It was June of 1978 and the Phillies were 1 1/2 games out of first in the National League East. The amateur draft was going on and the Phillies had drafted future "greats" such as Ed Hearn, Dwight Taylor and of course, first rounder Rip Rollins. As the draft hit the 20th round and only the most avid of fans were still paying any attention, the Phillies called out the name of a young infielder from North Central High School in Spokane, Washington; Ryne Sandberg. Few remember that Sandberg, now a Hall of Famer, actually did make his major league debut with the Phillies on September 2, 1981. What most Phillies fans remember is the following January when the Phillies traded aging shortstop Larry Bowa to the Chicago Cubs for shortstop Ivan DeJesus. And, oh yeah, they included Sandberg in the deal. Perhaps, they should have known that something was up when new Cubs GM Dallas Green, who left the Phillies to take over as the Cubs GM after the '81 season, asked that Sandberg be thrown in as part of the trade. The Phillies obliged and the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to the winter of 2008. This time, the Phillies are the team with a new general manager in Ruben Amaro Jr. And this time, there is another young infielder that intrigues other teams, but being a smart man, Amaro likely remembered the words of George Bernard Shaw; "Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Possibly one of the most asked about players in baseball this off-season has been Phillies prospect Jason Donald. The infield prospect blossomed at Double-A Reading last season and then continued to highlight his skills in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .407 in 25 games with Mesa. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro spent a lot of time fielding questions from other GMs about whether they would make Donald available in a deal. Technically, the Phillies might have included Donald, but the return would have had to be a player or player that the Phillies genuinely coveted.
It was in Mesa, Arizona that this story comes full circle, for that's where Donald was coached by none other than the great Ryne Sandberg.
Sandberg initially started his career as a shortstop and then moved to second base. Donald has spent his time in the minors as a shortstop and the Phillies alerted the Mesa coaching staff that they wanted him to learn to play at second and third in the AFL. Who better than Ryne Sandberg to work with the young infielder, who is penciled into the Triple-A Lehigh Valley lineup, unless a detour to Philadelphia is put in front of him. Perhaps Sandberg noted the similarities between him and Mr. Donald. It's interesting that if Donald becomes a key part of the Phillies infield at some point, Ryne Sandberg would have been one of the coaches who helped him along the way.
"In the game reports, you could tell how much he [Sandberg] thought about Jason Donald like himself," explained Phillies minor league director Steve Noworyta.
Donald is a true student of the game, who keeps detailed notes on every pitcher that he faces. He dutifully takes what he's learned from each at bat and puts it on paper immediately after the game, while sitting in front of his locker. Later, he'll study those notes, looking for anything that could give him a hint as to how to be successful against a pitcher when the two meet somewhere down the road.
"The thing that impressed me about Jason was when he went into the Instructional League, we had him play third, we had him play second and he took to both of those positions very well," said Noworyta. "He can play anywhere, he can swing the bat. I think he'll be a great asset to the Phillies when they're ready for him."
There's no telling how different things might have been for the Phillies had Sandberg been their second baseman for all those years. Of course, the Phillies had Manny Trillo at second at the time they traded Sandberg and shortly after him, Juan Samuel took over and played second for much of the mid and late-80s, leading into the Mickey Morandini period after one season with Tommy Herr playing at second. Of course, maybe Sandberg would have stayed at short, erasing names like Steve Jeltz, Dickie Thon and Kevin Stocker. Without Stocker, would the Phillies have been able to acquire Bobby Abreu? And without Abreu, would they have been able to acquire players like... well, never mind.
While nobody is suggesting that Donald is a Hall of Fame candidate at the young age of 24, nobody was suggesting that a 22 year old Ryne Sandberg would wind up as a Hall of Famer either when he was dealt to the Cubs. What is up for consideration is the fact that sometimes, the best trades are the ones that aren't made. How happy would Phillies fans be with the Ryan Howard for Kip Wells deal that was almost made a few years ago? Wells hasn't had an ERA under five since that trade was up for discussion. Perhaps, in just a few short seasons, we'll be talking about how Amaro didn't repeat a failed part of Phillies history by dealing a young shortstop. Perhaps, Phillies fans will eventually get to see for years, the type of player that they gave up all those years ago.