Brad Ausmus got up Saturday and went to work, knowing his job was gone in a few weeks. In this way, he was more like a Detroiter than he’d ever been. How many auto workers have done the same with an imminent plant closing? Or teachers with a school closing?
“I actually told Al I’d like to do it,” Ausmus said via phone early Saturday afternoon. “If he had told me to go away, I would have, but I like to finish what we started. I’m still under contract and I want to do my job.”
That’s one thing to admire about the departing Ausmus. Here’s another: He had already decided he wouldn’t come back as manager next year, even if asked. Not because he didn’t like working or earning money, and not because the team was going to be missing its former stars and loaded with inexperience.
“Believe it or not, I think I’d do well with a young team,” he said. “Helping them grow and teaching them? That would be a strong suit.”
Then why not stay?
“I just think the fans would connect me with a downward trend. Like a dark cloud. (Jim) Leyland was here and they won, I came in, and they didn’t win. They’re gonna connect me with that downward trend when the organization is trying to go in a new direction.”
It’s just time to have someone else, more for fresh start than managerial reasons. I knew Al wanted to have a fresh face. Objectively, I had to agree with that.”
‘Dangling for three years’
Having now covered eight Tigers managers, I thought Ausmus, 44, was fine. He was young, but they hired him for that. He was intellectual, but they hired him for that. Maybe some fans would have felt more comfortable with a fat belly and grey hair and a bunch of other teams on his résumé, but there are lots of ways to manage a baseball team, and the best way is when you have talent. When Ausmus had a lot of it, the Tigers won a lot of games. This year, when the Tigers began shedding it, they lost a lot of games.
In between, talent ruled the wind. When the bullpen was abysmal, the Tigers blew games in the late innings. When they weren’t built for speed, they lost games that required it. Sure, you can go back and rehash particular games and say Ausmus made the wrong decision. Ausmus does that himself. “And that’s probably true of every manager you’ll ever meet,” he admitted.
But Ausmus, who had an overall winning record until midway through this season, didn’t let Max Scherzer get away, he didn’t deal David Price, he didn’t decide J.D. Martinez would be too expensive, he didn’t give an aging Victor Martinez a long, rich deal. He also didn’t throw hanging pitches or swing the ill-advised bat. A manager isn’t calling plays. He can only do so much. Maybe that’s why nearly all baseball managers earn less than the average player’s salary. This isn’t college basketball. It’s not the coach’s program. It’s more oversight, culture, encouragement and roster manipulation.
Ausmus endured some bad luck in his four years at the Detroit helm, and yes, he was guilty of sticking with veterans too long (Francisco Rodriguez as a reliever, Victor Martinez in the cleanup spot, etc.) and in the end, things didn’t work, not well enough to keep him going.
But ever since the Tigers’ blown postseason in 2014 — a first-round sweep by the Orioles, despite a roster that contained Justin Verlander, Price, Scherzer and Rick Porcello, all of whom now have a Cy Young award — Ausmus has had a permanent hot seat. He handled it professionally. Never had an outburst. Never lost it with the media. When Avila officially dismissed him on Wednesday, Ausmus was prepared.
“I’ve kind of been dangling for three years in a row, “ he said. “It seemed like I was always on the edge of being fired or not knowing what my future is. I’ve become pretty adept at handling that.”
And he has handled it admirably, posing for the team picture on Friday, despite already knowing his fate, meeting patiently with the media after it was announced, answering questions, thanking Avila and the Ilitch’s for the opportunity, then going back to the dugout to do his job.
Wasn’t that hard, I asked him?
“I’ve got pretty thick skin,” he said.
What’s next? Front office, perhaps
The Tigers now can openly search for a manager. They get an early jump on other teams and will have full access to anyone good who might, for whatever reason, break loose from a franchise once the season ends.
It will have to be someone who believes in the long term. The short term is hardly attractive to a veteran manager. There will be losses and misfires and rookie mistakes and more losses. Not to mention the unknown factor of Miguel Cabrera, who last year began receiving payments from the fat, eight-year extension he signed in 2014. Cabrera’s skills may be starting to dwindle along with his interest in laboring every day for a team that has little chance of success.
Detroit is a great town. The Tigers are a great franchise. But the team is not in great shape. And managers like to win as much as the fans.
Meanwhile, Ausmus drives the bus for one more week. “It’s not weird,” he said, when asked. “It’s business as usual. I’m pretty steady. I’m not going to change the way I do the job.”
He said he would like to manage again, he enjoyed doing it, but he’s smart enough to know there are only 30 jobs at this level. He said he wouldn’t want to be a coach right now, but he might be open to a front-office position somewhere.
Whatever and wherever, I think ultimately he will be successful. There’s nothing wrong with being smart, although the number of times people cited his Dartmouth education (and there, I just did it, too) seemed to feel like it was some sort of impediment to true baseball success.
Nonsense. Sometimes it’s a good situation, sometimes it isn’t. Terry Francona, now hailed as Cleveland’s skipper, started his managing with four losing seasons in Philadelphia, the last of which had 97 defeats. Bruce Bochy, beloved for three World Series in five years with the Giants, spent his first 12 years in San Diego and saw the playoffs just four times.
So don’t tell me Ausmus can’t be successful in the future. For now, he steers this wounded ship until it hits the October shore.
“The highlight?” he said, when I asked him to name one. “Oh, clinching the division in 2014. That was by far the biggest highlight. Dumping champagne on each other in the clubhouse is always the best part.”
Hopefully for him, and the franchise he is leaving, it will happen again soon. They both deserve it. Class, dismissed.