Old-style manager perfect fit for Cubs
Dale Sveum's no-nonsense approach leads his players to respect him -- and the game
CHICAGO -- As Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Dale Sveum made their way down Interstate 94 on Thursday, it marked a life-changing event for Sveum, who spent perhaps the most meaningful years of his professional life in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.
So, to mark his milestone, Sveum, the new manager of the Chicago Cubs, asked that his new bosses stop in Racine. There was one important task he needed to complete before he left for fame and fortune in Illinois.
"He had to get measurements for a tux for the wedding he's in," said a bemused Epstein on Friday. "He's the best man for his (Milwaukee) clubbie's wedding. Then, we had to stop at a Men's Wearhouse to get that sports coat.
"He came out to talk to the Cubs and Red Sox about their manager's job and didn't bring a sports coat. It's funny, we went into this Men's Wearhouse in Racine and we walked in and the kid behind the desk goes, 'Please don't leave us, Dale.' "
Pardon the pun, but this isn't the Sveum old manager you're used to, Cubs fans. Sveum is a straight-talking, tattooed, hard-nosed guy who doesn't put on airs or formal attire. He isn't worried about trading quips, or living in the past.
Sveum embodies all that "Field of Dreams" crap you probably love about baseball, but he's also just a regular dude. After all, how many major league coaches are close enough with their clubhouse guy to serve as best man in their wedding? Sveum, who turns 48 next week, is in charge of the bachelor party for clubhouse guy Matt Smith this weekend. Look for the new Cubs manager tailgating outside Lambeau Field, which is probably a first.
Drafted by the Brewers in the first round in 1982, Sveum's baseball acumen is beyond reproach and his preparation skills are legendary, but his sincerity and his confidence are why he's exactly the guy the Cubs need to right a clubhouse in flux.
I stumped for Mike Maddux and Sandy Alomar Jr. during the interview process, and I think both would've been great managers, but I'm not afraid to say I was wrong for doubting Sveum even a little.
His first public impression was that powerful -- it made me a believer. Of course, we don't know what kind of team Sveum will field, or how long he will last as manager, but as we prepare for Thanksgiving, maybe Cubs fans should be thankful their front office got this hire right.
As Sveum said, borrowing an old baseball axiom, he guarantees the 2012 Cubs will win 60 and lose 60. It's the other 42 that count. He's been coaching the Brewers for the past six years, so he knows where the Cubs' problems lie.
"With this organization, what's got to change is how the game is played on an everyday basis," he said. "It's got to go in another direction, to play this game like it's the seventh game of the World Series every day."
He's not a devout "sabermetric" guy but he understands the value of having information. Preparation is his watchword. That was a check in his favor during the interview process.
"Attention to detail is something I'm all about," he said. "With the information we have now, you can win one to 10 to maybe 15 games because you're paying attention to detail. When you win divisions or wild cards, it's usually by one game."
Hoyer and Epstein knew Sveum from his two-year stint as third base coach for the Red Sox, which began with the World Series-winning season in 2004. But he surprised them in the interview process.
"I can tell you during the process, maybe an hour into the interview, we took a 10-minute break and he walked out of the room to go to the bathroom or whatever, and we're like, 'Wow.'" Hoyer said. "He captivated the room with his baseball knowledge and his passion."
Sveum said he doesn't think much about his style, but it's clear others do. He doesn't come off as extroverted, but his manner of speaking is economical and purposeful. His communication skills are one of his biggest assets, and are in great demand in the Cubs clubhouse.
"He's a walking baseball conversation," Epstein said. "You just have to be prepared and be willing to engage with him. Players are. Players are just looking for someone to talk with them, man to man, about baseball, and have well-thought out reasons for what you want them to do."
Back in 2004, Epstein and Hoyer said they were impressed with how Sveum came to Boston from managing a Double-A team and immediately confronted veterans and star players by speaking to them on their level. Sveum, of course, had his own background in the majors and is best friends with Hall of Famer Robin Yount, but to these guys, he was a fresh fish. "Dale had a better relationship with players than almost anyone I've been around," Epstein said. "But he was the farthest thing from an enabler. He got the best out of them by challenging them and holding them to really high standards." The Cubs need high standards to make a comeback at Wrigley Field. The message got muddled in the past two years as Lou Piniella tired and Mike Quade disengaged.
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"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. "And whether it's 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."
When it comes to talking to his players, Sveum said he will treat players like they're his son. I'd like to be there the first time he tries to take the keys to Alfonso Soriano's Rolls Royce for misjudging a fly ball.
Sveum also said he won't deal with the excuses that have plagued this team for a century, and he doesn't want to hear about injuries. He rehabbed from a gruesome leg injury and played another decade in the majors. He was one of the biggest contributors on the 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates team that nearly won a division with a $9 million payroll. Sveum doesn't believe in "can't."
"Excuses are just copouts for your own insecurities," he said.
If the Cubs are trying to create a new culture on the major league level, well, Sveum is the right guy to be the face of it.
"You're trying to create a situation where the other team knows how you play the game," he said. "The worst thing that happens in baseball is when we look over and are like, 'That team, man, they're dogs. Nobody plays hard over there.' They might be good, but you don't respect them. You want to be respected by the way you play. You want to have catchers fear you when you're coming into home plate and not just taking the easy way out and sliding."
There is little precedent for long-term success at Clark and Addison. But I like what I've heard these past few weeks. And for now, hope is all you can ask for.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.