Dale Sveum suffered injury 25 years ago that changed his career
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter September 2, 2013 10:22PM
Dale Sveum’s injury in 1988 was compared to Joe Theismann’s three years earlier. | Sun-Times Library
Updated: September 3, 2013 10:44AM
Darryl Hamilton remembers the sound more than anything else. Rob Deer remembers hearing it from right field, though now he wonders if that’s even possible.
“You don’t forget things like that,” said Hamilton, the man forever linked, for all the wrong reasons, with the path Dale Sveum’s major-league playing career took — if not the path that led him to Chicago.
It was 25 years ago Tuesday, on a damp Saturday night in Detroit, in the ninth inning of a game that much of a modest crowd already had abandoned, when the lives of Hamilton and Sveum intersected under a pop fly down the left-field line.
Hamilton, the Milwaukee Brewers rookie who had just entered the game in left for defense, walked away with a bruised knee. Sveum, the Brewers’ rising-star shortstop with power, didn’t walk away.
Even as Hamilton slid low at the last second to avoid trouble, Sveum’s lower left leg caught Hamilton near the knee at full speed.
“It sounded like a two-by-four being pulled on both sides, and it snaps,” Hamilton said. “I’ll never forget that sound.”
Sveum clawed at the grass in pain, his tibia so badly broken and disfigured that teammates compared it to Joe Theismann’s horrific career-ending injury three years earlier.
“He probably went into shock,” said Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio, who was on the mound for the Brewers. “It was shocking for us as well just to see it.”
When he was taken from the field on a stretcher, much of the great promise for the former first-round draft pick’s baseball career left the field, too, for good.
“It’s one of those big what-ifs,” Bosio said.
Twenty-five years later, it’s far too simplistic to say Sveum’s managing career was somehow born that night.
Bosio, who has known Sveum since they were star prep football rivals in northern California, said the Cubs’ manager was always on a track to coach and manage.
But what came next is a major factor in the uncommon patience he has shown through two years of managing undermanned Cubs teams and the ability players say he has to relate well to those of all skill levels.
“I’m not the guy where, if somebody strikes out with the bases loaded, I’m going to be throwing things,” Sveum said early on as Cubs manager. “I wasn’t a very good player, so I completely understand the trials and tribulations of this game and the pressures they’re under.”
If Sveum sells himself short as a player, there’s no overstating the trials and tribulations.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Deer said of the day Sveum told him months into his rehab that he would need surgery to re-break the bone, and break another in the leg, because the leg had healed wrong.
“You couldn’t feel worse for somebody,” said Deer, who lives near Sveum in Arizona during the offseason. “It’s totally unfair for things like that to happen, but in a sense, I think it might have given him that extra incentive that he wasn’t done.”
Incentive? An already long process more than doubled. He missed the entire 1989 season, much of 1990, and it was another year before he was even close to full strength.
“Even when it healed, it was half the size of my right leg,” Sveum said. “So, yeah, you could play, but talk about not being able to play at a major-league level. That’s what’s frustrating.”
“He just limped for so long,” said Deer, who watched Sveum struggle with basic things off the field — such as when Deer, Sveum and Robin Yount went on their Harley rides into the desert.
“We had to kick-start his motorcycle for him,” Deer said of Sveum, who still was too sore to stabilize his bike on his left leg.
Somehow, Sveum drove himself to get nine more years out a playing career that took him to seven more teams and four more positions before he transitioned to coaching and managing.
The long, enduring pain of 1988 also closely followed the pain of losing his father to cancer. Sveum wears the tributes to his father in the tattoos up and down his arms.
“Him and his dad were really tight. Really close,” Bosio said. “To lose somebody so close to you, and then you lose your health in a game you love, it’s hard. It’s made him stronger as a person. It’s something where he can relate personally and professionally with the players.”
Sveum never has dwelled on that night in Detroit, and Hamilton said Sveum always has been great about it with him.
But there’s one more detail worth noting: Sveum caught the ball for the out.
“Ask anybody who knows Dale,” Bosio said. “That’s Dale.”