A day Cubs fans never wanted to see

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Ryne Sandberg on the bench.
This is uncomfortable! Ryne Sandberg returns to Chicago.

Just over five years ago, in the summer of 2008, there was a minor-league game played at Wrigley Field. So far as anyone had been able to determine, it was the first minor-league game Wrigley had ever seen.

The game had a bank sponsorship, tickets were widely available, and much cheaper than a regular Cubs game would have been, and kids were promised the chance to run the bases after the game was over. But those weren’t the reasons I went to the game with my family. No, the real attraction that night was Ryne Sandberg, who was embarking on his managerial career with the Cubs’ single-A affiliate, the Peoria Chiefs.

Sandberg was a Hall of Famer — and the last one that will be inducted into Cooperstown in a Cubs cap for the forseeable future — but there he was that night, wearing the familiar number 23 and managing the team while also coaching third base. We all knew it was not what he was accustomed to as a player, but if anyone could tough it out and get back to the majors in a manager’s role, it was Ryne Sandberg.

Being in Wrigley again on that night must have given Ryno a sense of what he was aiming for. He had already earned the admiration and respect of every Cubs fan who remembers the 1984 and 1989 division winners, and all of the bad years that came between them and after them. But Sandberg wasn’t done yet, as far as being involved with baseball was concerned.

The millions that Sandberg earned on the field meant he never had to work another day in his life. Baseball had indeed been very, very good to him. But there was one thing he hadn’t accomplished. Winning an MVP or a Gold Glove or a standing place on the All-Star team? No, he already had all of those things. What he lacked was a taste of the World Series. Wrigley Field was, and still is, the most unlikely place of all to attain that, but Ryno was our guy. If Cubs fans were ever going to get to the mountaintop, we wanted to have Ryno along for the ride.

When Jim Hendry was ousted as the Cubs’ General Manager in 2011, it set the wheels in motion for a new manager to be brought in to replace Mike Quade. Many people assumed Sandberg had already earned his stripes as a successful minor-league manager, working his way up to double-A and then to triple-A, where he was named the Manager of the Year for the Pacific Coast League in 2010. The planets seemed to be aligning for Sandberg to return to the Cubs dugout as their manager.

But Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer had other ideas. How seriously they considered Ryne Sandberg is something that only they know, but passing over Ryne Sandberg left a bad taste in many Cubs fans’ mouths. I remember very well a discussion I had with my brother at Thanksgiving dinner in 2011, shortly after the decision was made to hire Dale Sveum over Sandberg. My brother was peeved, to put it mildly, because he believed Sandberg did what he needed to in order to earn the job in Chicago.

Between bites of turkey and stuffing, I told my brother it was a move in a new direction for the franchise. What better way to say goodbye to the bad old days of losing, I asked him, than to bypass Sandberg in favor of someone who played for another team, even if it was the Milwaukee Brewers? Epstein and his team had a plan, I told him, and the World Series was going to come at some point in the future.

What I didn’t know at the time, because it hadn’t happened yet, is the Cubs would make a mockery of this line of thought by signing old Cubs warhorse Kerry Wood for the 2012 season. You can’t break from the past on the one hand (Sandberg), only to rush right back to it with the other (Wood). The Wood signing blew up in the Cubs’ face, and it was an early indication — at least for me — that maybe Epstein didn’t have the golden touch, after all.

I heard the ridiculous theory that Sandberg would go back to managing at triple-A after being passed over for the manager’s job, and that he would be ready whenever Sveum was ultimately let go. Those people were obviously mistaken, because the passion that led Sandberg to managing in the first place wouldn’t allow him to stagnate down in the minors.

In essence, Sandberg did what most of us would do in that situation: take the hint and move on. If the Cubs weren’t willing to honor his work in the minors — to say nothing of his top-notch contributions as a player — then somebody else probably would. The Phillies made him an offer to coach in the majors, and Sandberg took it. It seemed to be just a matter of time before he would take over for Charlie Manual, and that day came earlier this month.

So, Friday brings Ryne Sandberg back to the city he called home for many years. The name and number on the back will be as they should, but the name on the front will be terribly, terribly wrong.

Something happens when a player goes to another city and plays for a competing team. Mark Grace, Sandberg’s partner in the Cubs infield for many years, left after 13 seasons on the North Side and went to Arizona to play for the Diamondbacks. As a Cubs fan, I was happy for him when he won a championship in 2001, but leaving Chicago meant I lost interest in him as a player. When his recent DUI struggles were going on by hiring Boston lawyers for OUI, I couldn’t care less when he was doing his time and when he got out. He was still an ex-Cub, sure, but he wasn’t a Cub as he was back in the 1990s, at least not in my mind.

I don’t know if it’s ever going to be possible for Ryne Sandberg to return to the Cubs after this. It’s clear he isn’t wanted, because to make a play for him while this regime is still in place will be an admission they should have hired him in the first place. And that just won’t happen, I’m afraid.

To Ryne Sandberg, I say welcome back. I would rather say welcome home instead, but that might not be possible anymore. And it’s not because I — and lots of other Cubs fans, I hope — don’t still appreciate what you did for the franchise. No, it’s more like the Cubs’ rejection of your managerial bid in 2011 means self-pride has likely taken over. If someone turns you aside, should you ever go back to that person again? Doing that would be pathetic, frankly, and nobody expects to apply that word to you.

To Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and anyone else who participated in the managerial hiring process, I am going to suggest that your decision is a hard pill to swallow. Having been a Cubs fan since the mid-’70s, I was raised on Cubs players who never got a whiff of the Hall of Fame, and Ryne Sandberg is the only exception to this rule.

Andre Dawson went in as an Expo, Bruce Sutter as a Cardinal, Dennis Eckersley as an Athletic and Greg Maddux will go in as a Brave when he gets the call next year. Ryne Sandberg is all that I have, at least from a Hall of Fame perspective. And now his services belong to another team.

Don’t think for a moment there won’t be lots of Cubs fans who will have to check their emotions, once Ryne Sandberg takes the field in a Phillies uniform Friday afternoon. If this is the price that must be paid for the World Series someday, then so be it. But until — and unless — that happens, this is going to be held against those who made it happen.

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