MESA, Ariz. — Like everything else in Cubbieworld, the Dale Sveum firing can’t be viewed simply as a black-and-white decision.
There are shades of gray in the business vs. baseball tensions, the rooftop turf battles and the complicated terms of sale from Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. to the Ricketts family (which included a stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago).
That became the backdrop to Sveum’s time on the North Side, where the Cubs lost 197 games in two seasons and president of baseball operations Theo Epstein and general manger Jed Hoyer distanced themselves from their handpicked manager.
Sveum visits Cubs Park on Sunday as the Kansas City Royals third-base coach (assuming the field’s playable after a storm washed out Saturday’s game against the San Francisco Giants). At this time last year, Sveum was talking about how the new Mesa complex would be a big draw for free agents.
They’re all hired to be fired, but one thing that bothers people close to Sveum is the perception that he couldn’t develop players.
“Phenomenal coach,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “Phenomenal infield instructor. He sets great defense. He’s got tremendous work ethic. He’s calm. He’s experienced. As soon as I found out he was fired, I was on the phone.”
Sveum took over as interim manager when the Milwaukee Brewers fired Yost in September 2008 and guided the team to a wild card. Yost’s voice got louder as he talked about Milwaukee’s core, a homegrown success story that helped Sveum get the Cubs job just before Thanksgiving 2011.
“He’s phenomenal in player development,” Yost said. “He developed Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder, all these young players. He’s a phenomenal player developer, because he understands the game. He understands how tough it is. He’s got a great communication style. Our infielders absolutely love him, and he’s been there — what? — (a few weeks)? He’s won them over very, very quickly.”
Sveum was supposed to become the next Terry Francona. But Sveum wound up being the Francona version that got fired by the Philadelphia Phillies, hoping to learn from the experience and get better players in the next gig.
The Cubs flirted with Joe Girardi again, but the New York Yankees manager wasn’t going to take that leap of faith. They settled on a bilingual San Diego Padres bench coach, first-year manager Rick Renteria.
“We really trust Ricky to connect with the players as human beings,” Epstein said, “to be on their side, to be consistent, to hold them to high standards and ultimately get the most out of them.
“We think he’s the right guy to create the environment we need at the big-league level, to establish a winning culture and to allow our young players to continue to develop and become championship players.”
Sveum’s threat to send Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo to Triple-A Iowa blew up in his face. The front office grew frustrated with the way the manager used — or didn’t use — certain players it wanted to see for the future. The Cubs Way hitting program couldn’t find the right direction.
Sveum has a few personality quirks — who doesn’t? — and his blunt communication style didn’t always go over well inside the organization (though the beat writers appreciated his direct approach).
“Me and Dale were very close,” pitcher Jeff Samardzija said. “I’ve told Dale a bunch of times how I felt about him. I’ve had a lot of coaches over my career in a lot of different sports, and I like Dale. Now, was he an offensive mind and most of his time was spent on the offensive side of things? Yeah, for sure. So I can say that a lot of our time was just spent BS-ing and having fun. We talked a little baseball, about pitching, how hitters approach different plate appearances.”
That was one of Sveum’s strengths, his ability to walk through the room and talk to players. He had a presence and created a professional clubhouse environment. He attracted good coaches like Chris Bosio and Mike Borzello and marketed pitchers for the trade deadline, helping restock the farm system.
On Sveum’s watch, Travis Wood developed into an All-Star pitcher and Welington Castillo became a building-block catcher. Those defensive shifts helped Darwin Barney become a Gold Glove second baseman (while his offensive game significantly regressed).
We’ll see how Renteria handles the Wrigley Field interview room/dungeon and the letdown after another summer sell-off. The losing wears on you.
“Me and Dale — we’re friends,” Samardzija said. “That’s really the best way to put it. But (we) both understand this is a business. And 100 losses and 95 losses or whatever it was as a manager doesn’t always bode well. It’s just the truth.”