CHICAGO - Did he use the wrong salad fork? Did he inadvertently spit tobacco juice on John Henry’s wing tips, or tell everybody he hated “The Cosby Show’’? Perhaps he made some joke about Thurston Howell III, or maybe he said, “You know I always thought Theo Epstein should have gotten more credit for us winning the World Series in 2004.’’
All we know is that something went horribly wrong when Dale Sveum had lunch with Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino, and Ben Cherington in Milwaukee last November. The lunch was just a couple of blocks from the Pfister Hotel, where baseball folk from all 30 teams were plotting their futures. By the time Sveum finished his dessert at Ward’s House of Prime, he no doubt had a pretty good idea that he was not going to be the manager of the Boston Red Sox.
“Maybe I don’t have enough etiquette,’’ Sveum said Friday afternoon, as he spit into his big red cup after his Cubs waxed the Red Sox, 3-0, at Wrigley Field. “I definitely don’t have the best etiquette in the world.’’
Sveum was Cherington’s guy. He interviewed for the Red Sox vacancy at Fenway Nov. 2 and had the inside track over Pete Mackanin, Gene Lamont, Torey Lovullo, and Sandy Alomar Jr. Sveum’s lunch in Milwaukee seemed like a formality. Sveum was the first and only Sox managerial candidate to get two interviews.
The Sox owners already knew him. Sveum was Boston’s third base coach in 2004 and ’05.
Hmm. Maybe that’s it. Maybe Sveum poured too much champagne over Lucchino’s head after the Sox won it in ’04.
“Could be,’’ said the baseball lifer. “We poured a lot of champagne that year.’’
After the lunch, Sveum walked back to the Pfister Hotel with Cherington, while Henry, Werner, and Lucchino walked as a separate group. Reporters waiting at the Pfister were fairly certain that the lunch was not a success when Henry and Werner announced that the Red Sox managing job was still open. Lucchino merely shook his head when asked about Sveum. Hours later, Sveum was named manager of the Cubs. That was a couple of weeks before Bobby Valentine walked in from a Japanese cornfield.
The Sveum saga was just part of a goofy Red Sox winter of 2011-12, which followed the cataclysmic collapse of September.
All these months later, it’s still hard to believe that Sveum came so close to being Terry Francona’s successor.
“When you get called back to meet with the owners, you know that you’re being considered,’’ said Sveum. “You know that you’ve gotten past the first stage and they’re thinking hard about it. It wasn’t just like one interview and, ‘We’ll see you later.’ So yeah, it got to the point and I thought it might really happen.
“I knew Ben a little bit from my time there back in 2004 and 2005.’’
And the lunch?
“It was fine,’’ said Sveum. “It was just a lunch. Talking about philosophy and how you would handle different situations. Everything went great as far as I was concerned, but then the Cubs offered me the job that night, so everything worked out. To be able to train in Arizona, near my house and to be in the National League, and another great city. It was the right choice.
“I don’t know if I ever thought I was [Boston’s] guy. There was other people still there. You get to a point where you say, ‘I leave this lunch and they might call me and offer me the job. This could happen any minute.’ ’’
News of Sveum taking the job with the Cubs broke on Nov. 17 and the news conference to announce Sveum’s hiring took place the next day. Sveum was able to relax while he watched the Boston soap opera unfold. He considered Lamont, the Tigers’ third base coach, the Boston front-runner at the end.
“I thought when they brought in Geno late, that that was kind of gonna be the no-brainer,’’ said Sveum.
No no-brainer. It was Valentine.
And here we are seven months later and the Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer/Sveum Cubs are in last place with a 22-42 record, while the Cherington/Valentine Red Sox are in last place at 31-33.
They meet again Saturday and Sunday nights at Wrigley, with both games on national television.
Just a couple of southbound trains playing on the North Side of Chicago.