Growing up in pre-Rockies Colorado, Scott Elarton — like countless fans in non-major league markets in the pre-ESPN, pre-MLB Network era — got most of his baseball fix watching the Chicago Cubs on Superstation WGN.
"I knew all the Cubs guys," Elarton said. "I could probably go through the whole lineup if I thought about it a little more."
Some 25 years later, in what's undoubtedly one of the final seasons of his own professional career, Elarton finds himself playing for the most famous of those Cubs he grew up watching.
And very soon he expects to be watching Ryne Sandberg back in a big league uniform as a manager.
Sometime over the next few weeks, Sandberg's second season as manager of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs will come to an end. If Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is half as smart as he thinks he is, he'll use that Stanford education to figure out a way not to let the Hall of Famer get away from the Phillies organization a second time.
Obviously, that's not a breaking revelation by any stretch of the imagination. The overwhelming consensus is that the Phillies were fortunate last year not to lose Sandberg, and it's pretty much a unanimous opinion by those who play for him that Sandberg is ready to take over a major league team.
"Without a doubt he's ready," Elarton said. "I think he would excel even more at the big league level just because of the way he does things, and he wouldn't have to deal with all the stuff you have to deal with here."
"I definitely think he's ready," said Pete Orr, who says Sandberg displays some of the same characteristics as both of the successful managers he's played with, future Hall of Famer Bobby Cox at Atlanta and the Phillies' Charlie Manuel.
"Hell yeah," veteran Kevin Frandsen answered emphatically when asked if he felt Sandberg is ready. "Without a doubt. Being around enough big-league managers, I think he'd be an unbelievable big-league manager."
Sandberg had already compiled a fairly impressive resume as a minor league manager before coming to the Phillies in the winter of 2010 after being bypassed by the Cubs to replace Lou Piniella. All he's done the past two seasons is solidify his credentials.
He's not going to repeat as Baseball America's manager of the year this season, as he was last year — if Scranton's Dave Miley doesn't win every minor league managerial award out there, there's something wrong with the selection process.
Still, the job Sandberg has done this season to have the IronPigs in contention for a second straight trip to the postseason is, in the eyes of many, superior to the job he did last year when he guided the team to within two games of an International League championship.
By the time the 2012 season is over, Kratz, a two-time International League all-star, will have played more games with the Phillies than has with the IronPigs.
Domonic Brown was expected to a fixture in the heart of the IronPigs lineup as he tried to resuscitate his career, but spent two lengthy stints on the disabled list and played just 60 of a scheduled 111 games before moving on to Philadelphia for good July 31.
Hector Luna, also expected to be a feature in Sandberg's lineup, has played in 61 games so far.
In all, Sandberg has had to deal with 136 transactions this summer and has seen 56 players wear an IronPigs uniform, both records for the five-year-old franchise and more turnover than Sandberg ever has had to deal with since starting his managing career in six years ago at Peoria, Ill. Yet with nine days left in the regular season, Sandberg has the IronPigs in position to reach the postseason again.
"He's been phenomenal," said Joe Jordan, the Phillies' director of player personnel. "What he's done setting the tone here has been very impressive. I couldn't be more impressed with what the guy has done here."
The team concept is at the core of Sandberg's philosophy, and it's helped the IronPigs endure the revolving door on the clubhouse.
"It's one of my challenges and one of my goals and what I believe in, so to see this happen and to see the team continue to stay above water and where we're at, that's gratifying," Sandberg said. "What I've tried to do is deal with it, turn it into a positive and keep the team rolling in the same direction. Different challenges have come up in the course of years managing, and it's not always the same thing. To stay level-headed about it and make the most of the situation and get the most out of my players is always the goal."
Kratz and Frandsen, both of whom have played major roles with the Phillies the last four weeks, are shining examples of Sandberg's ability to get the most out of his players.
Kratz had the most productive season of his pro career last year, and this year has stepped in with injuries to Brian Schneider and Carlos Ruiz to become the newest cult favorite at Citizens Bank Park and put himself in position to earn a major league backup job with the Phillies in 2013.
Frandsen has hit better than .300 both seasons with the IronPigs and has put himself in position to battle for a utility job with the Phils next spring.
"He sets his ego aside and he remembers what it was like to be a player, first and foremost," Frandsen said. "He coaches like he played. His numbers were individual, but in talking to him you learn that the numbers came from having good teams around him. You do your work and grind through and make sure you do everything for your teammates, and things will pay off."
Orr said the confidence Sandberg instills in his players reminds him of what Cox was able to do with Atlanta.
"If he put you out there, he believed in you, and that's huge," Orr said. "Any time you can go up to the plate knowing that the guy that sent you up there believes you can do it, that's a good thing."
"I can't say enough good about him," Elarton said of Sandberg. "He's just a true professional in every sense of the word. He goes about his business the same way every day; he treats his guys with respect, and he expect that respect in return. Guys just want to play hard with him, and he's easy to play for because he's so consistent."
Controlling a minor league clubhouse with minor league salaries is one thing. Could he do the same in a major league clubhouse with major league salaries?
No problem, Elarton said.
"Who's going to stand up to a Hall of Famer?" Elarton asked. "I don't care how much money they're making. They're not in the Hall of Fame, and chances are they won't get there."
Morning Call sportswriter Mandy Housenick contributed to this story.