CHICAGO – Dale Sveum was a prime target of two of the most history-rich franchises in the majors last offseason. He became the manager of the Cubs, but not until a very prominent candidacy for the same position with the Red Sox.
Sveum was the second person to interview for the Red Sox’ managerial vacancy that was created when the team moved on from Terry Francona. He was considered a front-runner until the front office -- both at the ownership level and in the baseball operations department -- felt that, after Sveum’s second-round interview, the team could use a more experienced voice while dealing with the aftermath of the team’s epic collapse last September.
Thus, the decision was made to bring in Bobby Valentine to helm the Red Sox. The team felt that Valentine’s prior experience -- not just in more than two decades as a major league manager both in the US and Japan, but also the experience of large markets with insatiable media demands in New York and Japan -- made him a needed voice capable of reshaping a clubhouse culture in Boston that had gone awry.
The Sox declined to make an offer to Sveum after he became the first of their managerial candidates to meet with team owners, and so the Cubs pounced, signing him up for three years as the man to help their transformation from cellar-dweller to perennial contender.
Sveum spends no time or energy contemplating the Red Sox’ fortunes as they endure their difficult start to 2012. He is grateful to have interviewed -- “Any interview is significant, especially when I have interviews from two of the most historic franchises around; that was great,” he said -- but on the cusp of his team’s three-game series against Boston in Wrigley Field, he has other, more pressing considerations.
Right now, Sveum is living through life with a Cubs team that is enduring severe growing pains. At the major league level, there is a major talent deficit, resulting in a worst-in-the-majors 21-41 record that has displaced any optimism for the postseason with curiosity about whether Chicago will land the top overall pick in next year’s draft.
Losing two of every three games is hard on everyone in the organization, particularly a manager who is in a role where success is typically defined by wins and losses. But Sveum understands that there is more to his job than just the Cubs’ winning percentage.
This is an organization looking to build for the future. He is trying to help lay a foundation.
“It’s a reality that we’re building, setting a tone and building an organization. That day is going to come where winning every game is life or death, to get to the postseason, build an organization to where we leave spring training, we’re going to win 90-plus games every season, not to have a three-year window and then all of a sudden you’re rebuilding again,” Sveum said in the Cubs dugout on Thursday morning, as his team prepared to face Justin Verlander and the Tigers. “That’s what the ultimate goal is.
“You’re setting a precedent that we’ve got to build an organization to where that’s going to happen every year, where we’re going to win 90-plus games and have a chance of being in the postseason. Obviously, then you’re chances of winning the World Series become a lot more.”
And so, Sveum has set about the creation of a culture. He is part of an organization-wide effort to instill in the Cubs a sense of how to play the game the right way, how to prepare in a way that best positions players for success.
Already, the 48-year-old -- who speaks softly but possesses an authoritative air, often while crossing his tattooed forearms atop a bat -- is setting a tone in the creation of such a culture. Most notably, he called out 22-year-old All-Star shortstop Starlin Castro for what he deemed “unacceptable” lapses after the budding star forgot the number of outs and jogged off the field instead of trying to turn a double play on a force out that was the second out of the inning.
The fact that Castro is the Cubs’ best player did not prompt Sveum to measure his tone.
“You’re building something to where it’s not acceptable. You’re accountable for everything you do. Even talking to the media after you do a blunder, that’s part of your job, to be accountable after a game when things don’t go well,” said Sveum. “You’re just trying to build that whole thing where preparation is everything, playing the game the right way is everything. If you don’t want to do that, then we’ll get somebody else, but that’s the way we’re going to do it from now on this year.
“As a manager you just try to keep these guys on a daily routine, that winning baseball games, doing the right thing, preparation, work ethic, playing hard till the final out, and the next day is another day,” he added. “It’s not that easy to lose baseball games on a consistent basis and still keep an attitude, work ethic and preparation. That’s all you can ask for. That’s what you try to produce to where that’s always going to be here and that’s the way we do things. If you don’t want to do it that way, we’ll get somebody else.”
Sveum is doing more than articulating an organizational culture. He is trying to forge it by creating an environment where players embrace working to make themselves better. On Wednesday afternoon, for instance, virtually every position player was on the field going through defensive drills at 3 p.m.
“I just believe those are certain things that have to be done on a constant basis that don’t happen all the time, to where you refresh, whether it’s [pitcher’s fielding practice], being out there with balls flying around, taking groundballs, working on things all the time,” said Sveum. “The bottom line is trying to get better at every situation.”
It is a different operating goal that defines what Sveum is doing with the Cubs as opposed to what he would have been expected to do in Boston. Indeed, it's difficult to say whether an effective managerial tone for a last-place team without hope of contention this year would have translated well to Boston.
That said, from the Cubs’ vantage point, Sveum has been the right person to begin what the organization views as a long-term process with grand ambitions as the end point.
“During a difficult period for the club, Dale has been a great leader, demonstrating an even-keeled nature and establishing a culture of accountability in the clubhouse,” said Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein. “Players like Dale but also understand he holds them to high standards, and they want to work hard for him.”
Whereas the Sox harbored concerns about Sveum’s lack of big league managerial experience -- his only stint in that capacity came at the helm of the Brewers as interim manager for the final 12 games of the 2008 regular season, when Milwaukee snuck past the Mets into the postseason, then stewarded the team for four more playoff games -- that has not impacted his ability to make his mark in the Cubs clubhouse.
“Dale’s lack of extended managerial track record wasn’t a big deal to us because we knew him well and he had proven himself both as a manager in the minors and in a major league environment in different coaching roles,” said Epstein.
For his part, Sveum acknowledged that he is constantly evaluating and re-evaluating the job he is doing as a Cubs manager. He is learning, but because he had the experience of guiding the Brewers to the postseason (albeit over a compressed period) in 2008 as well as having coached for the 2004 Red Sox World Series club and two additional playoff teams (2005 Red Sox, 2011 Brewers), he knows what the goal is with the Cubs.
“When you take over a team at the end of the year there, obviously tied for the wild card and trying to get in the playoffs, where every game is a playoff game, I think that’s as valuable as anything – you’ve experienced what you really want to be someday as a team, to be in that position in September, to win baseball games and how are you going to do it? And obviously getting to manage in the playoffs as well,” said Sveum. “That’s experience you can’t ever find. It was nice, and you find, OK, this is what I really want to do. And you handled it fine.
“When you do [manage],” he added, “that’s what you want to do.”