May 15, 2005


He's Safe...for Now (Daniel McGinn, May 15, 2005, Boston Globe Magazine)

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.

The thing is, New England is so Sox obsessed that you can't really sort out whether he's terrible or whether we just notice his mistakes more. There can't be too many other places in America where they even know who their third-base coach is, nevermind where the nice old ladies at the library circulation desk growl out: "That idiot Sveum..."

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 15, 2005 11:04 AM

Do the Sox have even one player who can score from 2nd on a basehit with less than two out?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 15, 2005 11:17 AM

The Sox won it all last year, so who cares?

Posted by: Born in Beantown at May 15, 2005 11:48 AM

"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."

I could have sworn that MLB banned chewing tobacco years ago.

Posted by: Nicholas Stix at May 15, 2005 5:27 PM

Here in the Upper Left Washington, we've just gotten to see the Red Sox play the Mariners. If it'd been any other team, they (the Red Sox) would have gone 0-6 instead of escaping with 3-3. Come October, the self-pity and whining by Red Sox fans will resume, and last year will be forgotten.

(And expect to see T-shirts that say things like "From Uncursed to Worst in One Season.")

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 15, 2005 6:47 PM

No matter what Sveum has done, OJ, nothing compares to the Dale Berra/Bobby Meacham-Carlton Fisk play at home plate between the Yankees and the White Sox in 1985. I believe Steinbrenner axed his this base coach about 24 hours after that play.

Posted by: John at May 15, 2005 8:08 PM

Raoul Ortega:

Long before October.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at May 15, 2005 8:10 PM

And today Ichiro! showed what you are supposed to do when the 3rd base coach blows it. Unfortunately, the ump was watching the mitt and not the ball.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 15, 2005 8:11 PM