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Ausmus' ability to relate makes him a smart fit

Former big league catcher a charming figure over 18-year playing career

The Detroit Tigers appear to be on the verge of making such a spectacularly smart hire with their new manager that it's hard to know where to start.

First, you'll read plenty about how smart Brad Ausmus is, how he studied at Dartmouth, etc. You'll read that he was a brilliant defensive catcher, that he did a tremendous job preparing his pitchers and convincing them to trust him.

In doing so, they were able to get into a rhythm of simply executing pitches and trusting their catcher. Roger Clemens raved about Ausmus. So did Andy Pettitte, Brad Lidge and others.

Some of it was Ausmus understanding the weaknesses of opposing hitters. Some of it was knowing that Ausmus was so physically gifted that they could throw their breaking pitches with full release, knowing he'd stop almost anything.

Because Ausmus was a catcher, he was required to see the entire game. He paid attention to hitters and how they were swinging and what they were attempting to do and what they'd been thrown in the past. He also knew defensive alignments and game situations and was able to think along with his manager.

As important as all those things are, they're not what is going to make Ausmus a very good Major League manager. That's going to come with something a lot more basic.

That's his people skills, personality, sense of humor and likability factor. He's off the charts on all those things. In short, to know Ausmus is to like him.

For instance, the Astros had just hired a new hitting coach at midseason one year, and he was gung-ho about the new gig.

"Brad, we've got early hitting tomorrow," he said.

"Why?" Ausmus replied. "Do you think I need it?"

At the time, Ausmus was hitting around .230, and that's another thing that'll help him in his new gig. For all his smarts and all his insight into people, he was a career .251 hitter.

"Offense has always been hard for me," he said. "Every single day of my career. It wears me down at times."

Ausmus will understand everything a struggling player is going through because he has been there, done that. He spent 18 seasons in the Major Leagues, and defense was always his calling card.

Here's one more story that reveals why the Tigers are going to like their new skipper. One night with the Padres, Ausmus and a reliever got into a disagreement over what pitch the guy should throw with the game on the line. Ausmus goes to the mound and says (paraphrasing here), "Throw this guy a fastball."

The reliever did. The hitter homered.

As the umpire tossed the reliever a new baseball, Ausmus took a couple of steps toward the mound, shrugged and said, "Oops."

Or something close to "Oops."

Even an infuriated reliever could not be mad at this guy, and that's why his players will love playing for Ausmus. He will demand that they do the basics. Play hard. Show up on time. Take care of details.

Ausmus will not care much about the trivial stuff, because all those years in the big leagues taught him why it was unimportant.

In this era of advanced analytics, front offices can provide managers with data to assist with lineups, pitching matchups and defensive alignments. Ausmus will be a sponge for this kind of thing because he has a curious mind. But the thing no front office can help him with is his relationship with players.

Fans focus on a manager's in-game strategy, but by far the largest challenge is to get players to play hard every single day and to believe that each decision the manager makes is in the best interest of the team.

Ausmus will have no agenda other than winning that game. He will have an open-door policy. He will make sure his players know him, his motives, etc.

There'll be legitimate questions about Ausmus' lack of managerial experience. Lack of experience? He has none. Every Tigers fan should have some doubt because there are things we just don't know about him.

Regardless of how respected he was in the clubhouse, no matter how brilliant he was at calling and running games, no matter how good he is at connecting with people, this is a completely new experience.

Plenty of really smart people have failed even though they were imminently qualified.

Until a guy actually has done it, there's no way of knowing how he'll juggle all the demands of the job. Managing in the Minor Leagues might answer a few questions, but it's not as valuable as you might think.

To manage at the highest level, to manage experienced players, players with big personalities, players making millions, requires an assortment of skills. Until a guy has chance to put those skills on display, there's no way of knowing if he'll succeed.

To step in for a guy who filled out 3,499 lineup cards is a tall order. Jim Leyland had seen and done everything. Accordingly, what he said and did had a certain amount of credibility. He left himself open to second-guessing, but he understood that was part of the game, too.

How will Ausmus react when his every move is dissected? He may think it's no big deal now, but wait until Detroit has lost six in a row and an idiot on a talk show comes after his use of the bullpen.

Plenty of men have been turned into angry, babbling puddles of emotion. Be forewarned, Brad. Just because Mike Matheny -- another former catcher with zero managerial experience -- has succeeded with the Cardinals doesn't mean Ausmus is going to succeed.

Again, fair question. The Tigers aren't offering a learn-on-the-job program for first-time managers. They're in win-now mode, and though plenty of managers would love to have the talent on their roster, that kind of job has its own peculiar pressures.

That's why Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski almost certainly was inclined to hire someone who'd managed before, at least at some level. Detroit has a clubhouse of strong personalities, and to throw a rookie in there is going to be interesting to watch.

If Ausmus had wanted to start his managerial career in a less pressurized environment, he would have taken the Astros' job last winter.

But once Dombrowski sat down with Ausmus, he was reminded how impressive he is in terms of knowledge of the game, his own personality and all the intangibles in between.

The Tigers must help Ausmus with the hiring of an experienced coaching staff. He and Dombrowski must maintain a close relationship in which each man listens to the other.

All those things are logical. Dombrowski is as respected as any general manager in the game, and he does not take a flyer like this one without being convinced Ausmus is special.

Almost no one who has played with Ausmus, covered him or gotten to know him over the years believes he'll be anything less than a smashing success. The Tigers have had so many good days the past few years, and this will be remembered as another one.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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