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Cubs’ struggles not the worst thing manager Dale Sveum has endured

Cubs manager Dale Sveum is putting an emphasis winning even spring training. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Cubs manager Dale Sveum is putting an emphasis on winning, even in spring training. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 23, 2012 7:51AM

For a couple of days there, Cubs manager Dale Sveum might have thought the
baseball gods finally had smiled on him.

Before Game 1 of the Cubs-White Sox series at U.S. Cellular Field, Sveum was bemoaning the capricious winds that turned Wrigley Field into an enemy of the state of hitting in April and May.

‘‘It really is two different parks, and it’s frustrating trying to figure it out,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘On Opening Day, [the Washington Nationals’] Ryan Zimmerman should have had about a thousand feet worth of home runs. He crushed two balls, and they were both outs.

‘‘It seems like the wind has blown in twice as often as it’s blown out. I hear it’s supposed to change when the weather gets warmer.’’

The game-time temperature Monday was 89 degrees, and hitter-friendly wind gusts kicked up mini-dust storms along the outfield warning tracks at the Cell. The Cubs promptly mashed five homers and piled up a season-high 12 runs in a 12-3 laugher.

The power surge was uncharacteristic of a team averaging 3.7 runs per game, which Sveum identified as the culprit responsible for the Cubs’ 100-loss pace. Their 2-1 victory Tuesday, achieved with only five hits, gave them their first two-game winning streak since late May. But a 7-0 loss in the series finale kept the meter running on the franchise record for futility. The Cubs might get there if the Theo Epstein regime proceeds with plans to swap current assets for future prospects.

It’s a tough way to begin a managerial career that was 11 years in the making. Sveum, 48, spent three seasons as a Class AA manager and eight as a big-league coach before Epstein hired him in November to replace Mike Quade.

‘‘I’m not naive; I knew what I was getting into,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘I saw what we had. If we didn’t get offense from the corner positions, we’d have trouble scoring runs. [Alfonso] Soriano has been pretty good and [Bryan] LaHair, but we haven’t had much production
from the other spots. And scoring runs has been our biggest problem.’’

The baseball gods owe Sveum a couple, not that he ever would feel entitled. He’s a tough guy from the tough town of Pinole, Calif., 35 miles northeast of San Francisco. It’s a blue-collar, workingman’s community linked to the glitzy Bay Area by geography only. (Think of gritty Bridgeport picked up and transported to Northern California.)

Sveum was a hot-shot quarterback at Pinole Valley High School, bound for Arizona State on a football scholarship until the Milwaukee Brewers dissuaded him with first-round bonus money. Signed at 18, he was a big-leaguer at 23 and an emerging star at 25, a tall shortstop with power at the plate, range in the field and that quarterback’s arm.

But a frightful collision with teammate Darryl Hamilton in September 1988 left Sveum with a broken leg and a shattered career. Only once would he play in 100 games or get 300 at-bats in 11 subsequent seasons as a utility player with seven teams.

Sveum knows disappointment, and it’s not a three-game losing streak or last place in the National League Central standings.

‘‘The pitching’s been good enough to keep us in most games, but if you can’t score you’re not going to win,’’ he said. ‘‘We’re hitting .230 with runners in scoring position. We just haven’t had a guy step up and get the big hit for us. You sound like a broken record talking about it every night.’’

The Cubs lost a franchise-worst 103 games in 1962 with a laughably inept College of Coaches calling the shots. Hall of Famer Leo Durocher’s Cubs debut produced a matching 103-loss season in 1966. The record is of no concern to Sveum, who experienced only one 90-loss season in 22 previous big-league years. He’s trying to build something.

He has stuck with Starlin Castro through some infuriating mental lapses, and the 22-year-old shortstop has settled in as the Cubs’ best player. He allowed Carlos Marmol another shot at the closer’s role after he had squandered it with early-season wildness, and Marmol has converted his last two save chances.

‘‘We’ve been sloppy and kicked it around a few times, but it’s not like the effort hasn’t been there or the preparation,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘The results aren’t close to what anybody wants, but I can’t fault the effort.’’

It’s not the best job in baseball, but it’s the job he has, and he’ll survive.

‘‘I’m fine,’’ Sveum said. ‘‘I know myself pretty well. I’m not going to learn a lot about myself by going through this.’’

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