
"When I met Ryno he was coaching in Peoria, Illinois, Low-A guys," Barney said. "And you see this Hall of Famer and he almost looked out of place, just because of the aura that's around him. There's guys at that level who aren't sure if baseball is what they want to do. And Ryne Sandberg eats, breathes and lives baseball.
"My own interpretation was that it was tough for him at that level because you've got to kind or babysit and pick out who really wants to play. Then I had him in the Arizona Fall League in 2008, again in AA (at Tennessee) in 2008 and AAA (2009 in Iowa). I feel like we came up through the minor league system together.
"I felt after last year he was ready for whatever he was aspiring to do. And someday he will. Some day he'll be a big league manager and I'll be very excited for him."
The Iron Pigs name comes from the term "pig iron" or raw iron that had been melted down and formed into molds that had the appearance of a row of piglets as they came down the line.
The Iron Pigs can take it all a little too far. Their knockoff Phillie Phanatic mascots are obscurely named Ferrous and FeFe.
No, that's not a French comedy act.
Ferrous gets his name from the Latin word for iron. FeFe gets her name from the abbreviation for iron on the Periodic Table of Elements.
Some magnetic characters came from these parts.
Former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, race car drivers Mario and Michael Andretti and and boxer Larry Holmes are from Lehigh Valley.
Allentown sits at the southern base of the Lehigh Mountains. Dutch and Germans settled in the area in the early 1800's. Allentown was incorporated as a city in 1867. My trusty 1940 WPA (Works Progress Administration) guide reported, "About 23 per cent of Allentown's population is foreign brown--chiefly Austrians, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians and Italians...The Pennsylvania Germans, who constitute two thirds of the population, cling as tenaciously to their own traditions as to their curious but expressive idiom."
Allentown is the third largest city in Pennsylvania (pop. 118,000) , something I did not know until I visited Lehigh Valley.
The row houses of Allentown (Photo by Dave Hoekstra)
Not unlike Basketball Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, Sandberg tries to get his young players to learn about life beyond the game. Sandberg employs similar bonding techniques as Jackson.
He said, "My wife Margaret and I organize things we can do as a team. We've done it all along in the minor leagues. It teaches the players to be unselfish and works hand in hand with what we do on the field.
"When you talk about being unselfish, that's what it takes to have a team concept. We've visited children's hospitals, we've collected soaps, shampoos, lotions, all as a team which were given to homeless people through a shelter. Its good for the organization and good for the community."
Along the tunnel to the Pigs clubhouse there is a snapshot of an apron-clad Sandberg alongside his wife and players serving food in a soup kitchen. On June 9 between 180 and 200 needy people were served at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Allentown.
A hand-scrawled banner says, "Gracias."
Abby Goldfarb, 36-year-old volunteer coordinator with Lehigh County of Churches set up the event with the Iron Pigs.
"The wives of the players including Margaret came in the morning and did most of the cooking and set up," Goldfarb said on Wednesday. "They brought the food. They made it like a family affair. Players brought their kids. Then Ryne, their hitting coach (Sal Rende) and the players did the serving and spent time with the customers who come to the soup kitchen. I saw the parallel of Sandberg teaching it to his players and the players teaching to their kids.
"Ryne spent a lot of his time in the kitchen. He was back there with his apron and hair net. He took the hardest working spot in the kitchen. People know who he is. The Iron Pigs have been here a few years and attendance has gotten better. But this year, with Ryne, is the first year I see people posting yard signs that say 'Go Pigs.' They're all over town.
"People recognize him and he got people who weren't paying attention to pay attention."
Sounds like major league managerial material to me.
Thanks to Sun-Times Cubs beat reporter Gordon Wittenmyer for his help on this post.