This is how Dale Sveum pictured it: The city buzzing about the Cubs again, a 90-win team playing in front of 40,000 fans at Wrigley Field and gearing up for a potential World Series run.
The roar of the crowd on Monday night sounded like October – except Sveum watched from the visiting dugout as the Kansas City Royals hitting coach.
“I don’t know if anybody would have saw it coming that fast,” Sveum said before the Cubs beat the Royals 1-0 on Chris Denorfia’s pinch-hit homer in the 11th inning, giving them 13 walk-off wins during this unbelievable season.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein fired his handpicked manager over drinks at a Lakeview bar after the final game of the 2013 season. But Sveum’s fingerprints are all over this team after hiring impact coaches like Chris Bosio (pitching) and Mike Borzello (catching/strategy).
Together, their game-planning system and pitching/scouting infrastructure boosted short-term assets like Scott Feldman and Jeff Samardzija, leading to franchise-altering trades that yielded building blocks like Jake Arrieta and Addison Russell.
“It might have been the reason we didn’t lose 125 games,” Sveum said.
Sveum still has that sense of gallows humor, but he doesn’t sound bitter or get defensive after finding a great landing spot with a team that won the American League pennant last year and already clinched a division title this season. Kansas City manager Ned Yost offered Sveum a job over the phone a few minutes after his exit press conference outside Wrigley Field.
At that point, the Cubs hoped Joe Girardi might leave the New York Yankees, seeing his value as an on-field leader and in-game tactician. The business side also would have loved the marketing potential with an ex-Cub out of East Peoria and Northwestern University.
The Cubs tried to change the conversation after 197 losses in two seasons. Epstein wanted someone with a softer touch around young core players Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. Epstein wound up hiring Rick Renteria and fired him after an up-and-down season once Joe Maddon became a free agent.
Sveum could be brutally honesty with the media, and that didn’t always go over well inside the clubhouse or with the front office. He also had strong opinions about how things should be run, and that caused friction behind the scenes.
The idea of the Cubs winning the second wild card in 2015 sounded overly optimistic, yet not completely impossible. But winning 90-plus games and having one of the best records in the majors by this point?
“You probably didn’t see that quick a development in (Kris) Bryant, Addison Russell,” Sveum said. “The whole thing – it all just came together. But it still comes down to their pitching, getting (Jon) Lester, (who’s) one of the best in baseball. And then Arrieta’s development is obviously off the charts.
“The bullpen has always been a nice mix of arms. (Hector) Rondon has obviously turned into one of the better Rule 5 guys you’re ever going to come across.”
The entire Epstein administration deserves credit for making those moves and turning this into a playoff team by Year 4. Maddon will probably be the National League’s Manager of the Year, but even he admits a lot of the heavy lifting had already been done before he got here.
With tattoos covering his arms, Sveum brought a no-nonsense attitude into the clubhouse and the took the heat during his media sessions before and after every game, trying to explain the big picture.
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Like when the Cubs cashed in 15 Feldman starts in the middle of the 2013 season and wound up with hard-throwing reliever Pedro Strop and Arrieta, a fringe pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles.
“When we got him, (we knew) we might have gotten something pretty special here,” Sveum said. “It sounded like it came down to just letting this guy be an athlete instead of mechanical.
“He’s a great athlete and has phenomenal stuff. But that was one of those things where you’re like: ‘Wow, how could somebody give that up?’
“I know they were in the race and Feldman was doing a great job, too. Sometimes it’s risk/reward when you make trades like that.”
Sveum and Bosio grew up together in the Milwaukee Brewers organization and remain good friends. Sveum is also tight with Borzello, a central figure in breaking down video, analyzing data and putting together scouting reports that highlight hitters’ weaknesses and lay out how to pitch away from slugging percentage.
That gym-rat culture and be-yourself philosophy has helped Arrieta develop into a 21-game winner and a leading Cy Young Award candidate, an evolution that now makes the Cubs a very dangerous playoff team.
“I don’t know if anybody can envision that it would have happened that quick,” Sveum said. “You knew it was going to happen because of the pieces. But it all fell together.”