Once, when his job was supposedly on the line, Brad Ausmus surprised his family by coming home on an off day. He walked through the door and his youngest daughter looked up.
“Well, I guess Dad got fired,” she said.
Ausmus laughed. No, he told her, he hadn’t gotten fired.
“And then,” he says, “she went back to watching Netflix.”
You’re not going to rattle this manager. He takes things in stride. You can talk, complain, call radio shows, write comments. Brad Ausmus gets it. But it doesn’t get him.
The Tigers are underperforming? He won’t deny it. They let winnable games slip away? He knows it. The payroll is enormous, the results are not? He sees numbers like you do.
But Ausmus, 48, has the patience of a pope. Born that way or made that way, he does. He believes in the six-month baseball season. He believes in “water finding its level.” He believes a player who has been an All-Star for years has that All-Star inside him a year later, even if, by early July, you’re still waiting for its appearance.
The narrator of “Bull Durham” says in that film, “It’s a long season, and you gotta trust it.”
Brad Ausmus, the Dartmouth grad, says, “In a game where patience is demanded, I think there’s tremendous impatience surrounding it.”
His job is to balance the difference.
‘It’s a six-month season’
Early Wednesday afternoon, before most of the players came in, Ausmus spoke, patiently, in his office at Comerica Park — about the game, the team, the scrutiny of “the stopwatch” that now holds baseball hostage.
And how the manager is the first in the crosshairs of that clock.
He knows fans are wondering if the Tigers will bail out on the season, get rid of expensive players — and possibly him.
“It’s the nature of the game. I’ve been on the hot seat since May of my first year, which amazes me, because I’d only been here a month and a half and there were already people who wanted me fired. And we were in first place at the time.”
He grins. Didn’t shake him then. Doesn’t shake him now. No, he’s not a grizzled skipper who has been fired many times. But he is a student of the game. He remembers when it changed from wintertime evaluations to midsummer “buyers and sellers.”
“You go back to 1993, when the San Diego Padres were the first ‘fire-sale’ team, openly unloading salaries at the trading deadline to try and get younger and restart. I remember a lot of people being upset, saying, ‘Hey, you can’t just dump salaries.’ Now it happens all the time.”
Wait, I say, San Diego? Weren’t you there then?
“I was actually one of the young guys they brought in.”
So you were the cheap part of the equation?
Fans should remember that. Ausmus lived this moment before. They should also remember that he waited to finish college before devoting himself fully to baseball. That he did 51/2 years in the minors before his call-up. That he was drafted in the 48th round, which means he waited while more than 1,000 men were drafted ahead of him. That he caught one of the longest playoff games in baseball history.
He’s the tortoise, not the hare. And he has seen good come out of it. Ausmus was part of a 2004 Houston Astros team that was four games under .500 in mid-August. “For some reason,” he recalls, “they decided not to sell (the players) off.”
They won 36 of their next 46, and went to the NLCS. That left an impression. So did the following year, when his same team started 15-30 — and went to the World Series.
“We were 15 games under .500. That’s abysmal. Talk about getting ready to sell? But we end up going to the Series?
“Those two years, more than any, taught me that it’s a six-month season and you need to be patient. We had good players. We should have been a good team.
“And that’s pretty much how I’ve managed ever since I’ve been here.”
Results (always) matter
OK, here. Detroit. Let’s look at that. Ausmus’ first season, the Tigers finished 90-72, squeaking out first place on the last day of the season. They went to the playoffs and, despite starting Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and David Price, were swept by Baltimore in three games, thanks mostly to bullpen collapses (Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria) and a Game 3 power outage (they didn’t score a run until the bottom of the ninth, losing 2-1).
The following year, with Scherzer gone to free agency, an injury-plagued Tigers team shipped off David Price and Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline, despite being only a few games under .500, then fired GM Dave Dombrowski four days later.
“I remember Toronto, at the time, had a pretty similar record,” Ausmus says. “We trade those pieces away, we struggle. Toronto gets David Price from us and goes to the playoffs (the ALCS.) The trades were good, but part of me thinks if we just stayed pat, let the six months play out, we would have definitely had a shot.”
Instead the Tigers finished last.
To that point, it’s hard to see Ausmus as the culprit. Making the playoffs as a rookie manager, no matter what happens, is a positive. His second season was more about injuries and roster shake-ups.
Which brings us to last year. With the biggest roster change being the acquisition of Jordan Zimmermann (who started hot then was injured much of the way) and Francisco Rodriguez (who saved 44 games as a closer) the Tigers stayed in the hunt for a postseason berth until the last day of the season, when they lost 1-0 to Atlanta.
Now, fans can argue forever over what might have been. Had the manager done this or that, another game might have been won, and that game might have made a difference. But that’s discounting whatever moves the manager did make that helped win a game that could have gone the other way.
In the end, you only have results. So the results, for Ausmus, after three years, were this: a first-place finish, a second-place finish, a last-place finish, one playoff round, no playoff wins.
Stellar? No. Awful? No. Extenuating circumstances? Sometimes. Rosters that should have done better? You can argue that.
But when is that the players’ fault versus the manager’s?
Placing blame: Players or manager?
Ausmus doesn’t wander down that rabbit hole. He knows there’s a mirror at the bottom.
“They will get rid of the manager much faster than they’ll get rid of a player,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Especially a highly paid player.”
But remember, again, that Ausmus played longer than anyone on the Tigers current roster. Eighteen years. By his count, he toiled for “nine or 10” different managers. He remembers noticing that younger skippers often “wanted to put their imprint on the game — call a play, a hit and run. When I was hired, I was aware of that. I was tempted to do that (stuff) but I didn’t feel a need to put my thumbprint on every game.
“For the most part, if the pitchers pitch and the hitters hit, we’re gonna win.”
He remembers what Jim Leyland, whom he succeeded, told him about the job. “You’re either the victim or the beneficiary of your players’ performance.”
Ausmus is very pragmatic that way. He also knows his job’s influence — and its lack thereof.
“When a guy’s in the batter’s box, he’s not thinking about the manager. When a pitcher’s on the mound, he’s not thinking about a manger.
“I’ve been on teams where they fired the manager in the middle of the season, and it didn’t change a ton.”
Again, he harkens back to that defining Houston season in 2004. The Astros, underperforming by fans expectations — as the Tigers are today — fired manager Jimy Williams. He was replaced with Phil Garner.
The Astros, at the time, were a .500 team.
A month later, under Garner, they were four games under .500.
“And then,” Ausmus recalls, “we just started playing better. That’s it. It wasn’t the manager. We just started playing better.”
That team — like the Tigers, rife with talent (Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, to name two) — found its level, went to the NLCS, and the following year — after a 15-30 start —went to the World Series.
Manager? Players? Or just patience?
‘Things have got to turn around fast’
Ausmus, who still cuts a player’s figure sitting behind a desk — he maintains the triceps of a catcher who just hit the weights — has some graying hairs to show for his years in the game. Or perhaps they’re due to the volatility of this year’s Tigers. A $200-million payroll should be yielding better results than a 38-46 record.
But break it down player by player, and Ausmus returns to a familiar theme: the season is six months.
“People ask all the time, ‘How many games does it take to evaluate a team?’ My answer is always the same. It takes 162, because you just don’t know. When you put teams together — especially when you’ve got veteran guys — you’re basing it on their track records, and their track records are for six-month seasons.
“Look at Justin Upton. He had a terrible four months (in 2016) but he ends up with as many home runs as he hit in any season. Water finds its level. Usually. Not always — but usually.”
So he believes Miguel Cabrera’s numbers “are going to come back.” And Justin Verlander, whose ERA is sky high and whose last performance was one of the quickest exits of his career, “still has a fastball velocity that’s higher than it’s been since 2011. You just feel something’s gonna click.”
And if it doesn’t, what exactly does the manager do about it? Sit Verlander? Bench Cabrera? For whom? For what?
True, there comes a time when too much is too much. The demotion and ultimate release of K-Rod is an example. Does Ausmus think he stayed with the reliever too long?
“Well, again, he was a veteran guy who closed 44 games for us last year, you know?
“What’s funny is, I don’t usually think one game changes a ton. But we had a game in Tampa. He got into a jam. Bases loaded. One out. He gets a ground ball to (Ian) Kinsler, looks like an easy double play to end the game. He gets the save. We get the win, right?
“Instead, (Jose) Iglesias comes across the bag, trips and falls, ends up throwing the ball away. They score two runs, end up wining with a walk off. For some reason, if that double play gets turned, it maybe ends up turning his whole season. I can’t say with any certainty, but I just think it would have been different.”
But it wasn’t. This is the season Rodriguez had — and he’s gone. This is the season the Tigers are having — and Ausmus is still here.
He knows the rumors. He’s not deaf. But he doesn’t read or listen to critical media, and he knows this is ultimately about Al Avila, the GM, who controls the fate of both the players and the manager.
“Al hasn’t really said anything like that,” Ausmus says, when asked if his job security was on the line if the Tigers don’t improve, “but it’s pretty obvious that things have got to turn around fast, or Al’s gonna be forced to make decisions that he doesn’t want to make. He wants this team to win. But again, that’s the nature of this business.”
I ask if he’s prepared for a call that would say the Tigers were making a switch. He takes it in stride. “My contract is up at the end of the year anyhow. It doesn’t change the way I manage. I manage every game to win.”
He shrugs. You’re not going to rattle him. You’re not going to make him shake. He’s seen too much, waited too long, been too patient up to this point.
And like most smart men, and Ausmus is extremely smart, he’s done his preparation. In 2013, when he first got the job, he pulled his two daughters together and said, “Listen, if things go bad and the team doesn’t play well, there’s gonna be a lot of bad things said about me. That’s just how it works.”
What he discovered, he says, “is that this generation is a little more immune to that kind of stuff. They grew up with it.”
Kids change. Games change. Maybe slow and steady doesn’t win the day anymore. But this is the manager the Tigers hired, logical, direct and generally unflappable. Born this way or made this way, Brad Ausmus is a patient man who’ll be patient with the game. We’ll see how patient it will be with him.