He's Safe...for Now
What if your career, your livelihood, depended on how you made a single split-second decision? No pondering. No surfing the Web for help. And if that's not enough stress, imagine making that decision in front of 35,000 baseball fans just itching for someone to scream at, someone to blame. Like you. Welcome to the hot-corner office of Boston Red Sox third-base coach Dale Sveum.
It's time for Dale Sveum to make a decision. It's not a life-or-death choice, and no ballgame is hanging in the balance. He has all the time in the world this afternoon, 11 weeks before Opening Day, but he doesn't dawdle. Barely consulting the menu, he looks up at the waitress and asks for a cheese steak with onions. "I'll have fries, too, please."
It's a safe choice. We're at Uncle Sam's, a sports bar in Scottsdale, Arizona, a few miles from his home. While Boston is digging out from a January snowstorm, Sveum is nicely tanned, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. He could have picked a more adventurous lunch spot, but that's not his style. "When I go to a place, I know what I'm going to order," he says. "I don't risk failure."
At work, that isn't an option. As the third-base coach for the Boston Red Sox, Sveum spends many low-stress hours spitting tobacco juice and giving signs to batters. But when a runner gets on base, his heart rate rises and the mental calculations begin. When a base hit goes into the outfield and a runner takes off from second, Sveum has to make a split-second decision: Should he hold him at third or send him home? There's no room for hesitation, nuance, or equivocation. Stay or go?
When Sveum (pronounced "Swaim") waves the player home and gets it right, the SportsCenter clip shows the runner crossing the plate. The third-base coach isn't even in the picture. When he gets it wrong, though, everyone in the world appears to have seen his mistake. During a 10-game stretch last August, late in his first season as a big-league coach, Sveum waved six Red Sox runners around third to their doom. Fans booed, sports radio howled. One baseball blogger nicknamed him Death Wish Dale. Another questioned whether Sveum, who once played for New York, might have mixed loyalties: "Is Dale Sveum an embedded Yankee saboteur, or is he an idiot?" Sportscaster Sean McDonough spent 17 seasons calling Red Sox games, a period in which the team had some notorious third-base coaches. (Remember Wendell Kim and Rene Lachemann?) Even by those standards, McDonough was alarmed: "I thought Sveum was as bad as I've seen."
While the job has always been tricky, today's third-base coaches are doing it at a time when sports fans seem less accepting of errors that result from fast decisions. The National Football League now uses instant replays to ensure against faulty calls by referees. Major League Baseball umpires can now hold on-field caucuses to overrule an erroneous judgment. In other disciplines, from investing to medicine, an explosion of data and computer power is letting science replace gut decisions. But a third-base coach stands alone, with no computer to help and no do-over if he gets it wrong.
As baseball season opened, this topic -- how people make instant decisions -- commanded a spot on the bestseller list. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, author Malcolm Gladwell looks at the "adaptive unconscious," the part of our brain that makes quick judgments based on very little information. "We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation," Gladwell writes. "But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world."
Like many of the examples in Blink -- emergency-room doctors, police officers, speed-daters -- Sveum lives in a world of quick thinking, consequences, and second-guessing. Inevitably, there will be moments this season when he will windmill his left arm, sending a runner into a cringe-inducing play at home plate. Sox fans will shake their heads and ask: "What was he thinking?"
This is the story of how Dale Sveum thinks.
He never dreamed of a career in baseball. He was a gifted athlete who excelled in baseball and basketball, but "football was my whole life," he says. A high school All-America quarterback from Northern California, Sveum won a scholarship to Arizona State. When baseball scouts visited, Sveum told them not to bother -- he would be a quarterback, not an infielder. But when the Milwaukee Brewers drafted him anyway and offered a $100,000 signing bonus, he said no to Arizona State. In 1986, after four years in the minors, Sveum ascended to the Brewers; the next year he hit 25 home runs. But the following season, while playing shortstop, he collided with a rookie outfielder. Sveum's shin shattered, requiring multiple surgeries, and he never recovered his quickness. He spent the next 10 years bouncing between major- and minor-league teams until finally, in March 2000, at the age of 36, he failed to make the cut at the Pittsburgh Pirates' spring training camp and retired.
He drifted into coaching the way many former players do: He needed to earn a living, had few other skills, and knew enough baseball people to find jobs. In 2001, he began managing the Pirates' Double A club in Altoona, Pennsylvania. In the minor leagues, managers coach third base, something Sveum had never done before. There is no school for third-base coaches; instead, newbies learn the craft by talking with old hands. So Sveum spent time on the phone with Tommy Sandt, a former Pirates roommate. "That's how you learn most things in baseball - you just chat," says Sandt, now retired and living in Portland, Oregon.
Sandt gave Sveum pointers on the art of coaching the hot corner. His first tip was: Position yourself as far down the base line toward home as you can. That gives the coach more ability to see a play develop and still have time to send a runner back to third. While it's crucial to anticipate a play and consider all the variables -- the score of the game, the inning, the number of outs, the speed of the runner, the strength and accuracy of the outfielder making the throw, and who's on deck -- Sandt says it's a mistake to program decisions ahead of time. "You get in trouble when you say . . . 'I'm going to send him no matter what," Sandt says. "Something happens, the guy comes up with a good throw, or your guy doesn't get a good jump." Sandt's mantra is simple: "Just come down the line, let the play happen, and don't be afraid to get a guy thrown out."
Sveum loved his time as a minor-league manager. He enjoyed mentoring the Double A players, and he liked coaching on the field instead of from the bench. "Coaching third base is probably one of the only highs you can get that's close to playing," he says. "You're making decisions that change the outcome of the game, just like your performance [as a player] changes the outcome of the game. Your adrenaline doesn't get to where it is with the bases loaded, the game on the line, and you're at the plate. . . . But it's the next best thing."
Sandt admired Sveum's performance in Altoona. "I think he's going to be a big-league manager," Sandt says. "I think he has the knowledge, the passion, and people like him."
One of those people is Terry Francona, who had played alongside Sveum in Milwaukee. So at 6:30 one morning in January 2004, six weeks after Francona became manager of the Red Sox, the Sveum family was awakened by a phone call.
"Hey, Nuts, you want to be my third-base coach?" Francona said, using one of Sveum's nicknames.
"Who the [expletive] is this?"
"It's Tito, man. I need a third-base coach."
Francona and Sveum met a few days later to talk it over. Then Sveum had two telephone interviews with Sox general manager Theo Epstein. On February 4, 2004, the Red Sox announced his appointment. Although Sveum declined to discuss his salary, he says the average Major League third-base coach makes about $100,000 per season.
In the off-season, Sveum lives with his family -- wife Darlene, daughter Britanne, 15, and son Rustin, 11 -- in a subdivision beneath Arizona's picturesque Saddleback Mountain. The house's backyard, covered with artificial turf, contains a putting green and an in-ground trampoline. Inside, the ceilings are high and the rooms are comfortably furnished. One wall is decorated with photos and newspaper clips of great moments in baseball. The wall also displays the home's most treasonous item of decor: a framed, autographed photo of Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter.
In the family room, Sveum slips in a DVD of the Red Sox championship season. "I could watch these forever," he says. He fast-forwards to the year's biggest play, pinch-runner Dave Roberts stealing second base in the ninth inning of the fourth game of the playoff series with the Yankees. As Roberts slid safely that evening, Sox fans rejoiced -- and Sveum had a distressing flashback. In August, Sveum had faced a nearly identical situation against Tampa Bay: Roberts on second base with nobody out in the ninth. On a hit to short center, Sveum waved the speedy Roberts to the plate. He was out by a wide margin -- the first of the six runners mowed down over the next 10 games. Two months later, with Roberts on second against the Yankees, Sveum braced himself. "It went through my mind, `Here we are in the biggest game with the same situation,'" he says, anticipating that he'd send Roberts around third on a hit. " 'If you're out, I lose my job tomorrow.'"
Over several hours of conversation about how he makes these decisions, Sveum cites some factors you'd expect -- and a few that may surprise you. Like all Major League coaches, he studies scouting reports, watches videotape, and knows which outfielders are capable of making a fast, accurate throw to the plate. In addition to a base runner's speed or an outfielder's arm, Sveum often talks about pitching. "You don't want to waste your closer," he says, explaining why he'll take risks with the Sox leading late in a game, since adding to their lead may keep the relief pitcher off the mound, allowing him an extra day's rest. He also talks frequently about the strength of the opposing pitcher. With a player like Mariano Rivera on the mound, Sveum is inclined to send runners home. "He could strike out the next three guys," he says. And even against a team with he chalks it up as a reasonable bet that's gone bad.
The Roberts play against Tampa Bay hadn't been that close, so Sveum consulted videotape to strong-armed outfielders, Sveum says it's his job to be aggressive by sometimes betting against a perfect throw. If it happens and the runner is out in a bang-bang play, investigate his miscalculation. On the field, Sveum had seen the hit as a high line drive, one that he was sure offered the shortstop no chance at fielding it, a play in which he assumed Roberts would be running instantly. On the tape, however, Sveum saw that Roberts had paused to make sure the ball cleared the infield. "With no outs, he's being a little safer," says Sveum. But Sveum had been following the ball and missed seeing Roberts hesitate. "That's why I made the blunder," Sveum says. While he knew Tampa Bay center fielder Rocco Baldelli has a great arm, Baldelli's last five throws to the plate had been wild, so he discounted the chance of a perfect throw. He bet wrong. Roberts "was out by a margin you don't want," Sveum recalls.
When that happens, Sveum doesn't say a word when he returns to the bench. And when it happens several times in a row - as it did last August - he tries not to get gun-shy. He understands why fans booed him last summer: As a longtime Oakland Raiders fan, he boos at football coaches' bad calls. "That's just part of sports - something that makes it all interesting," he says.
One morning, Curt Schilling brought a recording of WEEI's Big Show to the clubhouse. In a skit, an announcer says that Sveum worked as an air-traffic controller before joining the Red Sox. A phony pilot's voice says: "This is 5525, coming in from Florida, requesting permission to land." And a Sveum impostor replies: "Uhh, I guess so ... Come on in, 5525! We've got a couple of planes on the tarmac, but I think you could squeeze in." Crash sounds follow.
"You have to laugh at it," Sveum says. "But you're still critiquing yourself, [thinking] could I have done something different there?" While fans and the press called for his head, the players were supportive, he says.
Like all coaches, Sveum insists that if he never had anyone thrown out, he wouldn't be taking enough risks. Players would resent him for limiting their RBIs, and the team would lose games. "People need to remember that getting a base hit with two outs is the single hardest thing to do in sports," he says.
He pushes the DVD remote and lets the pivotal play - Roberts going on to score in Game 4 against the Yankees - unfold. On the screen it's an uncontested play, a single to center fielder Bernie Williams, who's known for his weak arm. In real time, however, Sveum felt enormous pressure: "I'm thinking, OK, if it's hit to center field, I'm going to push the envelope." A ball hit to Fenway's short left field or to the Yankees' strong right fielder, Gary Sheffield, and he might hold Roberts. But when Bill Mueller hit it up the middle to Williams, Sveum didn't hesitate. "You've gotta make Bernie make a play here, that's all I'm thinking. Obviously, it turned out all right, but as you're doing it, you know your job is basically on the line with this decision. You don't worry about what happened in the past or what fans are thinking about you or being booed. You're thinking about what's the best interest and the odds of the situation at hand."
Roberts's run began the rally, and David Ortiz's walk-off homer sealed the victory in the 14th inning. Sveum's only role on that final play was to catch Ortiz's helmet as the slugger jogged toward home and jumped into a pile of teammates. Another unwritten rule of third-base coaches: Stay clear of on-field celebrations. "Those are for the players," he says.
Are Dale Sveum's decisions really any better or worse than those of other third-base coaches, and can he improve? While fans offer opinions on the first point, there's no way to know for sure - statisticians don't track the percentage of a team's base runners thrown out. "It's an oversight," says Bill James, baseball's statistical guru whom the Sox hired to crunch numbers for them. While many observers believe a base coach's skills are instinctual, some say obsessive preparation delivers an edge. Rich coach now with the Milwaukee Brewers, stands before a mirror each evening to practice giving signs. Before away games, he bounces baseballs off outfield walls to judge the ricochet. Donnelly says a former player with Sveum's intelligence and athleticism can learn to perform the job well. "Just let your natural reactions take over - you're a good athlete, and you should be able to do this," Donnelly advises. "You can't get snakebit and be afraid."
Science might also suggest ways to improve. Gary Klein of Fairborn, Ohio, is a cognitive psychologist who studies what goes on inside the heads of quick thinkers like firefighters, nurses, and airline pilots. Klein has found they use pattern recognition, in which they attempt to recognize how a current event resembles a past incident, and make decisions based on that experience. He believes a base coach could be systematically trained to improve. "What you have to do is develop opportunities for people Donnelly, a veteran third-base to get more repetitions, to reflect and to learn and make better mental models so they have better patterns to use in the future," he says. "I think you could develop videotape training" for base coaches, like the flight simulators used to train pilots.
The success of a third-base coach also hinges on the base-running skills of the players he's coaching. Sedum says the Red Sox have strong base runners, particularly Johnny Damon and Mark Bellhorn. But in general, he gripes about how today's minor-leaguers aren't as well schooled in these fundamentals as they used to be. "It's not taught correctly at the younger levels," he says, setting up flip-flops as bases on the family room floor and demonstrating how players often hit the bag with the wrong foot (the left) or take too wide a turn.
There's one more thing that will make a base coach's life easier: a sense of perspective. On an end table nearby sits Sveum's laptop, which he uses to exchange e-mail with an acquaintance in Iraq. Recently, the soldier described seeing a car speed toward guards at a security checkpoint. "They decided to open fire and blew the guy away," Sveum says. "Sure enough, there was a bomb in the car. Either you're shooting an innocent guy or you're saving a lot of lives by making a gut decision. Obviously, it was the right one."
Sveum will make a lot of quick decisions in the months ahead. Some will be right. For the others, it's worth remembering that the world does not revolve around whether a base runner is safe at the plate. Even if, during the dog days of August, it sometimes feels that way.
Daniel McGinn is a national correspondent for Newsweek, based in Boston. E-mail him at email@example.com.