Sandberg a big hit in Peoria

Sandberg a big hit in Peoria

PEORIA, Ill. -- There was only one person in the crowd of 1,000-plus crammed into the Riverplex Wednesday night who wanted to see Eric Patterson more than he wanted to see Ryne Sandberg.

But that person, Cole Hartley of Princeville, Ill., was first in line for Sandberg's autograph at one of the Cubs Caravan's stops. By the luck of the draw, Hartley was one of 200 who won a chance for the Hall of Famer's signature, and he waited patiently for four hours, saying no to trade offers, even though someone tempted him with chances for both a Patterson and a Neal Cotts' autograph. Hartley had ordered a blue Alfonso Soriano T-shirt for the sold-out event, and he was asked what he would tell Cubs general manager Jim Hendry if he had the chance.

"I'd tell him to bring up Patterson and have him play second," Hartley said of the second baseman, who played primarily at Double-A West Tenn last season. "I like [Mark] DeRosa, but I've been waiting for Patterson my whole life."

Hartley, by the way, is 10 years old.

The youngster's passion and devotion is typical in Peoria. Sandberg will just have to win him over.

Wednesday night was a Sandberg love fest in this Illinois city about 160 miles downstate from Chicago. The people of Peoria are giddy to be part of the longtime Cubs second baseman's new career.

"This is big," said Rocky Vonachen, Peoria Chiefs team president and general manager. "It's exciting every day. People are talking about it -- the buzz is unbelievable around town."

Sandberg, 47, may be the first Hall of Famer to manage the Chiefs, but he isn't the first Cub. He follows former teammate Jody Davis, who led the Class A team to a 75-64 record in 2006, his first year as manager. The Chiefs won the first half with a 41-28 record, and finished second in the second half.

"He was one of my first phone calls," Sandberg said of Davis. "He said he enjoyed the experience much more than he thought he would, whatever that meant. He said the league was terrific, great towns, and most have new facilities, which is a plus."

Davis has been bumped up to Class A Daytona, and, in a veteran move, is already lobbying Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita about which players he wants.

The city's convention and visitors bureau is more interested in touting the Chiefs' new skipper, and is creating travel packages for Chicagoans who might want to spend a weekend in Peoria to see the Hall of Famer and watch some games at picturesque O'Brien Field. It's a beautiful ballpark, complete with palm trees, suites named after alumni Greg Maddux and Mark Grace, and a berm for picnic-type seating. Some suite holders like the place so much, they have personalized their boxes with everything from chandeliers to golf souvenirs.

"Everywhere I go around town, they're talking about Ryne," Vonachen said. "They say, 'How'd you do that?' I had nothing to do with it."

Vonachen also knows this is a one-time thing. Most managers spend one year at the Class A level, and then move on.

"It's going to help us bring people to the ballpark who have never been here before, and from a larger radius," said Vonachen, whose ticket request list is reaching 90 miles around the city. "I told the staff that it's our job to make sure they have fun while they're here, so they want to come back more times this year and they want to come back next year, when Ryne's not here. We knew Jody would be a one-time shot, we know Ryne will be a one-year deal. Maybe it's Billy Williams or Ernie Banks next year, who knows?"

Who knows? Former Cub Andre Dawson will again be on the Hall of Fame ballot next year. Maybe he'll be in Peoria in 2008.

"And we'll get Mark Grace as the hitting coach and Greg Maddux as the pitching coach," Vonachen said, laughing. "We're working on it."

"It is going to be a challenge, but there's a lot of fun tied to that. I see nothing but positives coming from it."
-- Ryne Sanberg, on managing for the first time

They'll need a bigger stadium if that happens. O'Brien Field is usually packed whenever the Cubs send a Major League player on a rehab assignment. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior have pitched there, and locals say people were virtually standing on top of each other when Nomar Garciaparra played a few rehab games in Peoria.

Right now, it's Sandberg's town. As he signed autographs Wednesday night, fans lined up three-deep to take pictures with their camera phones.

"I didn't think he'd give up Scottsdale, Ariz., for Peoria," said Verne Pawley, one of the directors of the Chicago Cub Boosters Club of central Illinois.

"Peoria is a great baseball town, and it has a history of players who have come through and made it to the Major Leagues and helped the Cubs out," Sandberg said. "I look at this opportunity for me to help develop those players -- teach them how to be professional on and off the field and teach them how to play the game -- and all of us have fun doing that.

"The location couldn't be better for me to start my career at this," Sandberg said. "I couldn't think of a better place to start, right in the Midwest, Cub fans, avid Cub fans here. The attendance is excellent here, and that's good for baseball, good for the young players to play in front of crowds here in Peoria. It's all great."

Sandberg is taking it a step further by lending his name to "Ryno Kid Care," a non-profit program that works to make life less stressful for seriously ill children and their families. The program, which will be available in Peoria and Chicago, will offer services to lift the spirits of children and their families when their everyday lives are turned upside down. Sandberg and his wife, Margaret, recognized the need for such a program after visiting children in hospitals.

"I saw parents so desperate they wouldn't leave their child's bedside, even to go to dinner," Margaret said. "Because I could speak to them and the child in Spanish, they were comforted enough to let me take their place for a short time while they took a much-needed break. That experience showed me the need for this program."

Sandberg likes to emphasize the positives, whether it's through helping kids or his new career. He has a lot to learn as a manager. He was a guest Spring Training coach for the Cubs the past eight years but now he'll be coaching third, handling pitchers, setting team rules and putting on plays. Jim Frey and Don Zimmer were mentors. Maybe the Chiefs will be playing Ryno Ball?

He got a taste of what the Midwest League bus rides will be like on Wednesday. It's nearly three hours from Chicago to Peoria.

"It's been a while," Sandberg said, laughing. "I remember those days, being in the Minor Leagues, riding the buses. It's fun. Players can learn things on the buses. It'll be fun to be around the young players again."

Pete Vonachen, Rocky's father and the man known as "Mr. Baseball" in Peoria, has joked with Sandberg often about the possibility of him managing in Peoria. The elder Vonachen brought Minor League baseball to the city with the first Peoria Chiefs team in 1984.

"When you get a Hall of Famer looking forward to this, it means he's very serious about it," Pete Vonachen said. "I told him, 'I'm going to call you on your cell phone at two in the morning on the bus to Lansing and see if it's still fun.' I told him, 'It's not bad -- they've got movies on the bus.' He said, 'Movies?'

"He's excited," Pete Vonachen said. "It's not something he's doing begrudgingly."

Major League managers Jim Tracy, Joe Girardi and Joe Maddon all have played in Peoria. Now, it's Sandberg's turn.

"It'll be a fun opportunity to see if I do like it, but also do this for a summer and see what other opportunities come my way," Sandberg said. "I have the frame of mind that I'm just looking forward to it. It is going to be a challenge, but there's a lot of fun tied to that. I see nothing but positives coming from it."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.