Today, the Chicago Cubs had their home opener, which was the very first game celebrating 100 years of Wrigley Field. Their opponent, the Philadelphia Phillies and their om field general, Ryne Sandberg. In what was a close contest early, turned into a Phillies blow out win late, which awoke an old debate about whether or not the Cubs should have hired Sandberg to be their manager ages ago instead of wasting time with Mike Quade and Dale Sveum.
As much as I loved Sandberg growing up, and still respect him for his great playing career, I am going to have to say no. Despite his great success as manager with the Cubs minor league affiliates, I did not want Sandberg to be the manager of the Cubs. At least not in their present state. I did not want to see one of the greatest players in Cubs history be turned into a scapegoat by being put in a no win situation. I did not want to see the first player I ever admired be booed out of the stadium like he was today when he made a rather unnecessary pitching change late in the game.
People want to bash Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein for passing over Sandberg and hiring Sveum as his first manager in the 2012 season. But what people must remember, Epstein owed Sandberg nothing. Epstein never promised Sandberg the job, or even an interview for the job. Sure, an interview could have been seen as common courtesy for a man of Sandberg's status and for what he willingly volunteered for years ago to earn his stripes. After all, Epstein never promised Sandberg anything. Sandberg was never Epstein's guy. Sandberg was former Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry's guy. Hendry is the one who made all sorts of promises to Sandberg that he could not keep. If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at Hendry, fans already hate him for his failures over the years here; what's one more thing?
Hendry had an absolutely golden opportunity to gift wrap the Cubs managerial job to Sandberg after Lou Piniellia's mother fell ill and he left the team a few months before the end of the season. Instead, he gave the gig to Quade who benefited from the honeymoon period at the end of the year and was given the full title of Manager for the following season. He worked so well with the players, earning their respect that they all stood up for him singing his praises at the end of 2010. Sandberg could have done just as well of a job and been named permanent manager with that. But Hendry, the man who promised Sandberg the world (again, not Epstein) decided to give the job to Quade who looked more inept than Bruce Kim when he took the reigns. Would Sandberg have gone on to lead the 2011 Cubs to success had he been hired? Sadly no. That team was a mess, mainly because the players walked all over Quade, and they knew they could because of his inexperience. Doubtful they would have done the same to Sandberg, but the talent level on that team was fairly horrible, which is why Piniellia was eager to get out of town as early as he did.
But let's play this forward a little bit. Quade was given the job because he was Piniellia's bench coach. That is usually what happens when a manager is relieved of his duties before the end of the season. So he was the obvious choice. The team played well under him, so okay maybe he earned a shot at a full season.... obviously not but that is hindsight. The team failed miserably under Quade in 2011 and he was relieved of his duties as manager, as was Hendry. The firing of Hendry all but sealed Sandberg's fate because every General Manager wants his own guy and not someone else's understudy; which is exactly what Sandberg was.
Enter Epstein and Jed Hoyer. They take on the almost impossible task of turning the Cubs into something that could potentially be legendary. They had to rebuild the entire team from the ground up, and turn the mess that Hendry left into something that could contend. They were transparent with us from day one on what their plans were for this team over the next five years. They were going to build up the team's farm system while waiting for those albatross contracts run their course. They told us they would not be investing heavily on the major league roster until they rebuilt the farm system and these bad contracts ran out. So far, they have lived up to their word. They have gotten criticized from fans to some members of the media and Scott Borras about being cheap and not spending on the major league roster; which again is exactly what they said was in their plans.
Knowing that the Cubs were going to be poorly built to contend at the major league roster, fans had to know that the team was going to be hard to watch over the next few seasons. Did you really want to see a man you love get put into a situation like that? Did you really want to see Sandberg put into a situation where he had no chance of winning? I sure as hell did not. I knew the Cubs would be bad at the major league level, and did not want to see Sandberg's legacy tarnished. I did not want to see him getting racked on the coals and hear fans calling for his head. That would have hurt, and you know that is exactly what would have happened.
Fan's loyalty only goes so far, sooner or later they want and demand results. They want and demand success. They are willing to be patient, but not for too long. Having two (counting this year three) near 100 loss seasons would have had even the biggest Sandberg fan calling for his firing because he was unable to get the job done. His legacy would have out lasted the fans love of Epstein and Tom Ricketts (both of which have seemingly been played out with some fans) but fans can only take failure for so long. If you think Sandberg could have turned this steaming pile of crap into a contender, I am not sure what to tell you. I do not think that even Earl Weaver could have gotten anything close to a winning season out of what Sveum was handed. You have to wonder if Ricketts might have been looking out for one of his favorite players, not wanting him to suffer through embarrassment and shame. Perhaps.... we may never know.
Sandberg would not have had an edge in keeping his job just because he was a fan favorite and a former Cubs legend. If those meant anything to anyone who had any say, he would have been manager in 2012 instead of Sveum. Ricketts would have played the owner card and demanded that Epstein and Hoyer hire Sandberg. But how long would that loyalty of lasted even if they wanted him as manager? Sveum is a buddy of Epstein, and even he was fired for his failures; even if he was pushed out the door in an attempt to hire Joe Girardi. Sandberg would not have stood a chance if a buddy of the General Manager and President did not.
So they hired Sveum to ultimately be the fall guy for the Cubs failures over these next few years, and saved Sandberg from the embarrassment that would have come with the job. So, they gave the job to Sveum and Sandberg left for greener pastures with his original organization, the Phillies. He took over for Charlie Manual as the interim manager and earned the full time gig for the 2014 season, which meant the Cubs never even had the chance to bring him in for this season. Not even if they wanted him to be here, they never even had the chance. This is one year you have no logical reason to blame them for not hiring Sandberg, unless you think that baseball managerial contracts are as meaningless as college coaching contracts.
But again, the Cubs are destined for failure for at least this season. Sandberg would have been in a no win situation with the Cubs in 2014, as he may well be with the Phillies this year. The Phillies are in almost as poor of a situation as the Cubs were a few years ago with all those bad contracts for aging veterans. He may not be long for that job either, as he has no real fan loyalty to grant him extra life with them. He might very well be out the door in two years for failing to have any real success, maybe three.
But here is where the possible good news comes in. Sanberg's contract runs almost parallel with Rick Renteria's. Both were signed for three years, ending in 2016. The only difference is that Renteria has two option years where Sandberg only has one. Why is this possible good news? If Sandberg fails in Philadelphia, which I think he will (not necessarily due to being a bad manager) he might very well be available when the Cubs are supposed to be ready to be an actual contender. If the Cubs are not making the proper progress Epstein and Hoyer think they should, Renteria is easily disposable.
With the young touted talent at the major league level in 2016, and potentially ready to contend, Sandberg would have a fair shot at the managerial job he wanted from the very beginning. He would not be set up to be the fall guy as Sveum and possibly Renteria were. But for now, Cub fans should be glad that the man they love and admire is not the captain of a sinking ship, at least not one that is docked in Chicago.