By BRIAN WOODSON
PRINCETON — It’s a long way — in more ways than just miles — from Princeton’s Hunnicutt Field to Tropicana Field in Tampa, Fla.
Most minor league baseball players who start their careers with the Princeton Rays never achieve their dreams of playing in the major leagues.
Yet, it can be done. Just ask Jared Sandberg. He hopes his players do.
“I played in Princeton, I went up through the Rays’ ladder and made it to the big leagues and had some limited success there,” said Sandberg, whose uncle is Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg. “I’ve had a couple of players ask me, ‘Did you play?’
“Obviously I’m not a household name, maybe the last name. They don’t know who I am and they’re going to have to ask questions, but once they realize I played here in Princeton and I played very well and moved through the ranks, I think there will be a certain respect.”
Sandberg was the guest of honor on Thursday as the Princeton Rays held their annual “Media Appreciation Luncheon.” Sandberg, who flew in from Seattle the previous day, was joined by Rays’ General Manager Jim Holland and Appalachian League president Lee Landers.
Despite several inches of snow laying on the ground and temperatures hovering around 20, Sandberg was thinking baseball as he slipped on one of the brand new jerseys that will be worn by the ‘09 Rays.
“It always feels good to put on a baseball uniform, even when there is snow on the ground,” Sandberg said. “I have taken pride in putting on a baseball uniform for 13 years now and what better way to start my managerial career than to come back to Princeton. I’m very excited for the opportunity...”
Sandberg is back where his professional baseball career began. Sandberg was the Appalachian League Player of the Year in 1997. He reached Tampa Bay in 2001 and remained there for three seasons. He spent the next three years bouncing around the minors before an eye disease forced him into retirement.
“I was forced to retire due some health issues with my eyes,” said Sandberg, who drove in a league-leading 68 runs with Princeton in ’97. “It’s unfortunate. I have a rare eye disease, but I think it all works out in the end, and all for the better.
“I feel like through my failures as a player, and my eyes made me a mediocre hitter, but it made me a better person. It taught me how to deal with the failures and it’s probably going to make me a better coach as well.”
He’s back in Princeton, and much like the players he’ll coach, is looking to get to the big leagues. The 30-year-old Sandberg, whose first coaching experience came last year as a hitting instructor at Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League, is looking forward to this next step in his baseball career.
“When I was getting into coaching, one of my goals was to be a manager one day, but I didn’t realize it would be so soon,” Sandberg said. “Why would I be sitting here if I didn’t want to make to the next level or move up through the minor leagues?
“I don’t think anybody is going to sell themselves short and just want to be a AA manager. We all want to get back to the big leagues. I definitely want to be a big league manager some day.”
Sandberg was a 16th round draft choice by Tampa Bay in 1996. All he did with the then-Devil Rays in ‘97 was set seven team records — three of which still stand — in leading the Rays to the second best record in the 22-year history of the franchise.
That experience spurred Sandberg on a ride that culminated in Tampa in ‘01. He played parts of three years with the Rays, hitting .221 with 25 home runs in 196 games. Sandberg, who batted .229 with 18 homers and 54 RBIs as a third baseman in ‘02, became the first player in franchise history to hit two home runs in the same inning.
He played 55 games in ‘03, and then kicked around the minor leagues with five different teams, but never made it back to the big leagues. His career ended suddenly when his eyes would no longer allow him to play.
“All of a sudden your career ends rather abruptly, but then knowing that the disease had been going on for the past 10 years makes me understand why I had the numbers that I had as a player,” Sandberg said. “It was tough for me to see.”
Sandberg decided to pursue a coaching career, and was able to get a coaching position in the Tampa Bay organization last year in Hudson Valley. This will be his first opportunity to manage.
“Maybe my (playing) career was shorter than I wanted it to be, but I’m happy with I am right now and with how I have gotten to this point,” Sandberg said.
Pitching coach Marty DeMerritt and hitting coach Rafael DeLeon will return to Princeton — along with another former P-Ray — Dan Dement — as members of Sandberg’s staff. The season will begin on June 23 with the Rays hosting the Burlington Royals.
Sandberg knows what it takes to make it to the top. It’s the same basic attribute that every person must strive for in the search for success.
“I think it starts with work ethic. If you can come to the park every day ready to play and practice and hone your skills, I think you can develop your skills,” Sandberg said. “You have to have a certain amount of mental awareness to realize that you are not going to get a hit every time you go to the plate.
“You have to be strong mentally, play a game every single day, go through the 0-for-20s, have a four-strikeout game and learn from the failures so you can have more success.”
Once known as cellar-dwellers in the American League East, the Rays surprised everyone — even Sandberg — by reaching the World Series last year before falling to the Phillies.
Sandberg thinks that type of success will only make his job easier. Former P-Rays’ Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli starred in the postseason last season for Tampa Bay.
“These kids are a long ways from Tampa, but the winning and the success does trickle down here and hopefully since I played there, I can help the kids understand what it is about,” Sandberg said. “I was part of a 100-loss season and now to be part of the organization when they turn it around and made it to the World Series and had a winning season.
“It’s really exciting and these kids will definitely draw on that.”
Much like his uncle, Ryne, who had a sensational career with the Cubs — and now manages the Cubs’ AA team, the Tennessee Smokies — Sandberg already knows what’s most important for him to relay to his players.
“To teach the players respect for the game and professionalism and how to play the game the right way,” Sandberg said. “I think the wins and losses will take care of themselves.
“As long as they can learn work ethics through that then I think I’ll have done my job.”
—Contact Brian Woodson