On the surface, Chip Kelly and Ryne Sandberg have similar jobs. Both are responsible for the day-to-day performances of their teams – Kelly as coach of the Eagles and Sandberg as manager of the Phillies – and both will ultimately be judged by their records. And while that is the nature of professional sports, it is also unfair.
That’s because Sandberg is in a no-win situation that he didn’t create. He had the misfortune to finally get a crack at a big-league manager’s job just when the Phillies were on the verge of becoming the worst team in baseball, a position they now have a firm grip on. If there was any doubt about how bad this team is, it was erased in Tuesday night’s 19-3 loss to the Orioles (the Phils kicked a meaningless field goal in the fourth quarter) in a game that was even uglier than the final score suggests.
And it’ll probably get worse before it gets better, and that’s assuming it ever gets better. That means Sandberg will be fired eventually, and maybe sooner than later. If/when it happens, nobody will blame Sandberg for the Phillies’ failures and everybody will agree that he didn’t have the talent to win – but, as we all know, you can’t fire 25 players (no matter how much they deserve it), so it’s always the manager who is sacrificed to the gods.
Is Ryne Sandberg a good manager? Who knows? He’s made some questionable moves and his people skills aren’t always the best, but he’s never really had a chance to manage, other than to figure out which reliever to bring into the game after his starter gets shelled for six runs in the first inning.
And it’s not Sandberg’s fault that he has to keep playing Chase Utley and Ryan Howard night after night, and in key places in the batting order. It’s not his fault that he has to hand the ball to a starting pitcher like Jerome Williams (6.43 ERA), Severino Gonzalez (8.69), Sean O’Sullivan (6.43) or David Buchanan (8.76).
And that’s the difference between Sandberg and Kelly – if Kelly fails, it will be his fault. Kelly has final say over his personnel and Sandberg has no say. Kelly gets to draft and/or sign the players he wants and – as recent evidence shows – he can also get rid of players he doesn’t want. Kelly’s power gives him the freedom to dump high-profile players like DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin, among others. Sandberg’s lack of power means he has to keep writing Utley’s and Howard’s name on his lineup card every day even though everyone knows they can’t play at a high level anymore – or even a mediocre level.
Do you think Kelly would keep two over-the-hill players on his roster, much less in his starting lineup? Kelly does have a big advantage in that NFL players generally don’t have guaranteed contracts and almost every baseball player does. And the Phillies owe Utley and Howard millions and millions of dollars, which is why they’re still on a team that’s on course to lose well over 100 games this season. The Phillies were probably thinking/hoping they could eventually trade the former sluggers for mid-range prospects and some salary relief; that’s why it’s a safe bet that Sandberg has been ordered to play the fading stars in an attempt to showcase them. That plan, of course, has backfired, and the more Utley and Howard play, the lower their value sinks.
You have to believe that if Sandberg had his way, he’d release those two legendary Phillies and develop younger players. Kelly does have his way, and that’s why he’s able to get rid of anybody he wants to get rid of, for any reason. It could be a personality clash, like it was with DeSean Jackson. If could be a financial decision, like it was with Jeremy Maclin. It could be because the player doesn’t fit his system, like it was with LeSean McCoy.
Or it could simply be my-way-or-the-highway, like it was with Evan Mathis. The Pro Bowl guard was released this week, and not because he asked to be released, as Kelly claimed. Mathis didn’t take part in “voluntary” workouts and that’s all Kelly needed to decide that Mathis wasn’t his kind of guy and didn’t fit into the culture he’s building in South Philadelphia. And, just like that, another Pro Bowl player was released.
That’s the kind of clout the Phillies manager can only dream about. Of course, we still have to see if Kelly’s mad scientist approach works, but at least he has a chance, and Ryne Sandberg has none.