ALLENTOWN - There was a positive "buzz" in the air at Coca-Cola Park on Monday afternoon as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs prepared to hit the field for their first practice since heading north after a month of spring training in Clearwater, Florida.
A lot of that "buzz" might have been rubbing off from the smiling, excited face of new IronPigs manager Ryne Sandberg, a Hall of Famer who spent the last four seasons as a minor league manager in the Chicago Cubs farm system. Sandberg replaces Dave Huppert, who coached the IronPigs to a 184-247 record in their first three seasons .
Sandberg was passed over as Lou Piniella's replacement when the latter stepped down last season and is happy to be back with the organization that drafted him back in 1978. The second baseman played 13 games for the Phillies in 1981 before he was traded to the Cubs, where he spent the rest of his major league career.
"With the group I left spring training with, this will be our second day together and we have a couple of days to get ready for opening day," said Sandberg as he looked over a locker room loaded with players that have major league experience. "Getting off to a good start is something we're striving for and opening with a home stand is a nice thing and could benefit us."
The IronPigs host the Phillies AA farm team, the Reading Phillies, Tuesday at 6:35 p.m. and then open up on Thursday night (7:05) with a two-game series against the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees.
Sandberg knows it's important to get guys ready at the Triple-A level to move up to the Major League club when needed, but his philosophy is different than Huppert's in that he feels it's important to teach them how to win games so they know how to win on the next level.
"If you lose a bunch of games, I don't think that it's much fun and it's hard to have good chemistry," he said. "If the guys come to the ballpark every day and work hard and play hard and win baseball games, I think that's fun. That's where you walk into a locker room and you have a little bit of a buzz because things are going well."
One of the things Sandberg is working on now is acquainting himself with the players on the roster so he can place them in the lineup where they need to be and vice-versa, having the players get to know him.
Back on the IronPigs roster for Opening Day that played at Coca-Cola Park with them last season include catcher Dane Sardinha, outfielder Rich Thompson and pitchers Nate Bump, Drew Carpenter, Scott Mathieson, Michael Schwimer, Mike Stutes, Vance Worley and Mike Zagurski. Carpenter, Mathieson, Worley, Zagurski and Sardinha all saw time with the Phillies last year.
Plenty of others with major league experience have filled the other locker stalls with the likes of Ronnie Belliard, who spent the entire season with the Dodgers in 2010, heading a list of infielders who are all new to the club. Kevin Frandsen saw time with the Los Angeles Angels last year and Jeff Larish played with both Detroit and Oakland. Josh Barfield was in the San Diego system, Rob Hudson in the White Sox system and Tagg Bozied comes up from Reading.
Erik Kratz, the other catcher on the roster besides Sardinha, was with the Pirates and played nine games with the big club.
Outfielder Brandon Moss was also with the Pirates, as was Delwyn Young who played 110 games with the Bucs. Cory Sullivan played 57 games with the Astros and Matt Miller was in the Colorado Rockies farm system.
Eddie Bonine joins the mound staff after pitching 47 games with Detroit last year and Brian Bass comes over from Pittsburgh. Ryan Feierabend was in the Seattle Mariners farm system, Juan Perez was in the Dodgers farm system and Jason Grilli is attempting a comeback after missing the entire year after having right knee surgery. Drew Naylor has also made the move up to Lehigh Valley from Reading.
"I think we have some veteran experience here," said Sandberg. "A lot of these guys have been up to the major leagues and that's a good thing.
"I'm fairly impressed with our starting pitching. What they did down in spring training, kept us in very close games and they didn't give up too many runs which was a bright spot. We've got some bullpen guys that have a lot of good arms.
"A lot of the regular players also have experience with some of the late moves we made with (Ronnie) Belliard and (Kevin) Frandsen coming over here. It's nice to see them join our club along with (Delwyn) Young and (Josh) Barfield."
Sandberg is impressed with the state-of-the-art facility (Coca-Cola Park) that will be his new home and can't wait to get a glimpse of the fan base and support that the Lehigh Valley has given the IronPigs the past three years.