Know your enemy: La Russa, Sveum and The Cubs Way

Know your enemy: La Russa, Sveum and The Cubs Way
April 13, 2012, 11:23 pm
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ST. LOUIS When Tom Ricketts began looking for a new executive to run baseball operations last summer, the Cubs chairman wanted a sense of how the other 29 major-league teams ran.

Staffers analyzed how teams spent their money and where they got their returns. The Red Sox model had fascinated Cubs executives, so it was no surprise that Theo Epstein became the target.

But the Brewers stood out for being so resourceful in building that homegrown core. The Yankees made headlines for signing big-name free agents, but they probably didnt get enough credit for developing their own talent.

Maybe one day the Cubs will get their renovated version of Wrigley Field, Sheffield Avenue closed off on gamedays and a PBS documentary, just like Fenway Park.

But if this works, the Cubs wont be one-dimensional, simply stealing from the Red Sox. They already went behind enemy lines to hire first-base coach Dave McKay, who spent 26 seasons on Tony La Russas staff and will receive his World Series ring on Saturday at Busch Stadium.

On some level, The Cubs Way will borrow from the Cardinals.

Thats the reason Im here, McKay said. I remember (former Cardinals pitching coach) Dave Duncan and I talked last season when we were in (Chicago. We saw some) article where Mr. Ricketts was talking about the plans.

We were saying to each other (were) worried about it these guys are going to get good fast.

No one knows how long that will take. But McKay says first-year manager Dale Sveum reminds him a lot of La Russa, the future Hall of Famer.

Ive even told Tony: Hes got a lot of you in him, McKay said. (Its) the attention to detail, routines, making sure that they get the message. I really think these Cubs are on the right track. Im happy to be a part of it. I think there are some big things to happen here.

When Sveum interviewed for the Cubs job, he could say that he played for La Russa, Jim Leyland and Joe Torre near the end of his big-league career, a point where he was thinking about managing. That time around the As in 1993 left an impression.

(La Russa) was always ahead of the game, Sveum said. Hell push the envelope. Hell try things that I dont think other managers (would).

Watching a guy like that, you learn, and I think a lot of people learned in the postseason about (how he used) a bullpen. (He) kept going to them and it probably won them the World Series.

Sveum recalled how La Russa put him in left field one day, even though he had never played the position before.

The thing with Tony was he always gave the bench players an opportunity. But hed always put them in situations where they were going to succeed.

Sveum laughed: Meaning me, because I was always on the bench. You feel good about yourself, except when one day I had to face Randy Johnson and he struck out 17 that day or something like that.

He just (put) faith in people: Oh, just go out there and you cant screw it up that bad. But, sure enough, when you do that, the guy you put in the lineup would get two hits that day. (He) had a great feel all the time for what his role players could do off certain pitchers.

So Sveum will get inside players heads, push his team to run the bases aggressively and hammer away at fundamentals. Utility man Joe Mather who spent a decade in the Cardinals organization recognized the methods.

Our camp this year, the feel, Mather said, resembled a lot of what Tony liked to do over in St. Louis. I feel like theyre trying to attribute a lot of the really good things and good ideas that St. Louis had here. Its a great place to start.

The Cardinals made the playoffs nine times in the 16 seasons McKay worked with La Russa. Thats the sustained success the Cubs are talking about.

The organization as a whole doesnt have enough impact talent yet. The new collective bargaining agreement shredded the financial advantages Epstein had planned to exploit in the draft and internationally. Its still too early for players to start tuning out Sveum.

But at Clark and Addison, there is finally a sense of stability, and that could go a long way.

Everything I feel like always starts from the top, Mather said. Thats going to be our owners, down to Theo, down to Dale. Theyve really taken a lot of responsibility and put themselves in the position to be accountable for everything. They set up a good program for this organization.