Commentary

Cubs have 'unflappable' new leader

Friends say Dale Sveum won't back down from anything, and that bodes well for Cubs

Updated: November 18, 2011, 8:19 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- No need to worry about the new Chicago Cubs manager being tough enough.

And that's not even a reference to the bone sticking out of his leg after his left fielder collided with him as they were going for a fly ball that day in 1988, forever altering his career.

Nor is it to the Harley he rides or the tattoos he sports. He drives the pickup more often than not, and the tattoos are mostly a tribute to his father, George, who passed away in 1992, and his wife, Darlene.

[+] EnlargeDale Sveum
Reid Compton/US PresswireDale Sveum's toughness should suit him well in trying to lead the Cubs to their first World Series title in 103 years.

"That was a mid-life crisis," said his buddy and former Pirates teammate John Wehner, who gave him hell about the tattoos when they started popping up. "It just hit early."

He found it funny, because Dale Sveum was the guy who was so old school he wouldn't even sport a batting glove when he played and called the guys with the necklaces and fancy cleats and tats part of the "Digme tribe."

No, the toughness, as far as Sveum's new job is concerned, is more about the grief he took and shook off for getting his runners nailed at home as a third-base coach in Boston.

It's also more about that time in Kansas City when his Brewers teammate Bill Schroeder bunted for the game's only base hit to break up Charlie Leibrandt's no-hitter and worried about what the still-angry crowd's treatment would be before he took the field the next day.

"Dale said, 'I'll wear your jersey for batting practice. I can take the brunt of it,'" Schroeder recalled. "Not only does that stuff not bother him, he kind of enjoys it."

It is but one side of the multifaceted Sveum, but it's a side worth noting as he embarks on one of the most coveted and at the same time toughest jobs in baseball.

"He's unflappable," said Wehner, now a Pirates broadcaster. "He'll stand up, stand by it, own it. He'll tell you why he did what he did and if it's wrong, he'll admit that it's wrong. I'd be surprised if Cubs fans ever see stress on his face. This guy is so confident in what he does and what he knows, he won't be afraid to face anything.

"He's an intense competitor, he doesn't like to lose, but he's even-keeled. You might see him elevate over the line but you're not going to see him crack. Not a move will catch him off-guard. He's been preparing for this his entire life."

Sveum, it may be worth noting, also enjoys eating cereal, wearing blue jeans, listening to heavy metal, rooting for the Oakland Raiders and talking baseball. But definitely not in that order.

"I guarantee the dress code for the Cubs' charter will not be a coat and tie," said Schroeder, now a color commentator for the Brewers and one of Sveum's closest friends. "Dale owns one suit and it's not even a suit, just a coat, and he's had it since his playing days."

Sveum, father of Britanne, who attends Arizona State, and Rustin, a high school senior, is a teacher but he is also a listener. He is instinctive but he is also analytical. He is a players' coach but he will hold them accountable. His friends call him "Nuts," but no one is more sane.

"He'll get on players," said Cory Provus, one of the Brewers' broadcasters. "If it's justified and he needs to do it, he definitely will. But he was a big league player, and he won't jump on them for slumps because he went through them. But he's called 'Nuts' for a reason. He is adamant about upholding certain standards, and if you don't do your job, he will let you have it."

Sveum He's unflappable. He'll stand up, stand by it, own it. He'll tell you why he did what he did and if it's wrong, he'll admit that it's wrong. I'd be surprised if Cubs fans ever see stress on his face. This guy is so confident in what he does and what he knows, he won't be afraid to face anything.

-- John Wehner on Dale Sveum

Those standards and no-nonsense ways, said Jim Sveum, Dale's older brother by three years, come directly from what they learned from their parents, Sandrea Kay and George, an ex-Marine and president of his local Teamsters Union.

"You take care of business, which is what Dale does," said Jim, a labor relations representative in Northern California. "Our father taught us work ethic from the beginning, and Dale was very focused, very intense, even as a kid.

"He was always playing baseball, football and basketball with older kids and sometimes he got criticized for that, but he never let that deter him. He took care of business."

Dale Sveum is the undisputed best athlete Pinole Valley High School in the San Francisco Bay area ever produced, and that includes Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta and former White Sox player and commentator Chris Singleton.

An All-American in football and baseball, Sveum also was a standout in basketball and the best golfer at the school by far, though he didn't have time to play for the golf team. The track and swim coaches also wanted him.

As a sophomore, Sveum threw an early 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game in Oakland Coliseum to carry his team to an upset victory in the sectional championship. "The kid was fantastically composed and calm under pressure," recalled Jim Erickson, an assistant football and baseball coach at Pinole Valley at the time who still keeps in touch with Sveum.

Football was his first love. And Erickson remembers that in a short speech last year at the high school, when it inducted Sveum into its Hall of Fame, Sveum told the crowd that even with a World Series ring, he would love to play "just one more football game."

But Pinole baseball coach and Chicago native Mike Lafferty remembers his gifts at shortstop.

"Scouts would ask me, 'How come he doesn't get excited and jump around like the other kids?'" Lafferty recalled. "But he was always on an even keel. I used to have scouts come watch him. With other kids, I couldn't do it, they couldn't play, but the pressure never bothered Dale."

In California's North-South all-star baseball game in his senior year, Sveum, a natural righty, stepped to the left side of the plate in the top of the ninth inning and hit a 420-foot, game-winning grand slam.

He had just taught himself to be a switch-hitter that year.

When it came time to decide what to do after high school, Sveum was offered a football scholarship to Arizona State, where he could have also played baseball, and Pinole had visions of Sveum as an NFL quarterback. But a $100,000 signing bonus as a first-round draft choice and the 25th pick overall of the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1982 amateur draft convinced him otherwise, and four years later, he was in the bigs, playing 91 games as a utility infielder.

[+] EnlargeDale Sveum
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesDale Sveum's best season came in 1987 when he hit 25 home runs and drove in 95 runs for the Brewers.

The following season, Sveum was the starting shortstop, pushing Robin Yount to left field. Well, maybe not pushing but making it necessary for the Brewers to find a place for Sveum, who responded by hitting 25 home runs and driving in 95 runs while batting ninth.

Future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, already a nine-year veteran at the time, remembers the impression that Sveum made on him and Yount, another first-ballot guy with 13 big-league seasons under his belt.

"Robin and I weren't exactly grizzled veterans but we had played a fair amount and we'd see various kids in spring training and immediately you'd get a feel for their makeup and demeanor and work ethic and it was not always positive," Molitor said. "Some kids with great expectations think the game owes them or they've read too many of their press clippings. Dale was not the only one, but it was so refreshing to see a guy so unassuming, who respected guys who have been around and tried to observe and work and go about his business.

"Whether it was me or Robin or Tom Trebelhorn, you could just see the inner drive Dale possessed, the quiet passion. He wasn't about drawing attention to himself or trying to do extra work to make an impression. He just knew what he had to do."

He will forever be remembered in Milwaukee, forever be revered even by those who will have trouble stomaching him in a Cubs uniform, for Easter Sunday of that '87 season, the day he hit a two-run, two-out walk-off homer at County Stadium to extend the Brewers' win streak to 12 to start the season.

"You can ask any Brewers fan of the late '80s and they'll know where they were that Dale Sveum Easter Sunday," Provus said. "People forget what Rob Deer did but they will always remember Dale Sveum."

The next year in Detroit, as Sveum was fading back for a fly ball, left fielder Darryl Hamilton was coming in and clipped Sveum's leg. It was a gruesome injury, his shin literally shattering, and it required multiple surgeries.

"It was a tragedy because he had everything ahead of him," Schroeder said. "We never talked about it much, and Dale will say he got the most out of his career. But that changed things for him. He was never the same after that."

In the late '80s and early '90s, the Brewers had one of the best farm systems in baseball with Gary Sheffield and Billy Spiers and Pat Listach. Sveum's injury gave Sheffield his first shot in the big leagues.

"After that," former Brewers teammate and now MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac said of Sveum, "he had to find a way to make himself a big league player."

He managed to hang on 10 more years doing that, bouncing between the majors and the minors, from Philadelphia to the White Sox (for 40 games in '92) to Oakland to Seattle, before retiring at 36 after failing to make the big league roster with the Pirates in 2000.

"Sometimes when you're forced to watch the game when you're young, as Dale had to [after the injury], you start to really see things like how the pitching staff is handled and how positions are played that aren't yours and I think maybe he started to see the game a little bit differently," Molitor said.

Sveum managed Pittsburgh's Double-A club in Altoona, Pa., the following year until 2003, then took new Red Sox manager Terry Francona's call to come to Boston in '04 after Francona, a teammate in Milwaukee, was advised by Yount that he need look no further for a third-base coach.

Before Sveum's first season as a big league coach was over, callers to Boston radio shows were calling for his head for getting too many runners nailed at home. After that season, he explained his aggressiveness to the Boston Globe Magazine, saying it stemmed in part not just from his baserunner's speed or the outfielder's arm, but because adding to his team's lead may preserve its own reliever's arm. That sometimes it was worth the risk if it might also hasten the exit of a particularly strong opposing pitcher.

The aggressiveness was also largely dictated by Francona, but Sveum never said that. Nor did he point out, said Lafferty, that in watching the plays in which runners got thrown out, many times it was the slight hesitation of a runner looking over his shoulder that made the difference in a bang-bang play.

"Dale said of all the plays he sent runners home, he'd only want one call back," Lafferty said.

Sveum analyzed the outfielders' recent throws to the plate, the angles at which his baserunners hit the bag and was cognizant that hitting a two-out base hit is one of the hardest things in sports and that not taking enough risks was doing his hitters and the entire team a disservice.

Sveum had the unconditional support of the Red Sox clubhouse.

"Just the way he came into Boston right away, with the superstar culture there, he didn't back down at all," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said. "He earned their respect right away. Certain players at first were like 'What's this guy doing?' and he never backed down and the guys really embraced him.

"A lot of times guys back off from players like that, and he never did. That's important. We're a big market, we're going to have veteran players, we're going to have highly-priced players, and we need a manager who isn't afraid to teach those players."

Sveum, who turns 48 next week, is a man of many nicknames. They call him "Bo," short for Bocephus, the nickname of Hank Williams Jr., as well as "Bonuts" and Bob Uecker's favorite, "Nutsy."

The Cubs will be a tight ship and a loose group under Sveum's command. He describes himself as brutally honest, a reference to his players who flock to him but could be applied to more than one umpire whose ears he has reddened.

"In all my dealings in baseball, 99.9 percent of all players want to be looked in the face and told to get their crap together, so to speak," Sveum said at his introductory press conference. "And whether it's a single-out incident or just not getting it done, they appreciate that, and a lot of times if they've done something not so good, they'll apologize and get back to work.

"People want to be motivated, that's just the way society works. It's the way we are as individuals. That's why you man up, look at them straight in their face and say 'You've got to get your crap together.' Simple, bottom line."

So single-minded is he that one of his tattoos, on his wrist, is his wedding anniversary "which I tend to forget once in a while," he said.

Another is a rattlesnake with the words "pain is inevitable, suffering is an option."

"Everyone is going to have physical and mental pain," he said, "but suffering is your option."

Sveum has the distinction of having played for five managers -- Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella, Jim Leyland and Gene Lamont -- who were all named manager of the year during their careers, and it is from each of them that he takes a piece.

When Sveum took over for his friend and boss Ned Yost as interim manager of the Brewers for the last 12 games of the '08 season, it was a desperate attempt at a wake-up call to make the playoffs. When they lost the first four of six games under Sveum, Yount, one of his closest friends and strongest supporters, urged Brewers management to retain him.

And his team never wavered.

"He's one of the most intelligent baseball people I've ever been around," veteran catcher Jason Kendall told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time. "He's going to be a good one for a long, long time. ... We'd all love him to be our manager next year, without a doubt."

The Brewers won the next five of six games to clinch the NL wild card and the team's first playoff berth in 26 years, but he was not retained for the following season.

Can Sveum handle the inherent pressure of his first full-time managerial gig as well as the stress the Cubs' job can bring?

"Dale is not an easily rattled individual," Molitor said. "He has a calmness about him, which was one thing about him as a young player. He was a better player the bigger the situation. People who can control their emotions are the ones who don't let pressure affect their ability to be successful.

"I know the media likes people who are quotable, but transparency is what's impressive, and astute observation and toughness. Dale is tough. I think he's going to do well."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. ESPNChicago.com's Jon Greenberg contributed to this report.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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