PITTSBURGH – Dale Sveum isn’t a celebrity manager like Lou Piniella or Dusty Baker. But enough fans still recognize him in Chicago.
“Well, jeez, they had my face on a freakin’ billboard,” Sveum said. “I hadn’t even won a game yet in Chicago and I was on a billboard.”
In Year 2 with the Cubs, Sveum still doesn’t care about his image or second-guessing. He carries himself as if he’s been managing this team forever, while knowing that everyone in this job is essentially hired to be fired.
Shawn Camp played for Sveum at the Double-A affiliate for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001 and 2003. The veteran reliever says: “He hasn’t changed much from Altoona to now.”
Sveum remembered his interview with the Pirates in October 2010 as “completely different” from his experience with the Cubs front office in November 2011. The Pittsburgh sit-down lasted a couple of hours, while the Cubs laid out more of a 9-to-5 schedule, asking candidates to break down video and run through game simulations and meet with the media afterward.
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Cleveland Indians bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. compared it to the film sessions ESPN analyst Jon Gruden has with quarterbacks leading up to the NFL draft.
But it’s different in front of a sellout crowd, when you have to deal with the egos and insecurities and walk out to the middle of PNC Park and take the ball from your $9.8 million closer on Opening Day.
Sveum pulled the plug on Carlos Marmol after watching the closer hit a batter, give up an RBI single and walk another in the ninth inning. The manager remembered how it unraveled last year on Opening Day at Wrigley Field, with Kerry Wood and Marmol sabotaging Ryan Dempster’s strong start in a 2-1 loss to the Washington Nationals.
This time Sveum wasn’t going to waste eight scoreless innings from Jeff Samardzija, so he called on James Russell and Kyuji Fujikawa to get the final two outs in Monday’s 3-1 win. It was a strong, decisive move that waved in the closer controversy everyone knew was coming.
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When Sveum’s asked the about the ninth inning during his pregame media session on Wednesday at PNC Park, his voice will almost certainly be monotone, without a hint of getting defensive.
“He’s pretty flat line,” Russell said. “He’s doesn’t really get too high, doesn’t get too low. For him to handle a year like last year – that could have driven any manager up the wall.”
Camp called Sveum a player’s manager, but stressed that shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign he runs the clubhouse like a country club.
“He doesn’t shy away from telling you how he feels,” Camp said. “He’s a player’s manager, meaning he’s approachable. You can approach him with any questions you have (and) he’s going to shoot straight.
“It allows you to come to the field every day and kind of forget about yesterday and concentrate on that next day.”
The San Diego Padres made Camp a 16th-round pick out of George Mason University in the 1997 draft. He didn’t make his big-league debut until 2004, but remembers how Sveum told him that his slider would play at that level.
Sveum talks to the pitchers about how to attack certain hitters. He has very specific ideas about the types of hitters the front office should acquire. He watches video of prospects before the draft and studies minor-league film. His influence will be felt throughout the entire organization.
Camp spoke with Sveum after the Seattle Mariners released him late last March and called the decision to sign with the Cubs a “no-brainer.” In his own way, Sveum also helped recruit free agents like pitcher Edwin Jackson and outfielder Nate Schierholtz over the winter, another sign that he’s a partner with the front office and not a placeholder manager.
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“It’s not easy day-in, day-out, when the team’s struggling to keep your cool, to really maintain the same message,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “Our guys played hard (last season). We didn’t have a single clubhouse incident the whole year. I saw a guy and a staff that even in late September was still trying to teach guys, still preparing for every game and that’s really commendable.
“Usually when you see a team lose 100 games – or even in the high 90s – there’s controversies on the team. There are falling-outs. We never had that. We didn’t have enough talent and that was the reason we lost 101 games.
“But it wasn’t for lack of trying. It wasn’t because we had bad clubhouse chemistry. And I think that bodes really well for the future, because when we have more talent and he has more options (to) go to, all that preparation and that message will help us a great deal.
“It’s amazing to say I think we had a really good dynamic in the clubhouse for a 101-loss team. Dale deserves a lot of credit for that.”
Sveum had a strong voice in shaping his coaching staff and surrounded himself with baseball gym rats. He shields his players and blocks out the noise. By the end of Game 1, it became clear he’s going to put his imprint on this team in Year 2 and beyond.
“Everything just gets so much more comfortable,” Sveum said. “I know what to expect when I get back to Chicago. I know the living (situation). I know the fans and (the) clubhouse people and everybody in the organization. Everything just gets a lot easier your second time around and obviously further on down the road.”