MESA, Ariz. — Dale Sveum is either an optimist or a guy with big bills to pay. He not only showed up for his second season as the Cubs' manager but somehow seems confident it will be better than his first.
It better be, right?
"I probably won't mention last year, to tell you the truth," Sveum said Sunday, during a break from staff meetings. "This is about this year and the 25 guys we want this year. I won't talk about last year at all."
No one alive knows exactly what Sveum will face this year. If anyone did know what it would be like to be in Sveum's shoes, it was the late Leo Durocher. He was the last Cubs manager to enter a season coming off a 100-loss campaign, and he did it 46 years ago.
Both were intense shortstops when they played, but that's where any parallels between the two end.
Durocher, hired by Phil Wrigley after his best years as a manager had come and gone, was a tyrant who embarrassed players and motivated through fear. He craved — at times demanded — the spotlight and loved high society as much as highballs. He generated creative tension long before it had a name, challenging umpires and rival managers (even players), and sometimes skipped games because he was hung over, pouting or disinterested.
Sveum is comfortable riding shotgun but might pick the back seat just to be polite. He leads by teaching, not screaming, and took great pride in how well his players got along last season.
Durocher and Sveum took over the Cubs under very different circumstance. Wrigley, as decent of a man Chicago has produced, was rumored to have an interest in the crude, offensive Durocher as early as 1956 but wrote off those reports as "ridiculous." He hired him for the '66 season because newspapers had begun to criticize Wrigley for the Cubs' status as perennial also-rans. He was finally interested in winning and looked to Durocher to make it happen.
When Tom Ricketts hired Theo Epstein, who then hired Sveum, it was because he sees a value in patience. Ricketts wants a do-over for the team that hasn't won a World Series since 1908 and was willing to strip his house down to the studs to rebuild.
I wondered what Durocher would have thought last month if he had wandered into the Sheraton and found thousands of fans paying big money to be close to Epstein's front office and players. Somehow I imagine the mood in Chicago wasn't quite as peppy in the winter of 1966-67, at least not where the Cubs were concerned.
"We've been open and transparent with our fans about what we're trying to accomplish," Epstein said. "We're not going to take shortcuts. It's a bit of a covenant. We ask the fans for their understanding, their patience. In return we promise to work our tails off, the entire organization, to build something special, to reward the fans with October baseball on a regular basis."
The Cubs never played a postseason game under Durocher, who abused his pitchers and, especially, catcher Randy Hundley (he started 156 games and caught 160 in 1968). But he did push them to an immediate 28-win improvement after they went 59-103 in his first season on the job.
That 87-win season in 1967 came behind a converted reliever, Fergie Jenkins, and largely the same cast of characters who had suffered through the last-place season in '66. The only thing that mattered to Durocher was the win total.
Sveum is Epstein's choice to guide the Cubs because he grasps the importance of development and can share a long-term vision with his front office.
"When you have 101 losses, basically it comes down to numbers," Sveum said. "We could have lost 90 and we were still going to do the same things, just like we could have won 90 and gone home, not made the playoffs. Everything is dictated on the numbers. … You start putting prices on numbers — saying .500 would be a good year — and (it's a mistake). At .500, you go home, just like last year. You get the organization to a point where you're winning 90-plus games every year, you make the playoffs."
Sveum will be manager of the year if he can get the Cubs to 89 wins this season, duplicating the bounce-back produced under Durocher. That's asking way too much from 2013, of course. Just hope that Sveum feels like talking about it when next season begins. Baby steps, until further notice.