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Dale Sveum puts pedal to mettle

New Cubs manager Dale Sveum had long playing career after lengthy injury. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

New Cubs manager Dale Sveum had a long playing career after a lengthy injury. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 21, 2011 8:31AM


That was pretty much the reaction 24 years ago by most baseball fans when a No. 9-hitting shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers hit 25 home runs with 95 RBI in his first full season in the big leagues.

Through pain and misfortune, Dale Sveum hit only 37 home runs in the next 10 years. Now here we are asking the same question about the Cubs’ third manager in 15 months.

The fact is, Mike Quade’s replacement wears most of the answer on his sleeve — and under his sleeve in ink.

Three of the five tattoos on his arms honor his father, George, an ex-Marine who lost a fight with cancer in 1992. A fourth tattoo, an American eagle representing U.S. troops, echoes, again, of his father.

One shows a rattlesnake entwined with something his father used to say: ‘‘Pain is inevitable. Suffering is just an option.’’

That tattoo might course deeper in him than any other. It rang true after he rebuilt his career following a devastating leg injury the year after his breakout season. It rang true after he watched his father fight only a couple years later.

‘‘It’s just a fact. You’re going to go through pain,’’ said Sveum, who turns 48 on Wednesday. ‘‘Whether it’s physical, whether it’s mental. Suffering is your option. You don’t have to suffer. It’s your own option if you want to whine and cry about it.’’

He got that tattoo soon after his father’s death.

If anyone doubts the source of Sveum’s impatience with poor effort or unprepared players that he expressed Friday, he’ll roll up his sleeve and spell it out for you.

‘‘I think he’s extremely tough,’’ said Cubs president Theo Epstein, who percolated the idea of Sveum as a big-league manager in 2004, when they were with the Boston Red Sox. ‘‘You don’t shatter your leg and then have a 12-year big-league career by being soft.’’

It happened in 1988, when Sveum went back for a pop-up and collided with left fielder Darryl Hamilton, gruesomely breaking his shin. In November, when the leg was healing improperly, Sveum had to have it surgically re-broken. He missed the entire 1989 season.

He was never the same player again. But if Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are right about his ability and mettle as a manager, those characteristics might have started then. By the time he finished a career that took him through seven stops, Sveum was soaking up everything he could from coaches and managers, including Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Lou Piniella. As the Red Sox’ third-base coach, Sveum handled hostile public scrutiny without pause or whimper.

Despite their familiarity with Sveum, the Cubs’ bosses still were blown away by his interview.

‘‘Dale provided extremely well thought-out answers to nuanced baseball questions instantaneously, answer after answer after answer,’’ Epstein said. ‘‘We came up for air and took a break and looked at each other and said, ‘Wow.’ This was not the type of thing you could fake.’’

That’s not to say he doesn’t know his limitations. That fifth tattoo reminds him of his wife of more than 25 years, Darlene — and their anniversary he has been known to forget.

‘‘I said, what the heck, I’ll just tattoo it on my wrist,’’ Sveum said.

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