Commentary

Cubs go for more than a name

If Epstein's crew and Boston wanted him, Sveum has to be good choice to manage Cubs

Updated: November 18, 2011, 11:18 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

It's been tough, but I'm working to get over my distrust of management in, and around, the city of Chicago. I've got a 12-step thing going on. Right now, I'm on Step 9: Get excited about Dale Sveum.

See, I'm a positive guy at heart.

I want to believe Rahm Emanuel will clean up the debilitating waste in government. I want to believe Lovie Smith can find that mythical continuity at safety. I want to believe that Kenny Williams' tragic touch is gone. I want to believe Stan Bowman ... ah, I don't really care about the Blackhawks. I want to believe DePaul can win multiple Big East games before the conference vanishes.

[+] EnlargeDale Sveum
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaDale Sveum got passed over twice by the Brewers but he was in high demand by the Cubs and Red Sox.

And I really want to believe in Dale Sveum, the new manager of the Chicago Cubs. Sveum isn't Mike Maddux. He isn't Sandy Alomar Jr. He also isn't Mike Quade, so that's a plus.

Outside of Milwaukee Brewers fans, there aren't many people outside of baseball circles who have an in-depth idea of what Sveum is really all about -- and that makes it tough to judge him in late November.

But I think it's safe to say that if Theo Epstein & Co. wanted Sveum to manage the Cubs, and Epstein disciple Ben Cherington wanted Sveum in Boston, then he's a good choice.

I'm not one of those people who feel the need to say "I don't like this deal, but I think we should trust Epstein." That trust in Epstein, right now at least, is implicit and earned from his past success. I'm just a little gun-shy when it comes to putting any hope that the next manager of the Cubs will make a significant difference.

At the least Cubs are finally moving in a new direction. They have eschewed the celebrity manager for the rock star president of baseball operations. And Epstein, in turn, hired a "baseball guy," not a bold-faced baseball name, in Sveum to manage the Cubs.

There's one face of the Cubs, and it's Epstein.

By the way, it's pronounced "Swaim," so the "Sveum Old Cubs" line is ready for over-usage. I like "Sink or Sveum" too.

It's not even Thanksgiving, but the Cubs have the brain trust. They have their manager. They have four-game holiday plans, chock-full of early spring and fall games that no one wants.

All they need next are some good players, a pitching coach, a tangible definition of the Cubs Way, a couple hundred million in taxpayer money, and voila, things will really start to change around Clark and Addison.

Like I said, I trust the people in charge of the baseball operations, but I'm not convinced in Sveum yet. I guess you could say, the Cubs haven't Sveumed me with this move.

For those, like myself, who wanted to see relative celebrities Maddux or Alomar as the next Cubs manager, you might have been disappointed to see Sveum, the longtime major leaguer and experienced coach, get the job because he doesn't have the razzle-dazzle in his background.

Sure, Sveum is slightly younger than previous hires, and going back to his career as a grinder type, his reputation precedes him as a hard-nosed, old-school baseball type, but one who can relate to the modern player.

As a player, he's best remembered for his 1987 season, when he hit 25 homers and drove in 95 runs at the bottom of the Brewers' lineup. Personally, I'll always remember his effort as a member of the 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates "Freak Show" team that shocked the city by almost finishing .500.

If you're into celebrating the "everyman," you might like his decision in 1998. He was released by the Yankees in early August and chose to stay with the team as the bullpen catcher because the team was so special. He had a guaranteed contract that paid him $800,000 -- his highest salary -- and a wife and two kids at home. That Yankees team won 125 games (including the playoffs) and of course, won the World Series.

So I guess the message of that story is: Sveum loves baseball and is willing to be the bullpen catcher when the Cubs have to fire him.

Let's be honest. It is one thing to get excited about a player, but a manager's importance is vastly overrated by the amount of time the media gets to spend with him. The players make the manager. That's one thing Ozzie Guillen always stressed. (The other things are all unprintable.)

There's a difference, of course, between the great managers like Tony La Russa and the average-to-below ones like Ken Macha or, well, Quade, but all Jed Hoyer and Epstein really want is to have a guy who can command respect from his players -- if they smell fear or think you're a fraud, you're done -- and is organized enough to balance statistical research and in-the-moment baseball gut moves.

"Players love him and they should," former Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of Sveum, his former third-base coach, on ESPN Chicago 1000 this week. "I played with him actually in Milwaukee. He was kind of a player's player. He does things right. He's solid."

[+] EnlargeDale Sveum and Prince Fielder
AP Photo/Morry GashDale Sveum's ability to develop relationships with players and communicate makes him a perfect fit for the Cubs.

I wonder if Alomar's apparent reticence toward advanced stats hurt his cause. During his media session, he basically told us that baseball experience trumps numbers every time. It wasn't a totally wrong answer, but it could've been a factor.

Sveum, now the former hitting coach for the Brewers, answered the "sabermetric" question in a slightly more agreeable manner when he met with the Cubs media.

"I do my due diligence and video work and prepare as much as anybody," Sveum said. "As far as the stats, those are what they are, and we can use them to our advantage. It's a big part of the game now. It's helping us win a lot of ballgames, the stats and the matchups. That's just part of the game now, and you use what you can. But a lot of that stuff, we do throw out, too."

This past season, the Brewers were 10th in on-base percentage and fifth in slugging percentage, good signs, I suppose. But a hitting coach should never really be credited, good or bad, with the results of his team. It's a tough job to gauge, and an easy one to scapegoat.

The good thing is Sveum has a firm perspective on baseball, having held a number of different jobs in baseball, including three seasons as manager of the Double-A Altoona Curve in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. After a bad first season, the Curve had winning records in his next two years. He was tabbed as a managerial candidate on the rise, and he moved up to coach in the majors.

As third-base coach of the Brewers, he got the nod to replace Ned Yost with two weeks left in the 2008 season and managed the Brewers into their first postseason.

He was passed over to be Yost's replacement, by Macha, of all people, but stayed on the staff. Then he was passed over again when Macha was fired for Ron Roenicke.

Sveum has a good reputation among baseball people. It's a little odd that the Brewers didn't want him, but the Red Sox and Cubs did, but maybe that speaks to his fit in certain organizations.

I was for Maddux's candidacy because I wanted to see a sea change toward pitching and defense, and I liked the idea that pitching coaches as managers was some kind of new market inefficiency.

The Cubs' good seasons of late were led by strong pitching staffs, and with Larry Rothschild in New York, there needs to be a pitching czar for the organization.

But from the point he turned down an interview with Boston, Maddux seemed to prefer staying in the Dallas area with his wife and two college-aged daughters. If being happy was a trump card in his decision-making, I can't blame him.

When's the last time a manager left the Cubs happy? Why should Sveum be any different?

Here's the truth about Sveum. He's not going to be here for 20 years. I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't make it to the option in the fourth year of his contract. But this is the start of the Epstein regime, and he's a manager they trust to implement the "Cubs Way."

Given the way the franchise has floundered since 2008, there's only one way to go, and that's up. So maybe Sveum is the man to lead the Cubs out of fifth place. For now, that's all we should ask of him.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.