June 29, 2015
Ryne Sandberg deserved better, as a man if not as a manager. One of the best second basemen in baseball history, he was damned with the worst team in the game and the most incompetent boss in sports. He never had a chance.
When Sandberg walked away last Friday, he quietly wept as a final sign of appreciation for the fans who love the Phillies the way he loves baseball. Unlike so many managers before him, he looked right into the cameras on the day of his departure, alongside president Pat Gillick and GM Ruben Amaro Jr., and faced adversity with dignity and honor.
As someone who had the privilege of talking to Sandberg every week of his first (and only) full season with the Phillies, I developed a deep appreciation for his character, though not for his skills running a baseball team – and especially this baseball team.
Sandberg understood the demands of the manager’s job as well as anyone I have ever encountered. He savored teaching the fundamentals, using the knowledge he accumulated during his 35 years in the game. He also knew it was important to respect the fans by answering all of the questions, even when they dealt with his own failures.
Nothing should have shocked Ryne Sandberg because he had endured two years of Ruben Amaro, a man who has defied every law of logic by maintaining a GM job historic in its ineptitude.
Ironically, it was the one question he couldn’t answer that led to his early exit. Six days ago, a reporter asked him about the decision to place Chase Utley on the disabled list. Sandberg didn’t know what to say because he had never been informed of the move, nor of the alleged ankle injury.
Even then, if you listen closely to the exchange, Sandberg fends off the interrogation that followed without ever raising his voice or showing his disappointment. He merely said he was “surprised.”
By then, nothing should have shocked Ryne Sandberg because he had endured two years of Ruben Amaro, a man who has defied every law of logic by maintaining a GM job historic in its ineptitude. Even today, with the Phillies set to introduce Andy MacPhail as their new president, Amaro remains in place as GM, at least for now.
Though he will never admit it, Sandberg was done with the Phillies the moment he learned about Utley’s status from reporters, the same Chase Utley whom he had protected for months despite a .178 batting average, the same Chase Utley who had shown him up on the pitching mound earlier in the month after a snafu with the bullpen phone.
The phone incident exposed Sandberg for the overmatched manager he was. Even Ben Revere said after the skipper’s sudden departure that some players are just not cut out for managing. Like many superstars, Sandberg expected players to work as hard as he did, to embrace the game and all that it required. With this roster, that approach was naïve.
When Sandberg came out of retirement in 2007 to try his hand at managing, he said he needed another chance to be around the game he loved. It took him six years to make it back to the big leagues, through stop in Peoria, Knoxville, Des Moines and Allentown. He was a Hall of Fame player willing to make that kind of sacrifice for the game.
And he made it all the way back, just short of two years ago, when he replaced a legend, Charlie Manuel, and displayed the wide-eyed anticipation of all rookie big-league managers. Little did he know what awaited him.
Sandberg deserved better than a boss like Ruben Amaro. He deserved Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in their primes. He deserved a ballpark with every seat filled, the way it was just a few years ago. He deserved a fair chance.
He never got it here, and now he never will. In the end, Ryne Sandberg walked away from baseball with no further aspirations to be a manager, no desire for a sequel to his heroic career as a player. Two years of Ruben Amaro and these putrid Phillies cured him of that.
Now that Sixers fans have endured three drafts by mysterious and reclusive GM Sam Hinkie, the obvious question screams for an answer: Is there an actual plan here to build a champion?
So far, it appears Hinkie has adopted nothing more than a philosophy. For want of a better term, let’s call it the Asset Acquisition Program. He keeps accumulating draft picks, injured prospects and obscure foreign players. But is there a plan?
On the surface, the decision to draft Jahlil Okafor with the No. 3 pick makes sense. By most accounts, Okafor was one of the top three talents available, with an accomplished inside game, if some worrisome drawbacks on defense and at the free-throw line. In his one season at Duke, he won the national championship. So there’s that.
The problem is, he now joins Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid (if he survives his latest foot crisis) on a team with no backcourt. None. So brazen is Hinkie’s contempt for creating an actual team, he drafted five front-court players – center Guillermo Hernangomez (who was then traded to the Knicks), forward Richaun Holmes, center Arturas Gudaitis, and forwards J.P Tokoto and forward Luka Mitrovic – with his bounty of second-round picks.
Prior to this draft, fans were consoled, after the 37-127 record of the past two seasons, with the assurance that losing now was the best route to winning later. They were also told that all of the extra picks would provide flexibility. Then why didn’t Hinkie use some of these assets – including a possible four first-round picks next year – to maneuver their way to a player who better fits their current needs?
Since he made no such move, Hinkie either plans another season of tanking, or he has inside information that the NBA is about to outlaw guards. There’s always a chance the Sixers will use some of his vast salary-cap space for an accomplished backcourt leader like free agents Goran Dragic of Miami or Brandon Knight of Phoenix. Yeah, right.
Sam Hinkie has attracted a support group of the naïve and the stupid unlike any sports executive in Philadelphia history, but even a few of these zealots are beginning to wonder if there is an actual plan behind their hero’s zest for acquiring assets.
Let me be the bearer of bad news here, then. There is no plan. Hinkie is a fraud. He proved it again last week.
While Sam Hinkie and Chip Kelly continue to confound fans with their unorthodox style as GMs, Ron Hextall just keeps making the job look easy. The former Flyers goalie is, by far, the best executive running a Philadelphia sports franchise right now.
Hextall proved his acumen in the NHL draft last weekend both by what he said before the player auction, and by what he did during it. The Flyers GM actually put undue pressure on himself by announcing that “this is one of the most critical drafts in years” for his team and saying twice, for emphasis: “We’ve got to hit.”
And then, by all accounts, he did. First, he got the kid he had targeted all along, defenseman Ivan Provorov, with the seventh pick in the first round, before trading up for a versatile forward, Travis Konecny. In the end, he claimed five forwards – three who can play center or right wing – three goaltenders and the blue-chip defenseman.
What makes Hextall so impressive is how little drama he brings to the job. He hasn’t re-made the roster, the way Kelly has since gaining final say in January; and he hasn’t tried to redefine the GM position, the way Hinkie has in the past two-plus years. Above all, Hextall is nothing like Ruben Amaro.
In one eventful year, Hextall has changed the culture of an antiquated franchise, has found a new coach, Dave Hakstol, ideally suited to this new direction, and has executed an impressive draft. Throughout the process, he has inspired confidence with his preparation, his conviction and his accessibility.
Running a sports franchise in 2015 is not as hard as Hinkie, Kelly and Amaro make it look. Ron Hextall is showing all the other GMs in this city the most efficient way to build a winning team.
And finally . . .
• The Sixers have been fined $3 million for hiding the stress fractures in Jrue Holiday’s lower right leg before trading him to New Orleans two years ago. Is the NBA claiming that the move often cited as an example of GM Sam Hinkie’s brilliance took place under false pretenses? Say it ain’t so, Sam.
• Eagles coach/GM Chip Kelly is about to sign guard John Moffitt as a free agent. The former Seattle lineman was rejected by the last two teams that signed him, retired at 24, and has been in drug rehab. Something tells me he isn’t going to be as useful as Evan Mathis. That’s all I’m saying.
• New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford mocked Eagles coach Chip Kelly’s roster moves and said he wouldn’t want quarterback Tim Tebow on his football team during an appearance last week on WFAN radio. I have two quick rebuttals. First, who the hell is Steve Weatherford? And second, he is a punter. Case closed.
• The best story of the week was the decision by Phillippe Aumont to reject yet another invitation by Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. to return to Lehigh. Aumont is one of the worst pitchers in Phils’ history, and a symbol of Amaro’s ineptitude. His departure was long overdue. And so is Amaro’s.
• Domonic Brown actually knocked in a run last Friday night – against Washington ace Max Scherzer, no less. – skyrocketing his batting average at the time to .179. Does this mean the Phillies can finally trade him? Pretty please?