Sandberg sets the tone with Rollins benching

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

CLEARWATER, Fla. - So Ryne Sandberg, in his first spring training as the Phillies' manager, has homed in on Jimmy Rollins as his first target to send a message.

Sandberg held Rollins out of the starting lineup Thursday for the Phillies' 6-2 victory over the Yankees, the third consecutive game he had the shortstop watching from the dugout. The manager spent 10 minutes after the game denying that there was anything punitive about his benching Rollins, that he wanted to give a player with just 15 at-bats this spring "a break," but it sure was hard to interpret it as anything else. Even Rollins saw the clear line that Sandberg had drawn in the dust.

"He's upset about something," Rollins said.

When he was asked Monday about his hitting struggles, Rollins told the Philadelphia Daily News, "Who cares?" The next day, Sandberg removed Rollins' name from the lineup card and started Freddy Galvis at shortstop instead. Sandberg then started Galvis again on Wednesday and Thursday without discussing the matter with Rollins - a courtesy that Charlie Manuel routinely extended whenever he decided Rollins' sometimes-lackadaisical jogs down the first-base line warranted punishment.

Sandberg had been cagey about what he was doing, citing the "positivity" that Galvis had been bringing to the lineup. When he had been asked about why Rollins hadn't been playing lately, Sandberg had said, "No comment" and smiled a rather awkward smile. He tried to retract that no-comment Thursday, saying he wished he had been more expansive about all the ways that Rollins benefits the Phillies, but that single smirk was a revealing glimpse at Sandberg's true intent. Finally, he pulled Rollins aside before Thursday's game to clear the air.

"I know and believe that everyone in the locker room including my staff cares," said Sandberg, who replaced Manuel in August. "Now what he was referencing to was himself and where he's at right now as far as his offensive stroke and what he's doing on the field. So he was speaking for himself, that he wasn't that concerned, with it being that early in the spring.

Is it time to start worrying about the feeble Phillies offense?

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"I wanted him to clarify that because I wanted to make sure that he cared. I know that everyone else in the locker room cared. So when he told me about what he was talking about, it made sense."

It seems reasonable to think, then, that Sandberg is making an obvious and forceful point: After an 89-loss season, after complacency had set in under the beloved Manuel, no one gets a free pass, regardless of his resumé. Fresh start, new tone, etc.

That's fine, and in Rollins' case, it's probably even necessary. He has always regarded himself as a "red-light player," one who rises to meet the measure of a season's most important moments, and he admitted Thursday that he struggles to bring that same intensity to spring-training games that, after his 14 years in the majors, are mostly meaningless to him.

"No one wants to go out there and lose," said Rollins, who will return to the lineup Friday against the Pirates. "But ultimately, at the end of the day, what does it mean? At the end of the day, what does it really mean until it's April? Until April starts, what are you going to do besides keep working? No one's down there snapping helmets or throwing bats or cursing out umpires yet. But the very first pitch of April, that starts because the competitive edge comes out."

The problem with Rollins' explanation is its context. Sporting a club-record $189 million payroll, the Phillies are coming off two terrible seasons, and though Sandberg was reluctant Thursday to rip publicly the best shortstop in franchise history, his actions already had spoken for him.

He doesn't have much history with Rollins, doesn't appear inclined to give any player the reflexive benefit of the doubt that Manuel did. As the season progresses, it will be fascinating to see if he applies the same clean-slate standard to the Phillies' other veterans. If Ryan Howard remains useless against lefthanded pitching, would Sandberg platoon him with Darin Ruf? How frequently might he play Galvis at second base to keep Chase Utley fresh?

If there's a risk here for Sandberg, it lies in his decision to wait until Thursday morning to talk to Rollins, to let him to twist in the wind for a while. If players are paying attention to how Sandberg will handle Rollins' periodic lapses of concentration and hustle, they're also probably noting how the new manager treats a respected member of the team's veteran core.

So far, there seems to be no ill will between the two of them, nothing festering. Nevertheless, this really is Ryne Sandberg's first test as a major-league manager. It may not turn out to be a big one, but it is a test, and it bears watching.