A friend of mine asked today, "So, how does Dale Sveum get passed over twice by his own Brewers and yet is the best the Red Sox and Cubs can do?"
To that I told him, you really have to know the guy.
Granted, the Brewers knew him and still didn’t hire him. Yes, twice. But, you know, when Ken Macha is available, that’s something you simply can’t pass on.
But here’s what I know about Dale Sveum:
A little more than 13 years ago, Sveum was at the back end of his playing career, killing time at the end of a bench in the Bronx.
He’d occasionally spell Scott Brosius at third base. Once in a while he’d give Tino Martinez a break from first base.
He hadn’t a lot to do.
Those were the 1998 Yankees, the best team I ever covered, maybe the best team anyone ever covered, and the at-bats off the bench tended to be Tim Raines’, Chili Davis’, even Shane Spencer’s or Ricky Ledee’s. Luis Sojo was the utility infielder.
That team crushed everybody.
By mid-June, the Yankees held an 11-game lead in the American League East. By late July, the lead was 15 games, and it would be 20 in mid-August, as they ran their record to 92-30.
While everyone else thrived, Sveum was living on about 15 at-bats a month. It showed; he was batting about a buck-fifty.
But Sveum had waited his entire career for a team like this.
He’d broken in with the Brewers 12 years before, in the ‘90s bounced through places like Philadelphia, Oakland, Seattle and Pittsburgh, and had never sniffed the postseason.
So, this, to Sveum was special, once-in-a-lifetime kind of stuff. He may have been the last guy in that clubhouse, but he was in the clubhouse, and he loved it, and every afternoon he’d get there early and get to work and stay late and hope he could help.
Then, on Aug. 3 – a few weeks from the Champagne, a couple months from the playoffs, three months from the parade – the coolest season of Dale Sveum’s career came to an end.
At 34 years old, he was released.
And this is what you need to know about Sveum.
A few days later, he walked back into that clubhouse, this time in shin guards and a mask and a smile.
If he wasn’t good enough to play for the Yankees, well, daggum it, he’d be their bullpen catcher.
He couldn’t miss this, one of the remarkable seasons in baseball history. So, for three months, a day at a time, he watched the Yankees become world champions, and every once in a while he warmed up Ramiro Mendoza.
For three months, no one in that clubhouse had a better time than Dale Sveum. And, come late October, no one was happier to be a part of it.
There’s a postscript.
Sveum wasn’t even of the mind to retire. Hell, nobody retires from the big leagues to become a bullpen catcher. Still, Sveum believed he had some game left in him, and the following season you could have found him in Pittsburgh, discovering that he was wrong.
He retired after the 1999 season, over his career having played for the likes of Tony La Russa, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Jim Leyland. By 2001, he was managing Double-A ball for the Pirates. In 2004-05 he was Terry Francona’s third-base coach in Boston. He left there to go to Milwaukee, and Friday he’ll be introduced as manager of the Chicago Cubs.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Sveum’s managerial aspirations were in some part born in 1998. That he had just enough down time to begin to understand what made a team go. That he learned – or confirmed – that at all matters the game comes before the man.
Chances are, he’ll never manage a team like the ’98 Yankees. As of this moment, the ’12 Cubs are somewhat short of that.
Maybe he’ll be very good at this. No less than Prince Fielder(notes) approved of Sveum’s work in Milwaukee, previously speaking well of his temperament and communication skills. Both of which should come in handy in Chicago, where the baseball seasons often become six-month tests of temperament and communication skills.
It is an interesting hire, to be sure, after an interesting search that suggested to some that Theo Epstein – no matter how far from the field he gets – will always have a voice there. Beyond Francona, who appeared to yield before he was yielded for, there was little big league, top-step experience from among Sveum, Mike Maddux, Pete Mackanin and Sandy Alomar Jr.
The first run-through in Boston had the same theme. First-time GM Ben Cherington interviewed Sveum, Torey Lovullo and Alomar Jr. along with veteran Gene Lamont. Now, an avalanche of reports have Cherington and the Red Sox starting over with Bobby Valentine, whose resume looks little like the previous interviewees, and makes one wonder why the drastic change in direction, and if Red Sox ownership would prefer a bigger name.
Overall, however, the winter has looked more like the Sveum hire. The White Sox opted for Robin Ventura. The Cardinals hired Mike Matheny. The Cubs went for Sveum. Broader, Kirk Gibson was just named manager of the year in the National League, and Don Mattingly just finished his first season as a manager in Los Angeles, as did Ron Roenicke in Milwaukee, all to good reviews.
And lots of fresh names arose in the three jobs that opened in recent weeks, in the old-world baseball towns of St. Louis, Boston and Chicago.
Retreads are out.
Something unquantifiable – a little like leadership, a little like respect, maybe a little like Ron Washington – is in.
Anybody can post a lineup. Who’s going to make ‘em play hard?
Maybe Dale Sveum.
Maybe you have to know him to understand.
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- Dale Sveum