There is little question that the next manager of the Red Sox will face a challenging yet potentially highly rewarding task. He will inherit a team that looked like it would storm into -- and perhaps even through -- the playoffs for much of the year, only to endure an historic collapse in month-long slow motion. The end of the season was greeted with a narrative of a clubhouse run amok over a manager who suffered hatchets after stepping away from the position.
Yet to Dale Sveum, the idea of cleaning up a mess is not completely foreign. The Brewers hitting coach (and former Red Sox third base coach, who has also been a third base coach and bench coach in Milwaukee) inherited one of the most challenging managerial jobs in recent memory.
In 2008, the Brewers were on track to march comfortably into the postseason at the start of September. But the team sputtered to a 3-12 start at the start of the final month to put its first playoff berth in 26 years in jeopardy. That, in turn, led to the decision by the Brewers to fire increasingly anxious manager Ned Yost and turn, with two weeks left in the season, to Sveum.
Sveum was charged with calming the jangled nerves of the clubhouse, and to restore some of the confidence in the manager’s office that Yost had lost. It was a situation with little precedent, but one into which Sveum ultimately felt comfortable stepping.
“You get woke up at 10 a.m. on an off day with 12 games left and the general manager asks you if you want to take the team over the rest of the way with 12 games left after getting in at 4 o’clock in the morning,” recalled Sveum. “It’s kind of one of the worst or better wakeup calls you’re ever going to get.
“It was an unfortunate incident, how it all went down. Ned Yost was a very good friend of mine and a very unfortunate situation that happened.”
Sveum was presented with foreign situations. His first big league managerial job, albeit one that came with an interim tag. The introductory press conference. A team in mid-collapse, 12 games left, tied for the wild card lead, every game suddenly, Sveum noted, “a playoff game.”
The 47-year-old’s take on the opportunity?
“It was fun. It was 12 playoff games to end the season,” he recalled. “The first pitch was thrown at Wrigley [in his first game against the Cubs], I was right at home. That was like where I was supposed to be. You never know until you get thrown into that fire and you have to do it.”
Sveum’s Brewers started slowly. They lost the first game under him, won the second, then carried a 6-2 lead into the ninth inning only to cough it up in a 7-6, 12-inning loss.
“That was kind of a welcome to managing,” Sveum mused.
The Brewers lost the next two games, but then corrected course, winning six of their final seven to make the playoffs by a game. (Milwaukee was bounced from the playoffs in the NLDS by the Phillies, who went on to win the World Series.) He suggested that he “brought a little ease to the clubhouse” and also instilled a more aggressive offensive philosophy that featured more hit-and-run baseball and run manufacturing.
As Sveum became the second candidate (following Pete Mackanin on Monday) to interview for the Red Sox managerial vacancy, the subject of his stint as the interim manager of the Brewers was a significant one.
“His experience in '08 as interim manager is relevant in the sense that it's the only major-league managerial experience he's had. And so, we talked a lot about that,” said Sox GM Ben Cherington. “I think the circumstances are entirely different. The clubhouses were different, the players were different. The reasons for their struggles up until that time were different than ours in September.
“I'm not sure that that alone helps him in any way, but his experience helps him because he was asked to do something that was unexpected and sort of thrown into the fire and dealt with it very well from what I can see.”
Other notable elements from the media session following Sveum’s day of interviews:
-- The two jobs are different.
Yes, Sveum was a lightning rod in his two years as the Red Sox third base coach in 2004-05. He recalled making some mistakes -- most notably, in a two-week span that saw Rays center fielder Rocco Baldelli gun down three runners at the plate -- while the third base coach with the Sox.
However, the Sox suggest that his time in the third base coach’s box has little bearing on how Sveum stacks up as a managerial candidate.
“We wouldn't be hiring him as third base coach,” noted Cherington. “If we're signing a player, trading for a player that we think is gonna do a really good job in right field, then we'd make the mistake of making him a shortstop, but I don't see how that's relevant.
“He's done a lot of different things in baseball, he's been a third-base coach in the big leagues, he's been a bench coach, he's been a hitting coach, he's been a manager, he's managed in the minor leagues, he obviously played for a long time. We're looking at sort of the entire body of work, and in some ways, you know, I think his experience at third base coach is a benefit to him. He's been through some adversity in Boston, and a lot of our candidates won't have been through that. …
“He's familiar with the city, familiar with some people in the organization,” added Cherington. “He's had a little bit of managerial experience at the big leagues albeit brief, he's managed in the Minor Leagues. He's got a lot of the qualities that we're looking for.”
For his part, Sveum said that while he made mistakes, he did not have regrets about his tenure as a Red Sox third base coach.
“Don’t get me wrong, I made a couple decisions I’d like to have back,” Sveum acknowledged. “I’ll just say I’m glad I was scrutinized for being aggressive instead of passive. I'm not a very passive person; I’m a very aggressive person, and I always have been. The thing about the passion of the fans here and the media and, it was kind of, I don’t want to say it was comical, but if you do the same thing in Milwaukee, there’s nothing really said about it.”
-- While Red Sox fans may not have the most glowing memories of Sveum, he raved about his time in Boston. He suggested that in recent years, he has checked the interleague schedule to see if he would be back in Fenway Park as a visitor, something that he has had occasion to do twice (in 2008 and again in 2011). That enthusiasm was based on his fond memories of the two years he spent coaching the Sox, which included a ring with the 2004 club.
“It was the greatest experience I could ever have. We won the world series in ’04 and unfortunately got ousted in the first round of the ’05 playoffs,” said Sveum. “It’s the ultimate place to ever be. There’s nothing like Fenway Park. There’s nothing like Boston the city, the passion that people have for the Boston Red Sox. You just can’t replace that feeling every night coming to a ballpark that … you play 162 games, when you get to play 81 of them in Fenway Park, it’s not too tough to come to the ballpark every day when you play in front of those kinds of fans.”
-- Sveum suggested that he would come with a “don’t tread on me” label.
He talked at some length about the importance of gaining the respect of the players and creating clear expectations for interpersonal conduct, starting in spring training. Sveum said that he was “firm” in terms of his convictions about playing the game the right way and making sure that players who ran afoul of those expectations were aware of it.
“I don’t let things fester. If I see something that’s disrespecting me or disrespecting the game or the teammates that I’m managing, I’ll have a problem with that and I’ll take care of it at that given time,” said Sveum. “What format that may be? I don't know, depending on the problem at hand at that time. But most of the time, you’re just getting your players to respect you.
“Most times, when things get out of whack, you have to discipline people for the most part just because something they did either disrespected myself, the organization, or the teammates that are playing every day — their own teammates. If you let anything fester, then you start losing respect, from the start of spring training, from the organization of spring training to anything that starts the season off. You have to get players to respect you to play for you. If they don’t respect you, you get a lot of issues that creep up. If they respect you, they’re usually going to play for you and do things the right way professionally.”
Sveum said that the biggest challenge facing an incoming manager is to command that respect from the players, something that elevates the importance of the very beginning of the season. “Spring training is everything,” Sveum suggested, noting that the organization of camp is the time to earn the respect and trust of the players.
Sveum suggested that he was comfortable with the idea of working with a diverse array of personality types. In addition to working closely with a number of heralded players in Boston, his last six years with the Brewers have been spent working with a wide array of player types, from unheralded role players to superstars such as Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
“I think I’ve been very well respected by every player I’ve been around for the fact that I’m not afraid to talk to major league players, superstars, whatever it might be,” said Sveum. “I don’t have a difficult time speaking my mind to anyone on any level. I think we all put our pants on the same way.”
-- As for in-game managerial style, Sveum suggested that he was adaptable to the personnel that he had. With a lineup such as that featured by the Red Sox, he noted, it is critical to avoid creating unnecessary outs. However, he noted that there are games when a team is flat and needs to be sparked by more aggressive plays involving setting runners in motion.
-- Though Sveum is friends with Terry Francona dating to their days playing together with the Brewers in 1989 and 1990, the two had not yet talked about Sveum’s interview with the Sox. Sveum, who was hired to be a part of Francona’s first two coaching staffs, said that he did plan to get in touch with his friend when things settle down this offseason.