By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) Until recently, the Chicago Cubs were in a tailspin.
And, until recently, the LeHigh Valley IronPigs were, too.
The Philadelphia Phillies’ Triple-A team – managed by Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg – didn’t lose 12 straight games like Chicago’s North Siders did during May.
But Lehigh Valley (30-24 and 3.5 games out of first place, heading into Friday night’s game against Pawtucket) did drop five in a row before finally snapping that streak with a pair of big wins on Wednesday and Thursday.
Despite suffering his first extended losing streak of the season, Sandberg – now in his second season at Lehigh Valley – still appears to be living high on the hog … or IronPig in eastern Pennsylvania.
And here at the quarter-way mark of the Cubs’ season, I thought it would be interesting to see just what Sandberg, the team’s twice-spurned managerial candidate, has been up to so far in 2012.
He’s been making players’ days …
On the morning of May 16, Sandberg dialed the cell phone of the IronPigs’ 33-year-old outfielder Rich Thompson – a career minor leaguer for 13 seasons – with some life-altering news.
After answering the call and exchanging vague pleasantries with his manager, Thompson told ESPN.com that had no idea what Sandberg was calling him about.
“So when Ryno said to me, ‘You’ve been traded to the Tampa Bay Rays’ I was already thinking, ‘Really? What’s going to happen to me now? I’ve got to get myself to Durham somehow,’ Thompson explained. “‘ … At least that’s supposed to be a nice [Triple-A] place to play …’
“Then Ryno added, ‘And the better news is you’re getting called up to the big leagues right away’ and well, I mean … I just had all these overwhelming emotions.”
Sandberg called it “One of THE best phone calls I ever made in my life,” before adding: “I could hear tears of joy on the other end of the line. And Rich just kept saying to me, ‘Thank you, Ryno! Thank you, Ryno!’ It was as if I’d just given him something he’s been waiting for someone to say to him for all those years.”
He’s been managing a former Illini …
In the trade with Tampa Bay involving Thompson, Philadelphia received in return Kyle Hudson, the former University of Illinois baseball standout and wide receiver/kick returner on Ron Zook’s Fighting Illini football squad.
Hudson, a Mattoon native, began 2012 with Baltimore, who drafted him in the fourth round of the 2008 MLB draft. He then signed with Texas as a free agent, however, after the O’s released him. At the end of March, Hudson was then traded to Tampa Bay before finally being dealt to Philly, which deposited him on Sandberg’s IronPigs roster.
The 25-year-old Hudson, who is known for his speed, might have gotten the Phillies’ attention by going 8-for-14 with four steals in a four-game series against the IronPigs last season.
“I remember him last year stealing bases with us and being a pest on the basepaths,” Sandberg said.
He’s been avoiding shaving cream pies …
According to the Allentown Morning Call, Lehigh Valley has adopted a tradition this season that’s common with many teams, but apparently even more common with the IronPigs.
When a player does a postgame TV interview after a victory, they usually end up receiving a shaving cream pie in the face. The Morning Call reported that players have actually now come to expect it, “anxiously looking around for the assailant.” But, thus far, they’ve opted to not assail Sandberg – although he’s watching out for it.
“I was trying to keep my answers short just in case,” Sandberg said about his postgame interview following a recent 4-1 comeback win over Syracuse. “You just never know. It’s a scary moment out there after the track record of the guys this year. I guess none of them have the guts to try it, but it’s a long season.”
Lehigh Valley catcher John Suomi has been the ringleader of the pie throwing, according to the Morning Call, but told the newspaper that he won’t be the first to pie Ryno.
“I was thinking about it, but I know my spot,” Suomi explained. “I know who he is. He’s the manager and makes the lineup every day and I didn’t want to get on his bad side. I’ll let somebody else do that and break the ice with that.”
He’s been at peace …
Last month, SI.com columnist Will Carroll – who grew up idolizing Ryno – wrote about the Cubs great:
“Sandberg has been passed over for major league jobs a couple of times now, but he seems not only content with where he is, but peaceful. Many believe that Sandberg is essentially a manager-in-waiting behind (Philadelphia’s) Charlie Manuel. Whenever and wherever Sandberg gets that shot, the Hall of Famer is ready to make the most of it.”