Top 13 of 2013: Cubs fire Sveum, showing cracks in foundation

Top 13 of 2013: Cubs fire Sveum, showing cracks in foundation
December 22, 2013, 9:45 am
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CSNChicago.com is taking a look back at what turned out to be a memorable year in the Windy City, by counting down the 13 biggest Chicago sports stories of 2013. Check back each day to see what other storylines were good enough to make the list.

Dale Sveum’s hall pass lasted 188 losses into the rebuild, or the moment Theo Epstein declined to answer a point-blank, yes-or-no question.

Sure, Cubs fans second-guessed the lineups and bullpen decisions, but they would have done that if Tony La Russa was the manager with Joe Torre as his bench coach (two future Hall of Famers Sveum played for in the 1990s). And the Chicago media couldn’t blame Sveum for the on-field product.  

But all the heat Sveum deflected for almost two full seasons engulfed him in late September. All it took was Epstein punting on whether or not Sveum would be back in 2014. 

“There’s no alarm bells to ring,” Epstein said on Sept. 17. “But that’s a subject that gets addressed as a matter of process, as a matter of routine, after the season, after a period of evaluation, of which we’re in the midst of right now.”

The president of baseball operations met with a few beat writers in the small waiting room that leads into Miller Park’s visiting clubhouse, steps away from the dugout where Sveum threatened to send core players Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo to Triple-A Iowa in April.

The Milwaukee Brewers had been a huge part of Sveum’s identity as the organization that made him a first-round pick in 1982 and convinced the Pinole Valley High School (Calif.) quarterback to turn down a scholarship to Arizona State University.

Sveum played with Robin Yount and Paul Molitor at Milwaukee County Stadium, figuring out a way to survive as a utility guy after a freak leg injury sapped so much athleticism. He later helped coach up Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, developing the kind of homegrown core the Cubs talk about.

But the optics were brutal that week, Sveum screaming at $52 million pitcher Edwin Jackson, Opening Day starter Jeff Samardzija getting into it with third-base coach David Bell and closer Kevin Gregg popping off to the media.

Sveum was in the middle of a social-media storm: #AlarmBells #HotSeat #LameDuck.

“Those twits never lie,” as Sveum once said.

It would be impossible to explain the Sveum decision in 140 characters or less on Twitter. It became a nuanced, difficult call for Cubs executives.

Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer rarely traveled with the team on the road, and maybe that hands-off approach caused communication issues. Sveum made power plays behind the scenes, shaping the staff, and he had enough influence to help recruit free agents. There were mixed messages on hitting philosophy. The front office had issues with how certain players were used.

Sveum also created a professional clubhouse environment. His teams were prepared and played hard. The advance scouting and video analysis turned Darwin Barney into a Gold Glove second baseman and pushed pitchers like Paul Maholm and Scott Feldman to the next level (before they got traded).

Sveum fronted for the organization, even though he’s not a polished public speaker. He met with the media before and after every game, trying to answer big-picture questions about Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres and all the other prospects none of the reporters had ever seen before.

While the rest of the organization could celebrate Baseball America rankings – or a Forbes report that ranked the Cubs as the game’s most profitable franchise – Sveum and his staff had to wear it.

Sveum had a ‘we’re-all-hired-to-be-fired’ mentality. He kept that sense of calm in the final days of the 2013 season. He flew back to Chicago from St. Louis on Sept. 29 after Game 162. He had beers with Epstein that night and got fired with one guaranteed year left on his contract.

‘Sveum Watch’ bled into the next day and it summed up the absurdity of this job. A guy driving past Gate K saw the reporters hanging out on the Waveland Avenue sidewalk and yelled through the open doors into the old ballpark: “Get a better f-----’ team!”

Ronnie Woo Woo made an appearance during the media stakeout. So did Beth Murphy, the Murphy’s Bleachers owner and rooftop spokesperson leading the cold war against the Ricketts family.

An ESPN Chicago columnist tweeted out photos of memorabilia the Cubs had tossed into a dumpster, and that inevitably made Deadspin. The Chicago Tribune ran a story on the Ron Santo tributes – including a big card signed by Cubs fans after his death in December 2010 – that wound up in the trash.

Epstein released a statement that ran about 600 words announcing the Sveum firing. But when asked during the news conference inside the interview room/dungeon, he declined to say the hire was a mistake.

Cameramen packed up their gear and raced across the parking lot for Sveum’s farewell address. He stood there for 10 minutes, dressed in jeans and flip-flops, with sunglasses shielding his eyes. He quickly landed a job with the Kansas City Royals, reinforcing his reputation as an excellent coach.

The CliffsNotes version of the search for Sveum’s replacement: Joe Girardi used the Cubs as leverage to get a better deal from the New York Yankees. Torey Lovullo got caught in the middle of another grudge match between Cubs executives and the Boston Red Sox bosses. The Cubs went through the San Diego Padres organization, talking to A.J. Hinch, flirting with Brad Ausmus and ultimately hiring Rick Renteria.

By all accounts, Renteria is a very good teacher, an upbeat, bilingual voice, someone who wasn’t handed anything and worked his way up for this chance. But it’s hard to believe he really knows what he’s getting into.

This place chewed up and spit out Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella, two potential Hall of Fame managers. Even Sveum had the hammer of being Theo’s guy, the Red Sox/Yankees big-market pedigree and the motorcycles-and-tattoos image.

And Sveum still felt blindsided.

Top 13 stories of 2013

13. Wins and losses don't define Chris Sale's season 

12. Nate Robinson's late playoff heroics beat Nets 

11. Northern Illinois takes national stage in 2013, the Year of the Huskie

10. Cubs fire Sveum, showing cracks in foundation 

9. The bizarre catfishing of Manti Te'o

8. Cutler, McCown and the Bears' starting QB role

7. Blackhawks' record-breaking start

6. Historically bad season for Cubs and White Sox

5. Notre Dame crushed in BCS Championship Game

4. Bears sever ties with Brian Urlacher