(Eds: Removes extraneous word from last paragraph. )By TOM WITHERSAP Sports Writer
With Cubs players and coaches flanking him in the infield, first-year manager Dale Sveum leaned on his fungo bat and smiled.
This was how he imagined it.
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One day before Chicago’s first full practice with position players, Sveum watched the Cubs open an NCAA-style bunting tournament he designed to build chemistry, work on an important and too-often-ignored fundamental and have some fun under Arizona’s sun.
Judging by the laughter, trash talk and seriousness taking place, the Cubs are off to a great start with Sveum.
”It went well,’ he said afterward.
Sveum can only hope his first season goes as smoothly.
Milwaukee’s hitting coach the past three seasons, Sveum was hired in November, taking over a Cubs team that by winter’s end was renovated with a total sweep of the front office and major overhaul to the roster.
In came former Boston executive Theo Epstein and San Diego general manger Jed Hoyer. Out went trouble-making right-hander Carlos Zambrano, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and first baseman Carlos Pena.
The Cubs are starting over.
Aren’t they always?
Dating to 1908, their goal each season has been to win the World Series. The Lovable Losers have fallen short each time.
Sveum can’t do anything to change history, just try to make some.
A player for 12 seasons, Sveum’s managerial resume consists of just 16 games on an interim basis with the Brewers at the end of 2008. He’s bringing a no-nonsense approach to the Cubs, promising to make them fundamentally sound and disciplined.
He may be new, but he’s got some old-school ways.
On Thursday, he was asked about how he’ll deal with outfielder Alfonso Soriano’s bad habit of admiring fly balls he thinks might be homers only to watch them bounce off Wrigley Field’s ivy-covered walls and wind up being 300-foot-plus singles.
Sveum will work with him on that.
”We want to be able to run balls out to the left side of the field and stretch singles into doubles and take hard turns on the bases really hard, ” he said. ”I know the fans don’t like that (watching), but I think sometimes they have to understand that’s a habit as well.
”You talk about it and in that spur of the moment he (Soriano) thinks about maybe something I said. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes things are tougher than just talking about it.”
Soriano has touched the well-worn nerves of Cubs fans for a perceived lack of hustle. However, Sveum knows how important the outfielder is to his lineup, and already defended one of his team’s few established stars before Soriano arrived.
”The guy works his butt off all the time,” Sveum said. ”There’s no doubt that the fans lost a little faith in him sometimes with some of the things he does. I think the fans have to understand that he’s probably the hardest working guy in the clubhouse and players love him to death.
”I haven’t gotten to be around him yet. He’s the most prolific guy in our lineup and a big part of this lineup that has to produce.”
Sveum intends to handle any issues – on or off the field – head on. He’ll tell shortstop Starlin Castro, who is being investigated by Chicago police on an accusation of sexual assault, to concentrate on baseball. Castro has vehemently denied the allegation and no charges have been filed.
”Everything is what it is right now,” Sveum said. ”Spring training is upon him, which I’m sure he’s looking forward to. You tell him to be himself and don’t worry about it or any other distractions. It’s baseball season now and that’s all you gotta worry about.”
As for the bunt tournament, Sveum came up with the idea while managing in the minor leagues and hoped to one day use it in the majors.
From the moment the tourney was announced, the Cubs were on board with the refreshing activity.
”It’s already built team unity,” first baseman Bryan LaHair said. ”Throughout the day, you hear guys talking about it. It’s different. I’ve never experienced anything like it. It’s kind of cool to have that kind of atmosphere going on already. As soon as it went up on the wall, everyone was very excited about it.”
After their morning workout Thursday, the Cubs gathered on a field where a scoring grid was painted along the infield baselines with boxes indicating whether a bunt was worth 5, 10, 20, 30 or 40 points. A small red dot next to the mound was worth 100, a tantalizing target.
With 63 players in camp, Sveum rounded out the field by adding himself. He’ll meet pitcher Kerry Wood in the first round.
”I’ve got a tough draw,” he said. ”I’ve got Woodie. I’ll be ready. I’ll practice.”
Wood predicted his first match would be a ”layup,” perhaps forgetting he hasn’t had an official at-bat in the regular season since 2007.
Before he does any bunting, Sveum will address his club on Friday for the first time. It’s his first chance to make a lasting impression on the Cubs. He’s prepared some remarks, but doesn’t want his speech to come across stiff or insincere.
”You try to keep it as brief as you can, not that I’ve had one before,” he said chuckling. ”I’ve definitely heard them enough, and you try to stay away from the ones you didn’t care for. Be quick and get to the point.”
Cubs managers have been making the same speech for 104 years, saying `OK, guys, this is our year’ or something close.
Who knows? One of these years it just might happen.
”It’s a huge challenge for us to try and win a World Series one day here,” LaHair said. ”It’s probably the biggest challenge in all of sports. But I grew up a Boston fan and they were on the same track and they won two World Series before you knew it.