ATLANTA – Kevin Ware has become the most talked-about person at the Final Four, the inspiration for his Louisville teammates and an overnight celebrity doing the Top Ten List on “Late Show with David Letterman.”
Ware’s gruesome leg injury exploded across Twitter, generated waves of sympathy and sparked debates over what should be shown on network television. Dale Sveum has actually felt the searing pain and sense of shock and dealt with the uncertainty from this career-threatening injury.
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The Milwaukee Brewers thought they had a potential franchise shortstop when Sveum collided with teammate Darryl Hamilton at Tiger Stadium in September 1988. That broken leg helped put him on the path toward becoming the Cubs manager.
The Cubs happen to be in Atlanta, where the main event is Louisville vs. Wichita State and Syracuse vs. Michigan on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome. But it doesn’t take national headlines – or really much at all – for Sveum to think back to that night almost 25 years ago.
“It’s a flashback moment,” Sveum said Friday at Turner Field. “It’s something that you’ll never forget. I flash back every time (Darwin) Barney or (Starlin) Castro goes down this line for a popup. I just (think): ‘Oh, (bleep), here we go…’
“That’s just such a big traumatic incident that you’re never going to forget it and it’s never going to go away.”
Sveum turned down the chance to play quarterback at Arizona State after the Brewers made him a first-round pick in the 1982 draft. During his age-23 season in 1987, he generated 25 homers and 95 RBI while playing alongside future Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor.
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“People don’t realize Dale was destined to be a really good player,” said Rob Deer, the Cubs assistant hitting coach who played with Sveum in Milwaukee. “He had all the tools. Great teammate.”
The freak accident forced Sveum to learn how to survive as a utility guy, bouncing around seven different teams and playing for legendary managers like Tony La Russa, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre.
“I ended up doing so many things on the field because of that (injury),” Sveum said. “It created (avenues) for me to learn a lot more about the game and then understand that (managing) was something I wanted to do.”
Players have observed Sveum’s career arc and said that gives him credibility within the clubhouse. Here’s someone who went from a stud prospect to an everyday shortstop to a fringe player and still figured out how to last through parts of 12 seasons in the big leagues. He can relate.
“He’s been in every position possible in baseball,” reliever James Russell said. “He knows what he’s doing. Everybody’s got his back and he’s got ours.”
Sveum noticed how La Russa had a gift for juggling the lineup and making all his players feel involved. The Cubs manager also rarely rips his players in public, because of his natural patience and understanding for how hard the game is at this level.
“I can identify with all our bench players,” Sveum said. “I can identify with what it’s like to double-switch when it’s 20 degrees outside and go up there and pinch-hit in that kind of weather. I hit from both sides of the plate. I played (almost) every position.
“It helps to be able to identify and realize how difficult some of those jobs are.”
Ware – a 6-foot-2, 175-pound guard who played high school ball in the Atlanta area – is still only 20 years old. He has time to write his second act and be much more than an NCAA tournament cautionary tale. But he will never forget what happened last Sunday against Duke. Just ask Sveum.
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“I felt horrible about it,” Sveum said. “It makes you nauseated, that’s for sure. That’s one of the more horrible injuries – if not the most horrible injury (we’ve seen). It’s unfortunate. Hopefully, he can come back.”