Attitude adjustment: Cubs know what to expect at Camp Sveum

Attitude adjustment: Cubs know what to expect at Camp Sveum
February 7, 2013, 6:30 pm
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It’s hard to imagine Dale Sveum writing a tell-all book that winds up on The New York Times best-seller list.

Before Theo Epstein brought managerial candidates to Wrigley Field in November 2011, the team president said he wanted the next Terry Francona, not necessarily the real Terry Francona, because he didn’t feel the need to recreate The Boston Red Sox Show with the future author.

Whether this is a spectacular success or an epic failure – or even goes into publication – “Sveum: The Cubs Years” should be a fascinating story. The second chapter is about to begin, with pitchers and catchers officially reporting on Sunday to Arizona.

Sveum won’t be at the center of the kind of soap opera that has defined the Red Sox collapse.  

On Thursday, it was Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer on WSCR-AM 670 saying it’s “preposterous” that he or Epstein would tell Curt Schilling that using performance-enhancing drugs could be a way to return to health and restore his career in 2008.

During an ESPN radio appearance, Schilling had claimed that “former members of the organization” made that suggestion inside the Red Sox clubhouse. He later clarified on his Twitter account that it wasn’t anyone in uniform or from the baseball operations department.

Sveum has a way of putting out those media firestorms by shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes. He brought an attitude adjustment to a clubhouse that had seen too much nonsense over the past few seasons. He’s not going to get caught up in the idea that he will have more pressure to deliver results in Year 2 of this rebuilding process.

“This whole process is pressure,” Sveum said. “The bottom line is we all know we do all these jobs, basically, to get fired someday. Whether it’s one year, whether it’s 10 years, it just happens.

“But you’re always held accountable. I hold myself accountable. I hold the staff accountable and you’re always pressured to win baseball games. That’s the nature of our business.”  

In the darkness each morning, Sveum will make the drive from his Scottsdale area home to Mesa. This winter has been less hectic, because his coaches are in place and he already knows the demands, what to expect from the front office, the clubhouse and the media.   

The Cubs have made it clear that Sveum is much more than a placeholder until the team is ready to contend. As Hoyer said during a conversation last month: “The 101 losses – it’s on Theo and it’s on me. That’s not on Dale.”

Sveum has definitely used his influence behind the scenes, whether it’s hiring and firing and shaping the staff, game planning, breaking down video of potential acquisitions or meeting with a free agent like Edwin Jackson. And he figures to grab more power as he grows into the job.

“There’s never going to be a player we trade for or sign that we haven’t run by Dale,” Hoyer said. “First of all, he’s got great contacts in the game, so he can find out a lot about a player very quickly. You want to know what he thinks (and) we’ll have a good back-and-forth.

“Dale wants to build this team in a very similar manner (to what we envision). It’s nice to have a manager that doesn’t always by default want that veteran presence. Dale knows we’re building for something and he’s always really willing to go with younger players and trust those guys and know that he’s going to have to teach them along the way.”

Sveum uses the laptop and sees the game through numbers and mechanics, which will no doubt guide his mix-and-match approach with David DeJesus, Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz in the outfield.

But Sveum also understands clubhouse dynamics after playing 12 seasons in the big leagues. He didn’t wall himself off in his office as the 101 losses piled up last year. He even invited the veterans in for a closed-door meeting during the final weekend at Chase Field in Phoenix, asking them for feedback and thanking them for their hard work.

Sveum is going to need those low-key, to-the-point communication skills. He challenged Starlin Castro to get his head in the game and not chase hits and will be eager to see if the All-Star shortstop is indeed on the verge of a breakout.

Sveum’s emphasis on fundamentals, video analysis and defensive positioning helped Darwin Barney win a Gold Glove at second base and Alfonso Soriano become competent in left field.

It was eye-opening when first-base coach Dave McKay used his 16 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals on Tony La Russa’s staff as a frame of reference last month at Cubs Convention.

“I’ve never been with a team that’s more prepared each day before a game than this one,” McKay said. “It almost scared me, to where I thought: ‘Maybe this is over my head.’”

McKay was, of course, speaking to the base. But ignoring the game plan (see Chris Volstad) was like the kiss of death, essentially the only way the manager would rip one of his players in public. Sveum had to sit through hundreds of those press briefings, before and after almost every game.

One night at Nashville’s Opryland Hotel during the winter meetings, Hoyer sort of laughed when he was asked about Sveum, drowning out what sounded like “hide” while he finished this thought:

“The person that’s out front of it doesn’t have the ability to walk to the back of the suite and…”

Sveum had to travel with the big-league club on the road and didn’t get to make those scouting trips to Daytona Beach, Fla., and Boise, Idaho, to see the future.

“He held himself together incredibly well,” Hoyer said. “He never showed any frustration or chinks in the armor with the clubhouse. He kept coaching, really, until the very end, as far as using September to evaluate our young players and make (them) better. (He) wants to develop young players. That’s a rare thing (because) a lot of managers always want the quick fix.”

Sooner or later, the Cubs are going to need to see results and will judge Sveum on more than attitude. But Francona’s third-base coach on that 2004 Red Sox team is going to have his say across the next several chapters. So get used to the bald head, the five o’clock shadow, the tattoos covering his arms, the guy spitting tobacco juice and sipping a beer after the game.

“Dale’s a real man’s man,” Hoyer said. “He’s a guy that people want to be around. They know he’s got their back. I think players will want to play for him for a long time.”