When Dale Sveum got his first managing job with the Altoona Curve, the Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was in his late 30s, just a few years into retirement from playing in the majors.
He spent most of his time working with the hitters, one former player recalled, but in his third season, he saved a left-handed pitcher’s career.
“ 'Sveumer' gave me the opportunity to make it to the majors,” John Grabow said in a phone conversation Thursday. “I was a starter in Double-A, just treading water, when he came to manage. He said I’d have a better chance of getting to the big leagues as a reliever. I was in the big leagues at the end of that season, and I’ve been in the big leagues ever since. If he never would’ve moved me to the bullpen, who knows where I’d be.”
That was in 2003. Grabow started 10 games in Sveum’s first season as Curve manager in 2001, and 27 in 2002, when he went 8-13 with a 5.47 ERA. He made the transition to reliever in 2003, and pitched for the Pirates at the end of season. He’s earned almost $13 million since as a reliever.
Grabow, of course, is the only player, so far, to pitch for Lou Piniella, Mike Quade and Sveum. He thinks it’s a great choice and that Sveum’s personality should fit with what the Cubs need after a 71-91 season.
“You don’t need to be a cheerleader or a rah-rah guy,” he said. “But you have to show some type of emotion.”
As for Sveum’s predecessors, Grabow liked Piniella and has mixed feelings on Quade.
“With Lou, he communicated with the players, which sometimes wasn’t always good,” Grabow said. “But if you played well, he came up and told you so. He patted you on the back and said keep up the good work. If you had a rough patch, he stuck with you. He managed with his gut.
“Quade managed by the book,” he said. “Some players didn’t always agree with it. Quade didn’t communicate with the players a lot and players respond to that.”
Quade’s managing wasn’t why the Cubs dug themselves in a big hole, Grabow said. That was the fault of early injuries to the pitching staff and the slow start for the hitters. But it was clear that no one in the clubhouse was fighting for Quade to stay after so many guys vouched for him in 2010.
Conversely, Grabow believes Sveum will be the kind of manager who truly gets to know his players, and earns their respect. A personal touch means more than outsiders think.
“The biggest thing you’ve got to know is how to manage personalities,” Grabow said. “There are so many different personalities you need to interact with. In the big leagues, managers know how to manage games.
"That’s why they’re qualified for the job. But managing players and how players respond to you is a big deal."
For example: Telling a starting pitcher he has to go to the bullpen can be a tricky thing, but Grabow remembers Sveum handling it perfectly.
“When he told me to go the bullpen, he said, ‘Don’t look it as a demotion,’ ” Grabow said. “That’s a quality right there. He said, ‘Don’t hang your head on this. You’ll get to big leagues quicker.’ ”
Grabow is a free agent and unlikely to return to the Cubs. He said he “wishes things would’ve been better in Chicago” after Jim Hendry traded for him during the 2009 season.
“I never seemed to get on track right,” he said.
As for the Cubs, he said he’s familiar with the culture change philosophy. He did pitch for Pittsburgh, after all.
“When I was with Pittsburgh we always talked about a change of culture,” he said. “The guys on the team have the right mentality. Sometimes you have some distractions that bring the team down. If some of those distractions are not there, they might play a little better.”