You start over. You land a big-bucks top boss named Theo Epstein who has some experience in breaking curses. You expunge two longtime faces of the franchise, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano; the latter had become a clubhouse cancer.
And most emphatically, most symbolically, you pick as your manager the Harley-riding son of a Marine, an Oakland Raiders fan with the nickname “Nuts” and with a tattoo of a rattlesnake on his arm that reads, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is an option.”
Really, now, you can’t get more un-Cub than that.
For Dale Sveum, the new skipper for the new-look Chicago Cubs, one thing that isn’t an option is more losing for this long-suffering franchise. And in an odd way, the former shortstop (seven teams in 13 years) is exactly whom the Cubs need at the helm: someone from the outside, the antithesis of the Lovable Losers label that has stuck to the Cubs in the 104 years since the team’s last World Series victory.
Think that Cubs fans would be just fine with another 91-loss season, as long as they’re able to soak in the sun, Old Style in hand, at the frat party otherwise known as Wrigley Field?
Sveum’s not the type to be fine with it. He has said again and again that he wants his players to treat every game like Game 7 of the World Series. He’s a serious man who is tasked with winning, yes, but more importantly he’s tasked with changing a team’s culture. You almost expect a logo change on the horizon, from that cuddly Cubbie Bear to something with a lot more tooth and roar.
“I do believe the team does take on the personality of their manager a lot,” Sveum said on a recent morning at HoHoKam Park before the Cubs’ first intrasquad game. “(But) I don’t know if I’ve done anything yet. We haven’t played a game yet. All’s I’m doing is being myself, the way I know how to do things, hold guys accountable, and you really don’t hold guys accountable yet until the games are played. But the guys are giving probably as good an effort as I’ve ever seen in spring training. There’s no doubt about that.”
Sveum is right. Despite the rave reviews Sveum is getting from the clubhouse, despite players talking of extra work in the batting cages and a greater competitive team fire and an increased emphasis on playing smart, it’s March. He has done nothing yet.
And he had done very little before, having only managed 12 games in the bigs as a late-season replacement for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008. Spring training, of course, is about optimism and excitement. But the hopes of March and Sveum’s preseason projections of toughness will mean nothing if the dog days of summer bring another Cub team playing like dogs.
Sure, Cubs players say their 2012 goal is winning the World Series. Great. Same for 29 other clubs. In a place called reality, a .500 season for this Cubs team would be a phenomenal overachievement. Show promise this year and they’ll give Cub fans optimism for next year. Sveum will be given ample chance during his three-year contract to let this young team work out its growing pains.
And yet in the clubhouse, the optimism of March is simmering with the excitement of a new regime. Don’t tell these guys they’re looking at low expectations. And whatever you do, don’t say “rebuilding.”
“The ‘R’ word? That’s just disrespectful,” said pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who has been in the organization since 2006. “It really is. We haven’t played a game yet, and that’s where it’s all decided. (But) inside the clubhouse, it is a new feeling. I feel like a lot of the other spring trainings we’ve almost gotten off to the start of spring training dealing with stuff from the previous season. Which is like you’re already starting off in the hole.”
“This is my fourth organization,” said veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd. “I felt this feeling with the Phillies, a winning organization. I felt this with the Texas Rangers, a winning organization. That’s what happens: you bring the right people in, it has a trickle effect from the top all the way down to the bottom. It just rubs off. With Theo comes winning.”
Plenty of older faces remain, but the Cubs’ youthful exuberance was perhaps best shown by shortstop Starlin Castro, bouncing around the clubhouse on a recent morning with a mile-wide grin.
And since it’s March, it’s still the season of good feeling. Dale Sveum is still undefeated as manager of the Chicago Cubs, and winning actually appears within his grasp.
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.