Several fans gathered at the edge of the Lehigh Valley dugout Tuesday, waiting for manager Ryne Sandberg to emerge from the clubhouse. They brought baseballs, posters and anything else for him to sign his autograph to.
Sandberg, 51, is a big attraction wherever the IronPigs play. Hey, it's not every day that a baseball Hall of Famer comes to town. Knowing what he means to fans, he always comes out 30 minutes before each game to give them what they want. It's a ritual he started as a player.
"I feel like I'm representing the organization and I feel like I'm representing professional baseball," Sandberg said during batting practice before his team played the Buffalo Bisons. "I think some of that is having the privilege of being a Hall of Famer and everything that the game has meant to me to be out here and give back to the fans."
Sandberg has already given fans a lot.
For 16 mostly glorious Major League seasons, the man known as "Ryno" was a 10-time National League All-Star second baseman, a winner of nine Gold Gloves and seven Silver Slugger awards.
Originally drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1978, he made his Major League debut in 1981, appearing in 13 games. In one of the most lopsided deals in baseball history, Sandberg was part of a 1982 trade that sent him and shortstop Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs for shortstop Ivan DeJesus.
While DeJesus faded in Philly, Sandberg flourished in Chicago, finishing his career with a .285 batting average, 282 home runs, 1,061 RBI and 344 stolen bases in 2,164 games. At the time of his retirement, his 277 home runs as a second baseman was a Major League record.
Last Thursday was the 27th anniversary of the "Sandberg Game," a nationally televised contest between the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field that officially introduced him to the rest of the country. In a 12-11, 11-inning win over St. Louis, Sandberg hit game-tying home runs in the bottom of the ninth and 10th as part a 5-for-6, seven-RBI day.
The performance propelled him to the first of 10 straight all-star appearances and the NL MVP award after leading the Cubs to their first postseason appearance in 39 years.
"I played the game because I loved it," said Sandberg, one of five Cubs to have his jersey retired. "It's a hard game and it's very gratifying to do well at it. I always tried to work at the game and give it my best effort and give it my full concentration and get the most out of it. In large part, that's my message to my team, to give it your best effort and take advantage of the opportunity that their in."
Once an International League laughingstock, the IronPigs (46-32) entered their four-game series with the Bisons in first place in the North Division. This is a team that started its inaugural season 0-11 and never spent a day above .500 since the former Ottawa Lynx moved to Allentown, Pa., in 2008.
Sandberg attributes Lehigh Valley's success to the Phillies infusing the roster with good, veteran talent. But it helps to have a manager with a good feel for the game, who knows his players' strengths and weaknesses.
"Out of spring training and early in April it was my job to form a team and get them playing together as a group," said Sandberg, who has sent 10 players to the parent club. "It's a good group to come to the ballpark every day, so I enjoy that. With their talent and with the work that we put in, the wins have been the side effect of all that."
Unlike a lot of great athletes that failed as coaches or managers (see Ted Williams and Magic Johnson), Sandberg is able to manage his expectations of players with lesser ability than his own. He makes the game about the players, not him. That approach has led to much success in six years managing in the minors (he was Pacific Coast Manager of the Year in 2010 for Triple-A Iowa).
"He's a pretty humble guy," said Lehigh Valley centerfielder Rich Thompson. "We don't ever hear him talk about, 'This is how I did it.' None of us are as good as he was, so if he expected that we'd all be disappointed. He just expects us to be the best that we can be."
Sandberg is happy to be with Lehigh Valley, but he'd rather be managing the Cubs. He was passed over for the job in favor of Mike Quade. Sandberg left the organization to join the Phillies, but admittedly was disappointed by the snub. Justifiable considering all he had given to that franchise.
The Cubs aren't doing so good on Quade's watch, but Sandberg takes no satisfaction in that. He'll get his shot in the majors someday. For a man that has given so much to baseball, the game owes him one.
"Everyone in the Minor Leagues, especially at this level, would like to get to the Major Leagues one way or the other, for me as a coach or manager," Sandberg said. "I just want to continue to gain experience and put in my time. If that means one day I'd be at the Major-League level, that's up to baseball to decide."