He’s boring. He doesn’t talk. He has absolutely no personality. Pretty much sums up your initial impression of Ryne Sandberg?
That is probably not far from reality. Heck, Shawon Dunston, his former double-play partner, said their verbal exchanges were limited to “I got it/you got it” and “who covers the base?” For such a quiet and unassuming man, you had to wonder how Sandberg even got this far.
But the Phillies sure liked him. They have been grooming Ryno for years now and don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. He was their man all along and an interim tag was there just to ease the tension of firing the winningest manager in team history. Ruben went to the extent of plopping Sandberg on the bench right beside the guy whose job he eventually stole. Charlie didn't put him there, Ruben did.
His resume was perfectly fine and he did a swell job in Lehigh Valley, but why the rush to bring Ryno in? Not a single other team showed the faintest interest and even the Cubs passed on him in Chicago where the dude is a legend. Yet the Phillies were so infatuated with Sandberg that they were willing to let him budge in front of the second manager to ever win a title for the Phillies.
Here we are a month later - the Phillies are 18-17 under Sandberg and playing inspired baseball. People like me who criticized the distasteful firing of Charlie and questioned the Phillies allegiance to Ryne now applaud yesterday's announcement that he will manage the Phillies for at least the next three years.
The team's transformation under Sandberg has been astounding, especially considering the team he inherited. The Phillies had 4 wins in the 23 games prior to his hiring - that's a 4-19 record, a .174 winning percentage, and a pace for 134 losses over a full season. From the second game after the all-star break to Charlie’s dismissal, the Phillies went from a 49-48 record, 6.5 behind the Braves and 5.5 back in the Wild Card race, to a fourth place team with zero playoff aspirations.
That is the door Sandberg walked through. And things got worse before they got better. The Phillies lost the first two games under Sandberg and didn't even score a run until the third game.
Then he turned it all around. The Phillies are playing energized, playing as a team, playing more fundamental baseball, and winning close games. It is actually a fun team to watch.
Don’t underestimate the importance of the job he has done. The Phillies were slowly losing the fan base they built over the last decade. A team which had consistently dominated in the second half under Charlie Manuel began the decaying process of a dying tree. As they drifted further and further from contention, fans began avoiding the stands.
A big reason the Phillies sustained success over the last few years was their ability to add high-priced players like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Raul Ibanez, and Jonathan Papelbon, while retaining an expensive core of players.
The Phillies were able to afford these players because they outdrew other teams' fans. David Montgomery was not lying when he continually preached that they couldn’t do it without the support of the fans. It wasn’t just a hollow and cliched’ line – he really meant it.
See, the Phillies ownership almost exclusively allow attendance to dictate their payroll. I discovered just how true that was when I compared the Phillies attendance to their payroll a couple of years ago. It was really quite amazing to see how closely payroll mirrored attendance. We all scoffed at Bill Giles for calling the Phillies a "small market team" in 1994, but as far as the fans in the seats were concerned, he was right.
The one significant exception came when the Phillies increased their payroll by over $37 million between 2003 and 2004, but that was only in anticipation of the new ballpark.
The Phillies have ranked third or better in attendance in the four years prior to this season (3rd in '09, 2nd in '10, 1st in '11 and '12) and consequently were fourth or better in payroll in each of the last four seasons (4th in '10, 2nd in '11 and '12, 3rd in '13).
The Phillies drew over 3 million fans this season, but dropped from 1st to 8th in attendance. Their average attendance dropped from 38,522 through 60 home games to 32,834 in the last 20, a 15 percent decrease and a drop from 6th to 11th in baseball.
The result is obvious. If the attendance continues to decline, the Phillies will no longer be able to buy themselves back into contention. It is particularly troubling given the barren Phillies farm system.
Which brings us back to the work of Ryne Sandberg. He was not able to stop the emptying stands, but he helped save the franchise from complete irrelevancy. Not to blame Charlie, but the team was not playing inspired baseball and appeared to lack any motivation. Perhaps Sandberg himself had little to do with the turnaround, but it is equally as likely that Ryno cause the rejuvenated play.
When Charlie left, the Phillies had the look and feel of an old, lethargic team. The players knew Charlie's time was up and played accordingly. It was boring baseball and gave fans little reason to come to the yard.
If nothing else, when the Phillies brought in Sandberg, it gave the team a chance to start over. With no hopes of October baseball, they had a chance to play "meaningful" games.
Hopefully their inspired play can change the mind set of fans. Instead of dwelling on the end of an era they can view it as the beginning of the next one.
We are approaching a potential turning point in Phillies history. With a couple savvy moves by Amaro, met expectations from the youngsters, and improved performance from the veterans, fans will show their support. But if Ruben has another poor off season, history shows that attendance will continue to decline and the Phillies will lose the advantage they have enjoyed for almost a decade.
Winning is the best way to maintain fan support and the players on the field will play the largest role in that regard, but a manager can also make a big impact. Ryne Sandberg was thrown into a difficult situation with a cast of minor league characters and found a way to win. We can only hope that with a healthy Ryan Howard, an improved bullpen, and a few key offseason acquisitions, Sandberg can enjoy the same success as his predecessor. The future of the organization might depend on it.
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