MESA, Ariz. – This is the “before” picture, Rick Renteria smiling and clapping and buzzing from one field to the next at Cubs Park. No one knows what the “after” picture will look like.
When Theo Epstein fired Dale Sveum last September, the Cubs president of baseball operations acknowledged the “idiosyncrasies” of the market as he began looking for the 53rd manager in franchise history.
Joe Girardi used it for leverage with the Yankees while Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo got caught in the middle of a grudge match and didn’t interview. After a long and winding search, Epstein hired someone who’s worked in low-key, laid-back places like San Diego, South Florida and Seattle.
The Cubs will be on their fourth manager in the last five seasons when they line up for Opening Day on Monday at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. Ready or not, Renteria’s going to be the face of a last-place team that lost 197 games across the last two seasons.
“It’s going to be different than managing in Milwaukee or Kansas City,” said Sveum, who’s now the Royals third-base coach. “You have way more media and obviously a fan base and (WGN’s reach) throughout the whole country.
“It’s how you look at it, too. What kind of personality you have towards all that. None of that even (crossed my mind). It’s part of the job. It never bothered me.
“You experience the passion of cities (and) that’s what you want. You don’t shy away from it. My God, that’s what you want. The criticisms and all that comes along with it – that’s part of the game, no matter what you do. You got to be able to handle it.”
Renteria says don’t make mistake his upbeat nature for weakness. He grew up in a hard-working family in the Los Angeles area. The Pirates made him a first-round pick in 1980, but he had to play winter ball for a decade. The Triple-A infielder missed the 1990 season after getting hit by a line drive, and they had to break his jaw again to make sure the bones settled right. He won a batting title in Mexico and finally made it back to the big leagues in 1993 with the expansion Marlins.
“Nobody in (the clubhouse) will misconstrue my calmness and my patience for not having fire,” Renteria said. “I have plenty of fire in my belly. The only ones who need to understand it are those guys in there. I’m hoping that because they do, what you guys see will be something pretty exciting.”
The Cubs hired Renteria for his teaching background, bilingual skills and positive outlook. He spent the past three seasons as Bud Black’s bench coach in San Diego. He managed Team Mexico in last year’s World Baseball Classic. He knows about player development after spending eight seasons managing minor-league affiliates for the Padres and Marlins.
Renteria is supposed to help Anthony Rizzo grow up, build Starlin Castro’s confidence back up and connect with all the Latin players rising through the farm system.
“He’s very outspoken,” Edwin Jackson said. “He definitely carries a great sense of humor and a great personality with him, which is definitely a necessity for a young team like we have. You have to be real vocal and at the same time let the team know you have their back. There’s going to be a little bit of tough love with what we need to be successful.”
Jackson, the $52 million pitcher, got into a dugout shouting match with Sveum last September in Milwaukee, where the manager-on-the-hot-seat stories started as soon as Epstein declined to guarantee the manager would return for the final season of his contract.
Carlos Villanueva played for Sveum in September 2008, when he took over for Ned Yost during the season’s final 12 games, guiding the Brewers to a wild card. Sveum became one of the reasons why Villanueva signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Cubs last winter.
“I still love Dale,” Villanueva said. “It just didn’t work out. It happens. I remember Joe Torre wasn’t Joe Torre before he got to the Yankees.
“Dale’s a great coach, man, (and) it’s not all on him. Obviously, we didn’t perform as we should have. A manager only goes as far as the players take him. He can’t hit for us or pitch for us.
“We have a totally different dynamic now. Ricky’s a little more outgoing than Dale, but everybody has their own personality. It might work on another team. It just didn’t work on the team that we had at the time.”
Sveum created a professional work environment, set up a distraction-free zone in the clubhouse and kept his composure during the daily media sessions inside Wrigley Field’s interview room/dungeon. He had to wear it while the rest of the organization trumpeted prospect lists and farm-system rankings.
“That’s what you sign on for,” Villanueva said. “Sometimes it works out. The guys go out there and you don’t really need to manage much. Let the boys play.
“But on teams like this, it’s a grind. I’m sure (Sveum) wanted to see his work through. Hopefully, we would have had a couple of very, very good years and he could have taken credit for that, too. The people here that played for him understand what he did. (But) baseball – it is what it is. People forget quick. It’s only as good as what you did yesterday.”
Renteria has a three-year contract that contains club options for 2017 and 2018, a time when the Cubs shouldn’t be asked about selling at the trade deadline as soon as they report to spring training. Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, the Wrigley Field renovation and new TV deals are on the horizon. Sveum also thought he would be the manager when the team is ready to contend.
“You can be told all kinds of things,” Sveum said, “but you better not lose sight and understand that we have all these jobs to someday be fired. That’s just the way the business is.”