Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney admits that at his first full-season minor league stop back in 2007, he was sufficiently wide-eyed and unsure of his baseball future that he asked the famous manager of his Class A Peoria (Illinois) Chiefs to autograph a bat as a keepsake.
Little did Barney know the success that awaited him in the minors or that his manager would be making the same near-annual promotions, from A ball to Double-A and to Triple-A. During three seasons of sharing the same dugout benches and making the same long bus rides through Midwestern plains and Southern farms, Barney's perception of his skipper long ago changed from that souvenir-seeking start.
"He's not Ryne Sandberg, the Hall of Fame baseball player," Barney said. "He's Ryne Sandberg, your manager and mentor."
Sandberg, of course, is the most famous second baseman in Cubs history, a 2005 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee who logged all but 13 of his 2,164 major-league games and all but one of his 2,386 hits in a Chicago uniform (the rest came with the Phillies, with whom he debuted in 1981).
Fans at minor league parks across America continue to clamor for his autograph -- which he dutifully obliges -- as Sandberg, now 52 and entering his second year as the skipper for the Phillies' Triple-A Lehigh Valley Ironpigs, has thrust himself into managing, his second career in baseball.
He's shown a willingness to work his way up through the humble ranks of the minor leagues in hopes of becoming only the second Hall of Famer (along with Ted Williams) to start a major league managerial career after his bronze plaque was installed in Cooperstown.
The 2012 season will mark the sixth year of Sandberg's minor league managerial odyssey that has included winning seasons in four of his first five years, two trips to his league's championship series and
Sandberg has accomplished about all one man can do to earn a major league managerial job without having received an offer. The Cubs had openings after each of the past two seasons and didn't hire him -- the old regime at least interviewed him while the new management team never considered him a candidate. He left the Cubs' organization before the 2011 season to manage at Lehigh Valley.
Sandberg's only other major league interview was this offseason with the Cardinals, and he lost out to Mike Matheny, who has never managed at any professional level.
Still, he said he was not disappointed or frustrated in not having received a major league managerial offer.
"No, not at this point," Sandberg said. "I think things have gone well, and I've enjoyed what I'm doing. I think that's the only thing I can look at right now. I'm having fun and I've seen young players have success. That's all very gratifying."
He even remains diplomatic about the fact that two new managers, the Cardinals' Matheny and the White Sox' Robin Ventura, had no major league experience as a manager or even as a coach.
"We just saw some hirings of guys who hadn't been [managing] in the major leagues at all -- hadn't coached or anything," Sandberg said. "I don't think there's any necessary criteria other than being the right person at the right spot. I think people hire who they're comfortable with and who they feel is right for the job."
Sandberg himself had no previous coaching or managing experience when he got his first gig after the 2006 season. He had retired after the 1997 season, but his journey back to baseball didn't really begin until he sat down to write his induction speech for the Hall of Fame. In his speech, Sandberg showed a different side of the man who had been generally private and reserved in his playing days. He used the word "respect" 19 times, making thinly veiled analogies to blast steroids users and decry an increasingly prevailing me-first attitude among current players.
That speechwriting process also led to personal reflection and a self-evaluation in which Sandberg asked himself, "What do I do now?" He said he thought about the people who helped him get to that point in his life.
"A lot of those people were coaches and managers," he said. "That led me back to baseball in the teaching and the managing side of it."
After the 2006 season, Sandberg called Cubs GM Jim Hendry to inquire about getting back into baseball. That December, Sandberg was offered the job managing Chicago's Class-A team at Peoria. He spent two years there before being promoted to Double-A for the 2009 season and Triple-A for '10. After being passed over for the Cubs' managerial job in favor of Mike Qaude a year ago, he joined the Phillies' organization.
Among Sandberg's backers are Pat Gillick, the Hall of Fame executive and senior advisor for the Phillies, who said Sandberg was "outstanding" at the Triple-A level and is "well-qualified, certainly, to manage in the major leagues."
"He's a good solid baseball man, and I think he knows how to manage and lead people," Gillick said. "I think he'll be successful. It's just a matter of getting the opportunity."
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., whose father used to coach Sandberg with the Cubs, seconded that notion and had hoped Sandberg would have received more interviews so that clubs could get to know him better as a managerial candidate.
Amaro was impressed at how he balanced the many demands of Triple-A, where players are on their way both to and from the majors.
"I love the guy," Amaro said. "I like what he stands for. I like what he demands of his players because it's not easy to handle [them]. You've got to be part player-development, part psychologist, part drill sergeant, part mom."
For now Sandberg's goal remains managing in the majors, Asked whether he would accept a major league coaching position as a bridge, he declined to answer a hypothetical question.
"I just do what I have to do and put my work in, and then the opportunities will come my way," he said. "As of right now, I'm managing in Triple-A, and that's where we stand."
There's something admirable about a man at work, willing to pay his dues and immersing himself fully in his goal, especially when he's done all of this before. Amaro said Sandberg hasn't pushed for a timeline or promise of future opportunities.
"Frankly, his humbleness is refreshing in a day and age and a world of entitlement," Amaro said. "He's still learning the [strategies] of the game and those sorts of things, but what's beautiful about it is that he's willing to learn. He listens to people. He has great respect for the people in the front office who are suggesting things."
While others of his stature may never have considered a return to the low levels of pro ball -- where long, cramped bus rides replace chartered jets and no-frills lodging replaces five-start accommodations -- Sandberg readily accepted minor league life. When the Cubs offered him the Singe-A gig before the 2007 season, he said it was "fine for me because it gave me a chance to get into it and see if it was for me and see if I was any good at it."
And he has been good. Maybe even very good. His clubs have won in leagues where it's hard to convince players winning is a priority, when all many are concerned about is their own development track. Sandberg hasn't managed in a particularly prospect-laden system but has helped a number of players reach the majors, noting that one of his thrills is seeing players such as Phillies pitchers Justin De Fratus and Joe Savery -- who started 2011 in Double-A before joining Sandberg in Triple-A -- reach the majors in September.
With Barney, who was almost exclusively a shortstop in the minors, Sandberg worked with him before games on his technique at second base when it became apparent he'd have a better shot of reaching the majors at that position given Starlin Castro's success at short.
"For the most part he was a cool, calm, clean manager, but he is the most competitive person I've ever played for," Barney said. "That fiery side is there, and it comes out when it needs to.
"He always wanted to win, no matter what level it was. He always wanted the game to be played right. What [ticked] him off was when another team or [we] ourselves didn't play the game the right way and didn't show the right kind of etiquette -- you know, those kinds of things, old-school baseball stuff."
Indeed, Sandberg said he wants his players to "play good team baseball, show hustle throughout the whole year, run the bases hard. Basically play the game of baseball the way that it's supposed to be played and not take a day off from that."
When Amaro visited the Triple-A club early last year, he saw that even the veteran players -- guys on the wrong side of 30 with major league experience -- "were busting their [tail]. After one of the games, I went in to talk to him and I said, 'Ryno, these guys are playing hard.' He snapped his head at me and gave kind of a sharp look and said, 'Ruben, they have to.'"
They do. And so too, it seems, does Sandberg.