McGRATH: Tough guy Dale Sveum faced toughest circumstances
BY DAN McGRATH October 6, 2013 12:27AM
Updated: November 7, 2013 6:36AM
The lot is cleared. The brush has been removed, the ground leveled and the debris hauled away, so it’s time to start building the house.
That’s one way to look at Dale Sveum’s firing as Cubs manager, except it implies Sveum was somehow responsible for the shabby state of the lot now ready to be developed. Not true.
And the debris has not been hauled away. Unless a Ricketts hits it big in Powerball this winter, the Cubs will limit themselves to another offseason of bargain-basement shopping, which means a 2014 roster largely populated by fourth outfielders, fifth infielders and No. 3 starting pitchers.
But help is on the way from a suddenly bountiful farm system. Keep chanting that, Cubs fans. It’s more comforting than the reality of paying $78 to watch Edwin Jackson pitch.
Edwin Jackson. A ballpark full of calculator-wielding sabermetricians could not devise a stat to suggest he was any good this year. Right now he’s the Cubs’ worst signing since Milton Bradley. But he had the gall to pop off when Sveum removed him from a game he was throwing away in Milwaukee three weeks ago. After management reacted tepidly, Jeff Samardzija and Kevin Gregg were empowered to stage their own hissies days later.
Sveum had to know he was a goner by then. Team Theo doesn’t like turmoil. It gets in the way of a carefully crafted image of cool control. Image is important at Clark and Addison, and right now the Cubs’ image isn’t too flattering.
You don’t suppose they would deliberately and cavalierly discard mementoes of the sainted Ron Santo in hopes of creating an alternate story to lessen the impact of Sveum’s firing, do you? Nah. They’re not that clueless, or nefarious.
But what timing.
Truth be told, Sveum didn’t do enough and wasn’t here long enough to matter much. With the town ablaze in Bears Mania, Derrick Rose back and the Hawks getting ready to rumble again, Sveum was going to be a one-day story: Mike Quade with whiskers. Remarkably heavy whiskers.
Sveum was right about one thing: Baseball managers are hired to be fired. Dusty Baker was let go in Cincinnati on Friday after three playoff appearances in four seasons. He’s on the sidelines with Ozzie Guillen, the only Chicago manager to win a World Series in 96 years.
Defective rosters aside, it’s hard to defend a guy who lost 197 games in two seasons. And while it’s not entirely fair to blame Sveum for the struggles of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo, their struggles occurred on his watch, after management anointed the duo as cornerstone players and paid them accordingly.
I liked Sveum. He’s a tough guy from a tough part of the world who brought working-class values to the dugout. He’ll never charm anybody as a conversationalist, and wasn’t much interested in trying to, but at the core of his Marlboro Man persona is a pretty decent guy.
If karma worked, Sveum would have succeeded as a manager after a gruesome leg injury knocked him off his path to stardom as a shortstop and forced him to learn the game’s nuances to stay relevant as a utility player.
Sometimes those guys make the best managers — Gene Mauch, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa. But not always.
Joe Girardi just spent six months watching Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix play Derek Jeter’s position. Does he have it in him to endure another few years of major-league impersonators? And where does Epstein turn if he whiffs on Girardi, twice rejected by previous regimes but clearly the people’s choice now?
Beset by age, infirmity and a killer division, the Yankees are no longer the Yankees as we’ve known them and probably won’t be for a while. But their business plan mandates that they compete for championships, and resources are never a problem. The Cubs’ business plan has always been underwritten by hope — Epstein, as he explained Sveum’s dismissal, was practically giddy in describing the esteem with which the Cubs’ farm system is now regarded.
Girardi, having served time in both organizations, knows resources work way better than hope in baseball. He seems too sensible a guy to succumb to the messiah complex that brought Baker and Lou Piniella here, ostensibly to exorcise goats and curses and all those other nonsensical excuses for failure. They could not.
But other men will try. The prospect of being the manager who delivers a World Series title to the North Side remains a powerful enticement. As Bob Brenly says, win here and they’ll name the lake after you.