ST. LOUIS – Midway through the first team meeting in spring training, Dale Sveum noticed his players taking off their jackets to reveal the bright orange hunting gear they were wearing underneath.
The Cubs manager watched them put on matching orange hats, an elaborate practical joke referencing an offseason quail hunting accident in Arizona, where Hall of Fame buddy Robin Yount shot him in the ear and back.
“Of course, they gave me one with a target on it,” Sveum said, chuckling inside the Fitch Park complex on Feb. 17.
Sveum’s had a bull’s-eye on his back ever since president of baseball operations Theo Epstein declined to say the manager would be returning in 2014. That non-answer on Sept. 17 sparked Sveum Watch, which should finally end Monday morning.
“You’d be lying if you didn’t have anxiety about what’s going to happen in 24 hours,” Sveum said. “That’s human nature.”
A Miller Lite can on his desk, Sveum sat back in the manager’s office after Sunday’s 4-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. He joked about all the questions hanging over his future.
“It’s upon us,” Sveum said, laughing.
The Cubs finished the season at 66-96 and in last place in the National League Central. That brought Sveum’s two-year record to 127-197, though Epstein has repeatedly said the manager will not be judged on wins and losses.
The Cubs have been weighing a run at New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi and looking at a potentially interesting field of candidates. They were wondering if someone else could do a better job connecting with young core players and handling the roster for the long-term – while also debating whether those issues with Sveum could be fixed.
“Theo was honest with everybody that there was evaluation going on with all of us – myself included with the coaches,” Sveum said. “But it doesn’t change your relationship with anybody. It’s just my job to do what I do. And it’s Theo’s job to do what he does.
“Just because there’s an evaluation going on, that doesn’t change (our relationship).”
Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer bet on Sveum when they hired him in November 2011, believing in the interview process they once used with the Boston Red Sox, hoping to find the next Terry Francona.
Multiple coaches do not have contracts for next season and didn’t have a feeling for what would happen on Monday at Clark and Addison. The Cubs are believed to have an option on pitching coach Chris Bosio, who is valued highly by the front office for his scouting background and work with the rotation.
There were signals the Cubs have already discussed with Sveum the idea of making changes to his coaching staff, though it didn’t sound like that alone would automatically guarantee his return.
It’s been difficult to get a read on what Sveum is really thinking, because he almost always keeps up the same calm exterior with the media and behind the scenes.
“There’s obviously frustrations. I can get as pissed as anybody,” Sveum said. “(But) the focus should be on the players anyway. There’s something wrong if I’m seen too much.”
That steady personality has earned Sveum respect in the clubhouse and within the front office.
“Dale’s handled this better than any other manager in the big leagues could have,” reliever James Russell said. “He hasn’t even had a change in emotions at all. He could have come in here and raised hell, having team meetings, yelling at us to do this and this and this. He’s been even-keel and he’s been perfect for all of us.
“It’s kind of surprising. Sometimes you got to go check and see if he’s got a pulse."
The Cubbie Occurrences have piled up across the last two weeks of the season, watching three teams have clinching parties and witnessing three blow-ups in five days. There was Sveum screaming at $52 million pitcher Edwin Jackson, Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija yelling at third-base coach David Bell and closer Kevin Gregg ripping the front office.
But in the big picture, those incidents don’t matter as much as philosophical disagreements about hitting approach and finding the right way to show Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo some tough love. (Like not threatening to send them to Triple-A Iowa in April.)
“The manager can’t play for us,” Jackson said. “The 25 guys that we put on the field have to go out and produce and play baseball like we know we can. I think we’re capable of doing that. It just takes everyone getting on the same (page) and believing that we can win games.”
Sveum’s only under contract for next season and there’s a club option for 2015. So even if he doesn’t get fired, that doesn’t mean the target has been taken off his back.