MILWAUKEE — Dale Sveum looks a little older now than he did the last time he returned to his former place of employment, his face dotted with salt-and-pepper stubble that appears to be turning more salt than pepper on this Monday, 120 games into his first season as manager of the Chicago Cubs.
He’s experienced a handful of ups and myriad downs in his first season at the helm of one of baseball’s most storied and tortured franchises. And at 47-73 this season, the Cubs’ roster looks like a shell of what it did the first time he returned to Milwaukee, the city his baseball career is most connected to.
His comfort within the confines of Miller Park is obvious, a blue bat hanging rigid behind his back as he reminisces with former co-workers. At some moments, you’d swear he’d never left. But he’s learned plenty since he was one of them, donning his Brewers uniform less than a year ago. As the head of baseball’s third-youngest team now, he’s taken a crash course in patience this season.
“More than anything you have to have a lot of patience to deal with young talented players,” Sveum said.
And the Cubs have plenty of them, as four of the organization’s top prospects populated the lineup on Monday night — not including star shortstop Starlin Castro, who’s just 22 years old. It’s a position that’s liable to age any manager, forced to deal with the inevitable inconsistencies associated with a massive organizational rebuild.
But this is why Dale Sveum is in coaching. This is why he took the Cubs job in the first place, knowing that it was a long-term project.
“It’s the challenging part, but that’s what you coach for,” Sveum said. “You don’t coach to sit around and do nothing. It’s part of the whole process. The bottom line is you’re a coach. You’re still teaching and making guys understand certain things, seeing how they develop, their work ethic, and how they handle this whole stage.”
Sveum played a big part in that process in his time in Milwaukee, grooming some of the Brewers’ most well known players when they started in the big leagues. It’s a point of pride for Sveum — you can see it in his eyes as he lists the names of his success stories.
“I see it as my personality, to take on young guys,” Sveum said. “Obviously, over there with Corey (Hart), (Ryan) Braun, Rickie (Weeks), Prince (Fielder), and J.J. Hardy, those guys, I’ve kind of been through it. Most of my coaching career was with a lot of young talent and seeing how it all develops and the process and the time it takes sometimes.”
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, who worked with Sveum last season, won’t go as far as to judge how his former co-worker has done with the Cubs this season. That wouldn’t be fair, considering the rebuilding Sveum has been tasked with in 2012. But he will vouch for his understanding of the process it takes to build and harness talent. Sveum has been building and rebuilding ever since Roenicke has known him.
“As a hitting coach, when he got somebody and he could change them and really see the improvement, that’s when he got really fired up,” Roenicke said. “That’s why we coach.”
And even with a casual understanding of the Cubs, it’s easy to see that that’s what keeps Sveum going. He’s seen serious progress with guys like Anthony Rizzo, the Cubs left-handed first baseman of the future, and even Castro, who impressed the organization enough to warrant a big-time, multi-year contract, which should be finalized soon.
Sveum may earn more than a few more gray hairs in his time with Chicago, maybe more than he did in Milwaukee. But to some degree, the joy is in the process.
“Sometimes it’s tough, and sometimes it’s really fun,” Roenicke said. “I think there’s nothing better than getting a bunch of young guys that have talent and seeing how far you can improve what they do. Really for a coach, that’s about as fun as it gets.”