by Clark Groome
During the Phillies 4-19 post-All Star Game slide out of playoff contention, a wise Phillies fan emailed me with the suggestion that the Phillies post signs outside their entrance gates quoting Dante: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
Clearly it was that run, coupled with the remarks made by several of the key players, that led General Manager Ruben Amaro to fire Charlie Manuel and appoint Ryne Sandberg as interim manager for the rest of the season.
Now that we’ve had a week to adjust to, or recover from, the shock, sadness, anger, disappointment or whatever you felt about Manuel’s axing, it has become increasingly apparent, as is not unusual with sports teams led by the same manager or head coach for a long period, that while the timing may have been painful, the move itself was just what the doctor ordered.
Manuel was a great manager. He was also a wonderful human being whose loyalty to his players more often than not paid dividends for the team. What happened is that Manuel could no longer energize his players.
While he wasn’t the softie many felt him to be – he would criticize players in no uncertain terms when they needed it, although never in public – the team, from all the evidence available, had simply given up.
For some players it was evident that if the game didn’t matter then why bother to go all out. For others, who still wanted to win, they may have been trying too hard rather than just playing their regular game.
What Sandberg has done it to make sure that everyone is part of the team. He has made it clear privately and publicly that this team needs to play as a unit. They need to support each other. They need to work together, cheer their mates and stop complaining about things when they go badly.
Unlike some managers who criticize players in the media, Sandberg has an analytical and positive approach to what needs fixing that while clear shouldn’t prove offensive to those about whom he’s talking.
His first project was to get Jimmy Rollins to go all out for the sake of the team. When Rollins was asked if he would be willing to be traded – he has a no-trade clause – he said, basically, “no way.” Fine so far.
He then went on to explain that he had a number of Phillies records he was close to achieving and wanted to stay here so he could be the best Phillie in whatever category ever. “Me. Me. Me. Me.” Sandberg made it clear to the press, and I’m sure to Rollins, that he was here for the team and whatever individual goals were reached was secondary.
Sandberg also let it be known that two of the team’s biggest pieces – pitcher Cliff Lee and closer Jonathan Papelbon – needed to be less vocal about their disappointment in the team and individual players’ performances.
Lee famously said in a huff, “I came here to win.” Clearly he wasn’t happy the team was in a funk, and the implication was he’d leave to go somewhere else to win.
Papelbon, the beneficiary of the largest contract ever for a closer, said, on several occasions, “I didn’t come here for this.” He made it clear by his words and actions that all that mattered was what he wanted. I guess $50 million wasn’t enough.
Sandberg noted that they should just go out and do their jobs and that the winning would then, in all likelihood, follow.
His latest remarks were about the injured Ryan Howard. Since the team is not in a playoff hunt there is no reason, Sandberg says, to bring Howard back from knee surgery this year. He needs to lose weight, get in baseball shape and really heal before spring training 2014 begins in February.
The players are now required to show up for work four hours before game time. They are all to be in the dugout for the National Anthem, and they are to be supportive of each other. There’s a lot of chatter coming from the dugout as the games unfold, a lot more than there was when Manuel was in charge.
I am not being critical of Charlie. While it’s hard to accept the timing of his dismissal, the evidence from the period since he left is that he had lost the room. All of the players loved and respected him.
Even Roy Halladay, who said that things needed to change, wasn’t really criticizing Manuel. He was basically saying that the team needed a goose and that the new voice, specifically Sandberg’s voice, would be good for the individual players and for the team. He’s right.
Sandberg’s first 10 days have been impressive. They’re 6-4 through Sunday, with four of those six being won in the Phils’ last at bat.
As hard as it is to accept, the Phillies seem to have been right to make the managerial change when they did. The team seems happier, more like a team.
What’s most apparent is that a Phillies game is no longer as painful as it was a couple of weeks ago. Those signs quoting Dante needn’t be erected, and that’s the best news to come out of Citizens Bank Park in a very long time.