A Whole New Ball Game

by | Nov 4, 2013 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments


He kept hearing the name. Everywhere he went. BradAusmus.How about Brad Ausmus? Dave Dombrowski “had shaken Brad’s hand maybe twice in my life” but suddenly, by everyone’s suggestion, he was the can’t-miss candidate for manager of the Tigers. Intelligent. Sharp. Young. Great communicator. The smartest guy in the room, but he never acts like it. That’s the kind of stuff he kept hearing.

And after finally sitting down with the man, Dombrowski was saying it himself.

Get hip. The Tigers, after three straight American League Championship Series appearances, are decidedly out of the white-haired manager business. On the day we pushed the clocks back, they jammed theirs forward, putting their star-studded roster – and an early favorite to reach the 2014 World Series – in the hands of an eloquent, 44-year-old former catcher who used to play here, looks like he still could be playing here, and, oh – and this is just a minor point, I guess – has never managed anywhere before.

Except three games with the Israeli national team.

And for some reason, nobody is scared.

That’s how well Brad Ausmus comes across. He was here before – twice – as a Tigers catcher, and many of us remember him as a cerebral, talkative player. He was OK at the plate, but as he jokingly pointed out Sunday afternoon, “I don’t have to hit in this role.”

What he does have to do is win. Fast. With an expensive lineup containing Cy Young and MVP winners, and burning expectations of a championship, there is no learning curve in Detroit.

“I’m well aware that you don’t generally get dropped into a situation like I will be this coming season,” Ausmus said at a Comerica Park news conference, wearing a Tigers jersey with his name and No.7 on the back. “I understand I’m very fortunate. That being said, I’m not taking anything for granted, no details will be glossed over and I’m not assuming anything going into the job.”

As he spoke, Dombrowski fairly glowed. The Tigers’ president and general manager, Dombrowski had interviewed four men for the job, knew the other three better, and still chose this one – despite having told the media after Jim Leyland’s retirement that managerial experience was a high priority.

“It was probably not where I started,” Dombrowski admitted, beaming like a man who surprised himself by fitting into teenaged jeans, “but it’s where we ended. And I feel really good about that.”

Get hip.

A risky business

Let’s face it. This will either be a huge coup or a major miscalculation. Here is the upside to Ausmus. He was a catcher. He played a long time (18 seasons, seventh on the all-time games caught list). Catchers understand pitchers, rotations, bullpens, fatigue, all sorts of small details – “like when a guy is tired on a Sunday day game” as he said, fittingly, on a Sunday.

Ausmus is quick and a quick study, well-liked and well-spoken. Since retiring three years ago, he has been with the San Diego Padres as a special assistant to baseball operations. He spent time around the front office as well as observing minor league teams. He is personable, hungry, will be a good media interview. As Dombrowski kept saying, “We were taken aback with how impressive he is.”

Here is the downside. Ausmus is a complete mystery. In San Diego, he did not sit in the dugout. He never so much as called the bullpen to make a pitching change. He did no time as a minor league manager. And while the job is not as much X’s and O’s as its football or basketball counterparts, there is such a thing as handling big league managerial pressure, having a feel for managing game situations, and knowing when to address your players and how to do it.

“Are you what they’d call a ‘players coach?'” I asked him.

“If I were to put myself on some scale, I probably would slide towards being a players manager,” he said. “But the truth is, I’m going to have make hard decisions that involve some players’ careers and their livelihoods…. The one thing that’s very important to me is that I be honest with these guys…. If you don’t have that you can lose a clubhouse very quickly.”

I will say this about Ausmus. He is confident, smart, witty and determined. He was drafted by the Yankees in the 48th round in 1987, yet played longer than all of the more than 1,000 players who went ahead of him.

He is also the first baseball manager I can recall from Dartmouth. I have been to Dartmouth. It is a damn difficult school. Ausmus insisted on attending while simultaneously playing minor league ball for the Yankees. He graduated with a degree in government.

Oh. And his father was a professor of European history who wrote a book about Friedrich Nietzsche.

Which Ausmus has read.

So much for Sparky comparisons.

All in the Cards?

Or for that matter, Jim Leyland comparisons.

“I’m not Jim Leyland, I would never make an attempt to be Jim Leyland,” Ausmus said, humbly. “I’m going to be who I am….

“I was just playing the game three years ago. I’m not that far removed from the players. I have a pretty good understanding of how the locker room dynamic is. Three years ago (with the Dodgers) I was intermingling with a 20-year-old Clayton Kershaw and 35-year-old Manny Ramirez. So I have a pretty good feeling of the modern day player.”

And listening carefully to Dombrowski, you could tell this was what he wanted most. Dombrowski kept making references to the changing role of today’s manager, the need to keep up, how “communicating with the players and providing leadership (is a) very, very important part of the job, probably the most important.”

This is not the way it worked in the Jim Leyland or Sparky Anderson era. The thinking then was to play the right players, create the right atmosphere and let the guys do their jobs. Not a lot of schmoozing. Leadership comes from playing well. A couple of backslaps and get ready for tomorrow.

Not anymore, apparently. Ausmus spoke Sunday of knowing some of the Tigers from playing against them, particularly Prince Fielder. It would be interesting to see how Ausmus would have handled Fielder’s postseason slump, which Leyland addressed by sticking with him and not talking a lot about it. Maybe Ausmus has a heart-to-heart conversation? Maybe he benches him?

Who knows? There’s no track record to go on.

But take heart. There is precedent for this working. Mike Matheny, also a former catcher, had no managerial experience before taking over the Cardinals two years ago, and they were just in the World Series. Don Mattingly had never been the head man before taking over the Dodgers and leading them to the playoffs this season (although he did spend years as a hitting coach).

On the other hand, there is Alan Trammell. He also had never been a manager. Smart guy. Knew the game. Hometown hero.

Lasted three seasons with the Tigers.

Get hip. This is a bold move by Dombrowski, but you don’t win big without a few large gambles. Ausmus will have a veteran bench coach, Gene Lamont, by his side. And remember, he’s not being brought in to rebuild a franchise. The roster he has is pretty darn impressive.

“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel here,” Ausmus said.

On the other hand, in many ways, he just did.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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