Ryno aims for better handle on Phillies' clubhouse
After difficult rookie year as manager, Sandberg seeking improved communication with players
By Hal Bodley
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryne Sandberg is mild-mannered, choosing his words carefully and with deep thought. If you need somebody to remain calm in a raging storm, it's the Phillies' manager.
On the flip side, it's difficult to picture Ryno in an angry tirade when the baseball players under his command don't play the game the way he did en route to the Hall of Fame.
Maybe those personality traits helped make Sandberg's rookie season as a Major League manager less than rewarding. The once-proud Phils brought up the National League East rear with a 73-89 record.
"I didn't think we had a good clubhouse last year," Sandberg said. "I don't think it was conducive to winning. The team coming together and jelling as a group last year -- we came up a little short on that end. It's something that can be handled differently with some different strategies this year."
Sandberg, 55, was dealt a difficult hand for 2014, attempting to follow in the legendary footsteps of Charlie Manuel, who won five consecutive division titles and more games than any manager in Phillies history. He was attempting to do it with virtually the same cast that gave the Phils their greatest era, but most of these players were on the downsides of great careers.
Veterans let Sandberg down, often losing their focus or failing to make winning each game the priority. Maybe they realized a team with aging superstars and green rookies had little chance of being a contender. They played that way.
Admittedly, Sandberg could have communicated better and promised to change that this time around.
Dallas Green, who managed the Phillies to their first World Series title in 1980 and later skippered the Yankees and Mets, is now a Phils senior adviser. He has been a mentor of sorts to Sandberg, having known him since Ryne was a teenager.
Green was the Phillies' Minor League director when the young Sandberg was signed in 1978, and in '82, as the Cubs' general manager, he obtained Sandberg in a trade with Philadelphia. And, of course, Sandberg became a Hall of Famer with the Cubs.
"A manager has to grab his clubhouse and grab his players and make sure they understand what's expected of them -- how he wants to run his team," said Green. "I think Ryno assumed too much -- that, yes, we were trying to win, but had lost our way on how to do that. He assumed all the players understood that and were on the right track after a couple of losing seasons.
"He didn't address as many things as he should have, and as he said, he's learned and hopefully will bring a new leadership attitude to the clubhouse."
Green added: "The manager has to be the leader and set the tone."
If 2014 was a learning experience for Sandberg, the season on the horizon could be even more difficult. The Phils are in an all-out rebuilding mode, attested by management's bold statement that they might not contend again until 2017.
So, once again, Sandberg has been given a bad hand.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. put it this way during an interview with CSNPhilly.com: "I think Ryno is going to have to have more leadership simply because of the nature of the club we have. ... I think last year was a learning experience for him. He never really had to deal with veteran players before. He'd never been around that element as a manager. I think he's more prepared for that than he was in the past."
The long, winding road of a new year began for the Phillies on Wednesday when pitchers and catchers reported to the Spring Training complex in Clearwater.
On the eve of this new start, Sandberg sat down with reporters at Bright House Field, and after the usual rhetoric about the upcoming season, he was asked what was the most important lesson learned from 2014.
"The biggest thing is not to take anything for granted," Sandberg said. "And to really take control. I think control starts with myself and goes off to the coaching staff, and then you have leaders on the team who help lead the way.
"But really, for me, not to take anything for granted."
Sandberg obviously felt that with a mostly veteran team, the clubhouse atmosphere would take care of itself.
He added: "It's easy to take that for granted and say, 'We have veterans on this team and they know everything and they'll handle the clubhouse and everything will be fine.' I learned that's not the case."
Any one of them could be dealt away, but for now, they're in the fold, which could complicate the clubhouse atmosphere because of the uncertainty.
Will it be difficult for Sandberg to motivate those players and have them fit with the younger players?
"Not according to the conversations they've shared with me, Ruben Amaro and some of the coaches," said Sandberg. "They're anxious to see a different blend of players and be part of the process with the younger players.
"We're talking about gamers -- Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee and Chase Utley and John Papelbon and Ryan Howard. These are guys who like to win and are used to winning. They should be positives for the process."
Howard's status has been a huge topic this winter. Sandberg said the former NL MVP Award winner will start at first base even with the youth movement.
"He's the first baseman," Sandberg said. "I know he's got a lot of things off his mind. I think he's in a place where with a free mind [he can] be better on the baseball field and raise his game."
As Sandberg and his coaching staff headed for a round of golf at Belleair Country Club, he said: "A lot of people grew from last year, and I think that will put us in a better direction this year."
Optimism was in full bloom now, which goes with the rites of spring.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.