Perhaps it's fitting that after all the talking, the drama and the smugness -- and the bizarre, bizarre roster decisions with their bizarre, bizarre justifications -- the Philadelphia Phillies' attempt to change the narrative this weekend ended up as nothing more than a subplot in someone else's story.
On Friday, the Phillies parted ways with Charlie Manuel, the best and most celebrated manager in the team's history, in a strange and not-at-all-mutual way, replete with a cancelled pregame celebration and quotes from Manuel about how he "did not resign" and "did not quit," and topped off by a yearning, shot-from-behind image of the former manager leaving the clubhouse for the last time, missing only The Lonely Man theme. Even now, three games into the new managerial regime in Philly, the best we can piece together is that Manuel was fired -- because if you do not resign and you do not quit, and the position still exists once you're gone, then that is what you are, fired.
Before that moment on Wednesday, reportedly while chatting over coffee with general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., Manuel apparently was the only person inside the organization or out that thought he stood a puncher's chance of returning next season. And if Charlie Manuel doesn't want to finish the season because Philadelphia wants to go in a different direction in 2014, there's very little the Phillies can do but take that one on the chin. And they have. And it's time to move on. The Philadelphia front office probably just hoped it would get off to a better start than this.
Make no mistake, this is the start of the Ryne Sandberg era. It may be a long era, or -- far more likely, and through no necessary fault of his own -- a short one, but Sandberg is the "interim" manager in name only. Manuel should have seen this coming (and probably did) for quite some time now. After last year's 81-81 season, the Phillies fired three coaches: first base coach Sam Perlozzo, hitting coach Greg Gross and bench coach Pete Mackanin. Perlozzo would be replaced by Wally Joyner this year, and Gross by Steve Henderson, but in an extremely unusual move, Ryne Sandberg was made the third base coach, and the position of bench coach was eliminated. Mackanin clearly had designs on managing a big league team at the time; both the Cubs and Red Sox had interviewed him the offseason prior. But Sandberg was the heir apparent, even though he clearly was someone other than Manuel's choice for the role, and a potential obstacle was cleared out of the way for him before it could even become a problem.
Sandberg's been both the Phillies' third base coach and their infield coach this year and has extensive managerial experience in the minors; the man knows what he's doing, in terms of the process and expectations of being a big league manager. Whether he's any good at it remains to be seen -- his minor league track record and public statements on baseball strategy reveal a man who was at one point a hardline bunter, especially with very young, developing players, but who brought the sacrifice levels down to something at least approaching reason in his last couple years at Triple A.
The big question for Sandberg isn't whether the interim tag will get removed (it will) or whether he'll be given enough time with the team. No reasonable club grooms a guy like Sandberg for as long as the Phillies have without giving him at least a couple years to prove himself, and while the organization has more than a few operational vices, impatience or disloyalty with their staff is not one of them. The real question starts out as, "Will Ryne Sandberg be put in a position to succeed in Philadelphia before he's fired?" and might very well become, "Will Ryne Sandberg be put in a position to succeed in Philadelphia before he decides to go elsewhere?"
Sandberg is inheriting a team of ghosts: Ryan Howard, the franchise player who once was and never again shall be; Chase Utley, the aging fan-favorite who has gone on the disabled list each of the last four years; Jimmy Rollins, the former face of the franchise who has all but gone on record saying he's playing for career milestones now; and Jonathan Papelbon, the reliever whose fastball velocity, strikeout rate and usage are declining already, with three years remaining on his monstrous deal. People talk about a youth movement in Philadelphia, and for some reason Darin Ruf's name keeps popping up, because 27 actually does seem pretty young when compared to all of the other regulars holding down spots in the lineup. And the farm system? There isn't really one to speak of. There have been attempts to prop up guys like Carlos Tocci or Severino Gonzalez as notable pieces in the low minors, but it'll be some time before the verdict comes in on them. The only cavalry that's on its way soon is starter Jesse Biddle, and he is probably a back of the rotation pitcher. Sandberg's squad will go into the offseason with a gaping organizational hole at catcher and the very real danger that his bosses might respond by throwing another albatross contract at someone like Brian McCann.
So perhaps it's fitting that Sandberg's debut weekend with the Phillies was spent watching a team of old players score three runs in three games, avoiding a sweep only by the slimmest of margins and the grace of a Hanley Ramirez defensive breakdown at short. Much like the rest of this season, while the outcomes were mediocre, the underlying performances were even worse. It's not even that the new manager has his work cut out for him; there's just too much wrong right now with the Philadelphia Phillies for Ryne Sandberg to fix.