MESA, Ariz. – How do you know? That was the question hanging over the Cubs and White Sox and two rookie managers last spring.
Would the guy who won the interview win over the clubhouse, the media and the fans while keeping the peace with the front office?
Each search had its own logic, with Cubs president Theo Epstein deciding to hire Terry Francona 2.0 instead of the manager who helped him win two World Series rings with the Boston Red Sox. The White Sox went with an outside-the-box choice, a big name without any of Ozzie Guillen’s explosiveness (or experience).
Dale Sveum and Robin Ventura – who were once briefly teammates on the South Side – now appear to be two very good educated guesses. Year 2 continued on Thursday at HoHoKam Stadium, with the White Sox beating the Cubs 8-3.
[MORE: Lillibridge aiming to make his mark behind Castro]
Sveum didn’t flip out during a 101-loss season. He gave a no-big-deal shrug when it came out that Hall of Fame buddy Robin Yount shot his ear while quail hunting in Arizona over the winter. So why would he get fired up about another Cactus League exhibition?
Ventura has a similar sense of calm, and that’s why both Chicago teams feel like they have the right guys for jobs that are at once everything and nothing alike.
But you can’t know for certain until you’re around it every day. That’s why new assistant hitting coach Rob Deer recently called up Yount to talk about their old teammate with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Here’s how Deer recalled it: “I told Robin: I’ve known Dale for 25 years and I’ve known him as being a friend. I’ve known him as being a teammate and I’ve never seen the managerial side of him. It’s so impressive.
“I have to tell you that I’m impressed with him each and every day about how he goes about it, how his players respect him, how he respects his players. Each day I learn new things.”
[RELATED: Why it's important for Starlin Castro to play all 162]
In November 2011, Epstein knew Sveum would be a strong candidate, but hadn’t really stayed in touch after his third-base coach moved to Milwaukee after the 2005 season.
Sveum loved talking hitting and breaking down mechanics. He was fluent in the BATS video system, statistical analysis and spray charts. But it wasn’t a lock that he could run the entire show. People around the Brewers wondered why he was passed over twice, even after steering the team to a wild card as interim manager in 2008.
“Dale had a very thorough, very legitimate interview process,” Epstein said, “because we needed to project him from being a great coach into the manager’s role. So there were a lot of questions.”
Sveum grew close to several players on the 2004 Red Sox team that won the World Series and will be remembered forever throughout New England as the Band of Idiots.
Sveum was tight with Kevin Millar and Jason Varitek and still golfs with Mark Bellhorn regularly over the winter in Arizona. Cubs executives remembered how the coach wasn’t afraid to talk to the superstars in Boston.
“Dale’s good with everybody. He’s just got that demeanor. Everybody likes him,” Francona said. “He’s comfortable in the clubhouse. You’re not going to find a place where he’s more comfortable.”
[RELATED: Francona believes Epstein hired 'the right guy' in Sveum]
No doubt, it was odd seeing Sveum at the winter meetings in jeans or a suit. You’re used to seeing him walking through the clubhouse in blue shorts and an Under Armour T-shirt, or in a Cubs windbreaker and uniform pants heading to the field with a bat in his hand. He doesn’t lock himself in his office.
“We knew the plan (and) we weren’t going to take any shortcuts or vary from it,” Sveum said. “Within a year, the whole organization’s changed so dramatically, for the good, obviously. But you just get better players (and) you create an atmosphere where people want to play here and they want to come to this ballpark and work.
“That’s all you can do. That’s the transformation we’re trying to do here all the time.”
[RELATED: Cubs will find out what their rotation is made of]
Instead of making fun of Sveum behind his back – or during off-the-record sessions with reporters – the players let Sveum in on the joke in the middle of their first full-squad meeting this spring, peeling off jackets to reveal their bright orange hunting gear.
“He’s a really easy-going guy. He knows – he played for a long time,” new catcher Dioner Navarro said. “He’s honest. He’s going to tell you like it is. I think that’s the best way to approach it…no bullcrap.”
In the same way Ventura escaped heat for a late September fade and instead got credit for guiding a surprising team to 85 victories, Sveum won the game of expectations.
“Those who were paying attention last year were able to see what kind of manager he was – very consistent behind the scenes, handled the clubhouse great,” Epstein said. “There were strategic decisions to be made and I think he showed a little bit of the factors he’ll rely on to make decisions. That’s more important than necessarily what he chooses to do in a given instance.
“This year, the roster is a little bit more dynamic in terms of having platoon options, it will be a deeper bullpen for him to work with (and) we hope he has a better hand to play in certain scenarios.”
[MORE: Questions remain for Cubs at third base]
The Cubs kept that in mind when they structured a three-year contract with a club option for 2015.
“We flat-out told Dale in the interview about our plans for the organization, how we were going to build it up the right way and not look for quick fixes,” Epstein said. “And as a result we were not going to evaluate him heavily on wins and losses in the first year.
“But we would evaluate him. There would be a lot of factors that went into our consideration of how good a job he was doing – and he excelled in all those areas.
“I don’t think any manager in baseball was going to win the pennant with the team we put on the field last year. But I hope Dale’s the one who wins it for the team we put on the field going forward.”
Sveum isn’t a sound-bite machine. He’s not one for introspection in front of the cameras. He doesn’t have Lou Piniella’s flair for the dramatic. Sooner or later, he’s going to be judged on wins and losses, and that won’t bother him. It has to get old talking up the plan and the process and the culture and the future.
“I don’t want to talk about last year,” Sveum said. “The fact of the matter is once the season’s over, I ain’t going to think about it. I’m not that kind of person to worry about what happened in the past. It’s just a waste of time.”