Ryne Sandberg was the Cubs’ Joe DiMaggio. He was elegant and precise in everything he did, from his batting stance, which could have been copied from a Little League primer, to his efficient rounding of the bases on a triple to his fleet patrol of the field. And, like DiMaggio, for all his greatness he had an uneasy relationship with fame. Sandberg retired prematurely at 34 while going through a divorce, and although he returned to put a nice little coda on his career, finishing in 1997 with more homers than any second baseman in history, when he quit again he seemed gone for good.

At one point the highest-paid player in baseball, he retired comfortably to Arizona; remarried, he settled in to raise the five children in his blended family. He did serve as a spring training instructor for the Cubs in Arizona, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame two years ago, but otherwise he stayed away from the game. That was how DiMaggio had done it, turning up only occasionally at a ballpark, in a suit and tie–though it never would have occurred to Sandberg to insist, as DiMaggio did, that he be introduced as “the greatest living baseball player.”

But this year Sandberg took a job managing the Cubs’ Class A Midwest League team in Peoria. The Chiefs just made their final trip to the Chicago area this week, playing a four-game set against the Kane County Cougars at Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva.

Sandberg signaled his desire to get back in the game last year, after Dusty Baker was fired as the Cubs’ manager. He somewhat audaciously told general manager Jim Hendry he’d like to be considered for the job.

“I know he wanted to get back in it, and he had talked to me about being the manager here,” Hendry said. “And I told him I was going to get somebody who’d already done it before. I certainly had a lot of respect for him. I encouraged him, if that’s the path he wanted to take, to think about doing something different than just coming to spring training.”

When Hendry and the new manager, Lou Piniella, called up Mike Quade, the manager of the Cubs’ Triple-A team in Iowa, as the Cubs’ third-base coach this season, the other minor-league managers moved up a notch. This left the job open in Peoria–four levels removed from the majors–and Hendry offered it to Sandberg. Sandberg broached the subject with his wife, Margaret. By now their kids were grown and out of the house.

“We discussed it,” Sandberg told me one afternoon in Peoria before batting practice. “She knew I was a little bit itchy on what I wanted to do in the future. The timing just seemed to be right for me. It just seemed to be the next step. If I wanted to get into baseball full-time, something like this was necessary to have on the resume.”

Managing the Chiefs wouldn’t simply be getting back into baseball full-time: it would be getting in on one of the lowest rungs of pro ball. The players are in their late teens or early 20s, fresh out of high school or college and in need of instruction off the field as well as on it. The job means bus rides as long as 580 miles from one Midwest League destination to another, and nights in relatively cheap hotels by big-league standards. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it means Peoria. DiMaggio never went back and got his hands dirty managing in the bushes.

Yet it’s been a perfect fit for Sandberg, in that many of the extraneous things that tend to muddy baseball at the big-league level–the money, the acclaim, the media, the pressure–aren’t issues in Peoria. It’s turned out to be a place for Sandberg to learn a new trade as his players do; it’s where someone who loves the game for its own rewards can enjoy it in an almost pristine form. To someone who watched Sandberg for years in Chicago, he seems happier and more comfortable now than ever before on a baseball diamond–pitching batting practice, hitting infield fungoes, signing autographs before the games, smiling as he exchanges lineup cards at home plate with the opposing manager, clapping to get a hitter’s attention as he goes through the signals coaching third.

“This is basics,” he said. “This is basic baseball. The guys hustle. They’re out here to learn. . . . It’s fun.” Sandberg admitted that he’s even embraced the travel. Baseball’s economic boom has trickled down to the low minors, and life there is better than it was 30 years ago. The tour buses are comfier and come equipped with DVD players, and the teams stay at Best Westerns and Holiday Inns. “It’s all part of it. We travel as a team. . . . It’s with the guys every day. It’s on the buses. It’s watching movies. We get off and we go and get ready to play a game.”

Playing conditions are better too. Five years ago Peoria built cozy little O’Brien Field–a typical modern minor-league ballpark–to replace rustic Vonachen Stadium. O’Brien Field was set close to the Illinois River to contribute to the city’s downtown redevelopment, and the Peoria skyline looms in center field, with a major Caterpillar office building beyond left. In right, there’s a warehouse where fans, seated on the rooftop in folding chairs, even stand with hands on hearts during the national anthem.

Peoria and its 100,000 or so citizens are part of the charm, the insulation around the team that creates an environment conducive to the development of players and managers. At one point during a game I saw, a kid behind the third-base dugout called out, “Ryno rocks!” “No,” scolded his father, who until then had been schooling the boy on the strike zone. It was as if shouting at a Hall of Famer in any fashion simply weren’t allowed in Peoria.

“There’s not the pressure here that you have at the major-league level,” Sandberg said. “It’s more about playing the game of baseball and thriving at it and seeing how good they can be without the pressure.

“This is a perfect town for this level of baseball and for these guys,” he went on. “They get a nice little draw with the people, [and] there’s quite a history here of players who have come through here and have made it to the major leagues. It’s a nice stepping-stone.” Among Peoria’s alumni are Greg Maddux and Mark Grace and, from when the Cardinals had their affiliate here for a few years, Albert Pujols.

The Chiefs weren’t exactly stocked with talent for Sandberg’s managerial debut. Baseball America, the bush-league bible, ranked only pitcher Mark Pawelek among the Cubs’ top ten minor-league prospects, and he was sent down to Boise, Idaho, after he opened the season struggling with his control. Baseball Prospectus was slightly more charitable, pegging third baseman Josh Lansford (son of longtime major leaguer Carney) and catcher Wellington Castillo as promising players. The Chiefs hit the season’s halfway mark last month at 31-38 and placed only pitchers Jake Renshaw and Alex Maestri in the Midwest League all-star game.

Wins and losses are important, in that no pro organization wants players comfortable with losing, but Sandberg made it clear that development was his primary concern and it was too soon to rule any player out as a prospect. “There was a time when I was in Double-A when I was told I would never be a major-league player,” Sandberg recalled. “Two years later I was in the majors and played for 16 years. So this is all about throwing them out there, letting them play, letting them develop, teaching them, and yeah, you just never know, especially at this level, who can make it and who not. But everybody gets the same chance and same instruction. Everyone gets a fair shot. So only time will tell who takes off and who doesn’t.”

As a baseball perfectionist, Sandberg would figure to be an excellent coach, but then again, other such athletes, including Ted Williams in baseball and Larry Bird in basketball, have struggled as managers and coaches when players didn’t perform to their standards. Sandberg has displayed more patience. “It’s not all about perfection, per se, so much as improving so they can move up the ladder and get the most out of their ability,” he said. “A lot of the things we talk about is stuff that’s from the shoulders up. It’s about the mental part of it. It’s really the whole package, all of it.”

“He has a good knack,” Hendry said. “You could see it in spring training the last four, five years. He’s a very good instructor. I think that’s important that you don’t put everyone on the same level you were, especially when you’re dealing with minor-league kids. You’ve got to bring them along and maximize their best chance of success.”

Matt Camp would figure to have the most demanding job on the team–he’s the second baseman, playing Sandberg’s old position. Yet he said Sandberg had made him feel nothing but comfortable, even as he made the transition from playing outfield last year in Boise. “With Sandberg here, I don’t see it as a challenge,” he said during batting practice. “I see it as a chance to get better. He watches me play and gives me pointers. ‘This is how you get a jump on the ball better,’ or ‘Keep your feet moving so you don’t get too stuck in one spot.’

“He’s kind of laid-back,” Camp continued. “He’s not on us all the time, like some guys can get a little too pushy. In the middle of the game he’s not down our throats over something stupid. It’s 140 games, so you can’t drill it in over one game.”

Sandberg appeared to be developing a reputation as a players’ manager. Whether that will lead to success long-term remains to be seen, but it was clear he was back in a game he loved in a place without the distractions and complications that can sully the sport at its highest level.

“I almost love it more, possibly more than when I played,” Sandberg said. “When I played, it was a job, it was hard. I played with bumps and bruises, played every day, played when I was sick. This is a little bit different, a different way to see the game, from the bench, and doing what I can to help us win a game.”

Sandberg’s previously stated purpose for taking the job in Peoria was to work his way back to the majors as a manager, but when I asked him about his reasons, he sounded more interested in the journey than the destination. “This is one of the things you do,” he said, “and you kind of do this, have fun with it, work at it, try to be good at it, and see where that takes me.”

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Hayley Murphy.