It's not the same uniform. The hair is grayer now. But it's still No. 23, and when Ryne Sandberg comes up the steps of the dugout, it's still my boyhood hero standing there, holding a fungo. Sandberg is in his second season with the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the AAA club for the Philadelphia Phillies. He's got an interesting mix of talent, but he also cautions that AAA isn't what it used to be. "It's one step away," he explained, "but it doesn't seem where that's where the best prospects always are. I like what we have here and I think it does players good to come here, see the kind of pitchers they'll see [in the majors] without the pressure."
Sandberg is known as an "old school" guy, but he didn't seem to mind a group of his pitchers playing hacky-sack down the first base line during warm ups. "That's a new one," he said, pausing to spit. "Good weather brings out some stuff." The Iron Pigs played Syracuse, the top club of the Washington Nationals in early April, which gave Sandberg the chance to get a firsthand look at Bryce Harper. "He's good," he said of Harper with a grin. "He does everything out there. You talk about the power, but I saw the arm, the speed, and good instincts. He knows ball. He gets on base and wants to score, so he puts the outfielders on edge."
I asked what he thought of Harper's reaction to getting plunked by Cole Hamels "I liked it. That's what you do. You don't charge the mound or cry about it. You take your base and score. Everyone saw him stealing home on the pickoff, but it was going first to third that showed me something. He wasn't jogging because he'd taken one on the backside; he was moving."
As to Harper's future, Sandberg understood all the commotion. "He's got every tool and he works hard, so I think the hype is justified. He's Pete Rose with power," he said. Sandberg crossed paths with Rose when they played in Philadelphia in the early 1980s. As a young player, Sandberg watched Rose work the same way that his Pigs watch Sandberg now.
Sandberg will likely see Chase Utley soon, when the Phillies' 2B starts his rehab work, but they've worked together a couple years now in spring training. Despite Utley's veteran status, Sandberg still has a few ideas that could help the Phillies' star as he ages. "Chase works so hard. He's a workaholic and he's going to have to work smart," he explained. "It's not just the knees, it's everything. You have to work smart as well as hard, make sure you have your best stuff for the game and not leave it in the cage." Sandberg felt that Utley would be able to come back the same way he did last year and that he would be a huge charge for the struggling Phillies offense. "There's enough pitching up there, so when you get Chase and Big Ryan [Howard] back, I think they'll be just fine." Understated, as always.
Sandberg has been passed over for major league jobs a couple of times now, but he seems not only content with where he is, but peaceful. Many believe that Sandberg is essentially a manager-in-waiting behind Charlie Manuel. Whenever and wherever Sandberg gets that shot, the Hall of Famer is ready to make the most of it. Spending 15 minutes on a ball field talking baseball with him was a boyhood dream come true.
Powered by 5-Hour Energy, on to the injuries:
The Red Sox have yet another distraction, moving from chicken to golf, after reports came out Thursday that Beckett was golfing with teammate Clay Buchholz. Beckett missed his last start due to a lat strain, one that he's been dealing with for a while. His start was as much a function of Aaron Cook's opt-out clause as the muscle strain, so seeing that he was playing golf is, to me, a positive. I couldn't find a single instance of a player injuring themselves on the golf course, so this shouldn't be considered a real issue, though golfing injuries do happen. It's no surprise for pros and some amateurs, given how many repetitions they take. Beckett only lasting 2 ? innings Thursday isn't going to help calm this story down.
The rest of the news in Red Sox Nation, though, is pretty good. Ellsbury is making progress in his rehab. He's been running, but now he's moving to more advanced exercises. He's probably a couple weeks away from baseball activities. With a rehab assignment, Ellsbury won't make it back in May, but aside from the calendar, everything else is going to plan. It's even better for Youkilis. He's going to start baseball activities this week and seems to be responding well to treatment. He could beat the ERD and force the Sox to start making some tough decisions, given how well Will Middlebrooks has played in his absence.
On Wednesday, it was learned that Rivera's impending surgery was being complicated by We learned Wednesday evening what the complication was with Mariano Rivera. It's a blood clot in his calf, a potentially serious issue that can be easily treated. Rivera and the doctors aren't sure of the cause of the blood clot -- it's not necessarily related to his knee injury -- but they've started treating it. Rivera is on a blood thinner and will be monitored closely over the next 10 days. Once that issue clears up, he'll be able to have the surgery to reconstruct his knee. This mild delay should have no effect on the rehab or timeline for his return. Recent studies on the effects of clots on blood flow and heart attacks have changed how seriously these are taken and how they are treated, so Rivera's situation is not unusual.
Days after the White Sox said they were moving Sale from the rotation to the closer role, Sale was headed for an MRI. It was always a bit curious that the "tender elbow" didn't lead to an MRI before the decision, but the medical staff seemed comfortable with the decision. It could be that Sale or his agent (more likely the latter, though calls to Sale's agent were not returned) requested the MRI. Adding to the confusion is Sale's desire to stay in a starting role. He hasn't seemed convinced by whatever the Sox have said to him that he's unable to do it, which creates even more questions about why it was done and what the Sox saw that led to the shift in role. I doubt the MRI will change much, but this does bear watching closely as the story develops.
The Rockies know that without Tulowitzki at the center of their team, they don't have nearly as good a chance at winning the NL West. Tulowitzki's one weakness has been health, and he has a history with significant groin strains. He's dealing with a mild one, but the Rockies are being smart. He was out of the lineup on Wednesday, just before a scheduled off-day on Thursday. This should be enough to get him back out there, but Tulowitzki is a guy who has a hard time dialing it back from 11. He may need to have Keith Dugger holding the reins a bit, giving him a day off here and there if needed.
No one's ever questioned Bedard's talent and stuff. It's being out there to use it that's held him back. It's those injuries that made him available to a team like the Pirates, who are trying to get back over .500 while protecting their young pitchers. Bedard is a perfect, cheap fit, as is AJ Burnett, to a lesser extent. Bedard's arm is fine for now, but he left his last start with back spasms. He was twisting in a fashion like we saw with Josh Hamilton a couple weeks ago. The hope is that this is as minor as Hamilton's turned out to be. Bedard's strain appear to be higher, which does threaten the shoulder, so the Pirates' new medical staff will have to keep a close eye on him before his next start to make sure he doesn't alter his mechanics. He could end up missing his next start, but since that's about 50/50 right now, I won't set an ERD.
"He wants the ball for every save opportunity," says Charlie Manuel about Jonathan Papelbon. What about the rest of the time, when the game is on the line? ... In surprising news, Chris Ianetta will have wrist surgery and miss six weeks. Hank Conger is dealing with an elbow injury or he'd be the likely call up ... Drew Storen is due to start a throwing program this week. That's slightly ahead of schedule and could put him back in June ... Dan Haren had some back stiffness after his last start, but he's expected to make his next one. Note this for the future ... Mark Teixeira has been dealing with what amounts to bronchitis so far this season. Doctors think they can manage it in the short term with medication ... It's still unclear how Jason Hammel injured his knee, but the O's think he'll be back on Monday. The downside there is that he'll be facing the Yankees in a key series ... Kurt Suzuki was back in the lineup. His hand/wrist seems to have responded to rest ... If the Sox fans need one more piece of good news, Ryan Kalish is getting ready to start hitting. He could be in the minors by early June and Boston not long after that ... Don't mess with Albert Pujols' elbow. Erick Aybar learned that the hard way ... Sometimes you have to love how the schedule works out. C.J. Wilson returns to Arlington on Friday and gets Yu Darvish as a welcoming party. Set your TiVos now.