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30 years later, Ryne Sandberg trade still Phillies' All-Time worst

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It’s 30 years to the day.  The worst trade the Philadelphia Phillies ever made.Ryne Sandberg always holds Larry Bowa in the highest regard. Photo: Don Scott- Lebanon Valley News

Let's go back to December 1981-January 1982. Longtime shortstop Larry Bowa was in the middle of a bitter contract dispute with the Phillies. In 1981, Bowa went to Ruly Carpenter, who was in the process of selling the team his family had owned for more than a quarter of a century.

Bowa, who had no agent (not something that uncommon back then) and always negotiated his contracts with Carpenter, wanted a three-year deal that would essentially allow him to finish his career in Philadelphia. Carpenter told him that if a deal wasn’t worked out by the time Carpenter sold the team, then Bowa could be traded.

I guess there’s truly something to be said about famous last words.

Unfortunately, no deal could be reached by the time Bill Giles and his group of investors purchased the club from Carpenter in late October 1981, and Bowa found out very quickly that the new Phillies ownership sang quite a different tune than that of the previous regime.

Instead of getting offered a three-year deal, Bowa was offered a one-year contract by Giles, prompting the volatile Bowa to let Giles know exactly what he thought about it. When Giles refused to trade Bowa, their feud went public. When Bowa basically called Giles a liar in the press, that was the final straw, and the Phillies orchestrated a trade with the Chicago Cubs to get Bowa out of town.  

Here’s where things get real interesting.

Oddly enough, former Phillies manager Dallas Green had recently left the team to become the Cubs’ new GM. In the process, Green brought over former Phils third base coach Lee Elia (by now you’ve all heard his famous tirade) to manage the team. Although Bowa finished strong in 1981, he was 36 years old, which was eight years older than Ivan DeJesus, whom the Cubs were offering in return. Although DeJesus was coming off a dismal season which he hit .194, the Cubs wanted another player to offset Bowa’s age. So as a result, Giles (even though Paul Owens was still the GM, the Sandberg deal is usually regarded as a Giles transaction) was strong-armed by Green and sent a young Phillies prospect named Ryne Sandberg to Chicago to complete the deal.All you can say is....DAMN IT!!!  Photo: Bleacherreport.com

Urban legend has it that Sandberg’s path to the majors was blocked by Mike Schmidt, the best player in baseball at that time coming off his second consecutive MVP season. However, Sandberg primarily came through the Phillies’ system as a shortstop, where Bowa could have played for another four years.

Moreover, some guy named Julio Franco was also toiling around at shortstop in the Phillies’ farm system (yes folks, the Phillies had THAT much talent in the minor leagues). Second base was blocked by Manny Trillo (at that time an All-Star and Gold Glove winner), Juan Samuel was too young to even be a factor in this decision, and even though Pete Rose was about to turn 41, first base wasn’t really an option.

So essentially, there was no place for “Ryno,” who either drew high or less than spectacular marks from the Phillies’ minor league scouts.

However, Green and Elia were well familiar with the Phillies’ minor league system, and saw something in the 22-year old that the Phillies didn’t (Sandberg had decent power numbers for a minor league shortstop at the time). Of course, this was the beginning of the Phillies two-decade long stretch of futility, so an oversight on their part during this time was more the rule than the exception.

I’m actually being too kind: the Ryne Sandberg trade has become the biggest oversight on behalf of Phillies' management in the history of the franchise. It gets the nod over the Ferguson Jenkins trade because Bowa (who exemplified Philadelphia much more than a player like Schmidt) was involved in the deal.

Oddly enough, Sandberg played most of the 1982 season at third base, but switched to second full-time in 1983, where he promptly won his first of nine Gold Gloves. The fact that Bowa was his double play partner during this time is not lost upon Sandberg, who has gone out of his way to praise Bowa for helping him in his career. After an MVP Award (1984), 282 home runs and becoming arguably the game’s greatest second baseman ever, Sandberg was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005, where he promptly gave shout outs to former teammates Rose, Schmidt, Trillo, and Steve Carlton  for showing him how to play baseball the right way in the early stages of his career. I remember that speech, and it still stings.Ryne Sandberg: Cubs Hall of Famer. Photo: Bleacherreport.com

As for DeJesus, he went on to play three less than spectacular seasons for the Phillies, including the 1983 pennant winning team. How he drove in 59 runs in 1982 is almost a modern miracle. His fielding was well below average, making 71 errors in a Phillies uniform compared to 44 made by Bowa over the same span.

DeJesus’ worst error as a Phillie came in Game 3 of the 1983 World Series against the Orioles. DeJesus booted Dan Ford’s ground ball which scored the go-ahead (and eventual game-winning) run for Baltimore, giving them a 2-1 series lead they would never relinquish.

Even the fact that the Phillies have been to four World Series since the Sandberg trade doesn’t mask the fact at how horrific this deal really was. Can you imagine an infield with Julio Franco, Schmidt, Sandberg and Rose? Even if you moved Schmidt to first base after Rose left, you still could have possibly platooned Franco with Bowa (although Bowa probably never would have went for that), put Sandberg at third, and moved Franco to second.

Or, what if you moved Sandberg to third, Schmidt to first, put Franco at short when Bowa declined, and had Samuel play second?  I know it’s confusing, but nonetheless my mouth is watering. And somehow through it all, we wound up with Steve Jeltz at shortstop instead. That redefines the term 'worst case scenario.'

Now 30 years later, it’s quite ironic that Sandberg is back in the same organization that drafted him, looking for a chance to become a manager in the major leagues. Sandberg has certainly paid his dues, and it’s almost a miracle that no big league club has brought him on to manage their team yet. Hopefully Charlie Manuel is going to be around for a few years. But if Manuel ever stops managing, let’s hope someway, somehow, the Phillies don’t lose Ryne Sandberg for a second time and he is given a chance to show what he has from a managerial standpoint.

In closing, my final thoughts on the Ryne Sandberg trade can be summed up by someone I met at my cousin’s wedding reception sometime back in the late 80’s. He was from Chicago, and by this time had about seven beers.

“Yo man, I’m from Chicago,” he says to me. “You like Ryne Sandberg, dude?  How in the &*#k could the Phillies let him go, man?!”  

Exactly, my intoxicated friend. Exactly.


Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com  

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Bowa and Sandberg article photo: David McKeown/therepublicanherald.com

Homepage: Don Scott- Lebanon Daily News

Sandberg Phillies photo: www.gameuseduniverse.com 

Sandberhh thumbnail: Bleacherreport.com