Tigers tab Ausmus as club's next skipper
Former big league catcher will be in first Major League managerial role
DETROIT -- The last time Brad Ausmus called Comerica Park his workplace, he was a catcher in the prime of his career, coming off an All-Star appearance, playing for a Tigers squad on its descent toward the bottom of the league. That was 2000, the year the ballpark opened.
As Ausmus sat at the podium in the Tiger Club on Sunday afternoon, looking at his face upon the scoreboard again, he saw a stadium that has hosted playoff games each of the last three years, a team with expectations for more next year, and a franchise with a recent tradition of winning. And there he was, in charge of the team.
It's an incredible position for a 44-year-old former catcher who hasn't managed or coached in the Major or Minor Leagues. But the more Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski talked to people in the game about Ausmus' potential as a manager, the more he came around to the idea.
It's a major shift for Ausmus' first shot as a Major League manager, just three years after the end of his playing career, but it took a major shift on Dombrowski's part to hire him.
"It really became quite clear for me, for us, that he would do an outstanding job for us," Dombrowski said at Ausmus' introductory news conference. "It was probably not where I started, but it's where we ended, and I feel very good about that."
So, too, did Ausmus, who signed a three-year contract with a club option for 2017. He has interviewed for other jobs, most recently the Cubs on Thursday in Chicago, so he was expected to get his first chance shortly. Ausmus gets it with a team that has most of the ingredients for a World Series run right now.
"This is a very exciting opportunity for me," Ausmus said. "I'm well aware that you don't generally get dropped into an situation like I will be this coming season with a team like the Detroit Tigers have. Very rarely is there a managerial change with a team that's coming off a postseason appearance."
The fact that Ausmus got it says a lot not only of the trend around baseball, but Dombrowski's unexpected willingness to go against the trend of his career. His legacy in Detroit, and whether it includes the World Series title owner Mike Ilitch badly wants in his lifetime, might well be riding on it.
After eight years of success tied to the working relationship between Dombrowski and longtime confidante Jim Leyland, Dombrowski now has his fortunes tied to a manager on the other end of the scale.
"You can't settle into, in today's world, what you've been doing year in and year out," Dombrowski said. "You have to at least keep an open mind to different types of situations. That's where it led us."
From the moment Leyland announced his retirement two weeks ago, the Tigers had been expected to look at a veteran manager, either as a short-term caretaker or a long-term answer to keep the window of title contention open as long as possible. Dombrowski himself mentioned the importance of managerial experience at some level during Leyland's retirement news conference.
One of the four candidates Dombrowski interviewed had Major League managerial experience. That was Lloyd McClendon, Leyland's longtime hitting coach and former Pirates skipper. Dodgers third-base coach Tim Wallach and Padres bench coach Rich Renteria both had Minor League managerial time on their resume.
Ausmus was the exception, though Dombrowski said they had also talked with ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin about potentially interviewing as well before he bowed out. Ausmus' experience as an 18-year Major League catcher, his communication skills and his mind for the game won Dombrowski over.
"Frankly, when we interviewed, we were taken aback at how impressive he was," Dombrowski said.
Hall of Famer manager Tony La Russa, who had consulted Dombrowski throughout the process, reinforced the belief after having dinner with Ausmus on Thursday in Chicago, right after Ausmus interviewed with the Cubs.
Others followed. Former Tigers closer and Ausmus teammate Todd Jones, Dombrowski said, told him Ausmus was always the smartest guy in the room, but never acted like it. Moises Alou, who won a World Series title with Dombrowski in Florida in 1997, praised Ausmus' ability to relate to players from all backgrounds.
"Anyone I talked to or our people talked to, any time Brad's name came up, they were effusive with praise," said Dombrowski. "They talked about his leadership capabilities, his ability as a player on the field as far as providing communication with all players.
"It always kept coming back that this guy was born to manage many years ago. ... Extremely intelligent and yet could communicate with everyone.
Ausmus spent 2 1/2 of his 18 playing seasons in Detroit, most recently in 1999-2000. The Tigers then traded him to Houston, where he spent the next eight seasons before finishing his playing career with the Dodgers in 2010.
"Great mind for the game," one American League official said, "and an ability to communicate in layman, Ph.D., management terms. ... Low-energy look, but a fierce competitor, humorous but tough, all lends to an ability to find everyone's button that needs to be pushed."
Former Tigers great Travis Fryman, who played with Ausmus during his first Tigers stop in 1996, described Ausmus as a "very bright guy.
"I've certainly heard his name the last couple of years in manager discussions. Certainly catching prepares you to a large extent. So I think Brad would do an excellent job for anybody interested in him.
"We seem to see a trend in baseball toward younger managers. A lot of it I think is your presence, how you impact people around you. A lot of the decision making today is a little more predictable with sabermetrics. ... Certainly, Brad is a very intelligent guy. He's a Dartmouth graduate. I think Brad would be a strong manager."
That's a trend the Tigers haven't necessarily been expected to follow with a team coming off a third consecutive AL Central title and a six-game battle in the AL Championship Series before falling to the eventual World Series champion Red Sox.
Ausmus doesn't have a year to adjust, nor does he get a year to win over the clubhouse. No matter how much he must learn on the job, he's in a win-now environment.
"This is a winning franchise," said Ausmus. "Year in and year out, they're competing. I think I should be held to that standard as well."
One factor that could help the transition would be a veteran coaching staff, such as what the Tigers had with Leyland. Gene Lamont, Leyland's close confidant and bench coach this past season, is close with Ausmus and will remain in his role under the new manager.
"He's the guy I would've had as my bench coach regardless," Ausmus said. "It just so happens he was already here. Hopefully that mitigates a little bit of the lack of experience."
It's the reverse relationship of what Lamont supposedly had planned when he was a contender for the Red Sox's managerial job two years ago. He would've groomed a young coach to follow him as manager, and Ausmus was the best candidate he knew.
While Lamont will mentor him from the bench, Ausmus believes his recent history as a player will give him strengths that an older manager might not have.
"I was just playing the game three years ago," he said. "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, I was mingling in the Dodgers' clubhouse with a 20-year-old Clayton Kershaw, a 35-year-old Manny Ramirez.
"So I have a pretty good feel, I think, of what the modern-day player, what the makeup is, what the mindset is."
Ausmus has an understanding of sabermetrics, but an equal understanding of statistical overload on a player. He knows the intricacies of handling a pitching staff, having been part of so many mound meetings, but also understands how simple communication can make a reliever's job easier.
What Ausmus doesn't have is an extensive resume after he hung up his catching gear. If this hire works, he could have the chance to put a World Series title on it very soon.
"I think he has a chance to be a very good big league manager for a long time," Dombrowski said, "and to help us win right now. We think through his knowledge of the overall game, his leadership capabilities, his ability to communicate and build a good staff around him, that he can help us do that."