Brad Ausmus is the ultimate “players’ manager.” He’s 44 and actually played against some of those he’s now managing with the Detroit Tigers. He expects to have a rapport with his players that few major league managers have. Or want to have.
“I have a pretty good feel for the modern day player,” he says. “What the makeup is. What the mindset is.”
No sooner had he replaced the retiring Jim Leyland as manager than he began contacting veteran players on the Tigers. He flew from his home in San Diego to visit six of them. He understands the necessity of establishing strong bonds with the stars. This is where a winning culture and clubhouse chemistry begin.
The knock on Ausmus is that he has no managerial experience other than a stint with the Israeli national team. He has ideas, but does he know how to implement them?
Throughout his 18-year major league career – mostly with Detroit and Houston — he impressed with his upbeat spirit and professional focus. He was an All-Star catcher, so adept at throwing out base stealers (nailing 49 percent in ’98) that teammates called him “The Sheriff.”
During the twilight of his career, Ausmus at 39 was fading toward the Mendoza line, and Astros manager Phil Garner was asked why he was still in the lineup. “I have to keep playing him,” Garner said, and smiled. “Because if he starts managing, he’ll be better than me.”
To which Ausmus responded: “Yeah, but if he keeps playing me, he’s going to get fired anyway.”
Having known Ausmus when he played in Houston, I have no doubt he will energize a team that last year did almost nothing on the base paths. He will get along with the players and media; he will maintain a happy, unified clubhouse, which Leyland left him. “They’re all good guys,” Ausmus says. “If it goes bad, it’s my fault.”
I do wonder if he has enough of a hard edge.
When he saw a teammate loafing, Jeff Bagwell would chide him: “Hey, that’s not how we play ball here.” Likewise, Craig Biggio would spare no feelings to upbraid an Astro who wasn’t hustling. I never noticed Ausmus doing that. He led by example, but now he will have to be a vocal and intimidating motivator.
Ausmus’ knowledge of the game was never doubted. Nor his intelligence. He has a Dartmouth degree, after all.
But more than an Ivy Leaguer’s airs he has a surfer’s insouciance, which wears easily. He’s been surfing since his teen-aged years. “A good workout,” he says. “It’s cathartic.”
Well, perhaps “cathartic” reaches beyond most ballplayers’ vocabularies, but the point is that given a few seconds Ausmus can relate to just about anyone.
When he retired as a player, he worked for three years in the front office of the San Diego Padres. He made only good impressions. The Cubs and Red Sox considered him for managerial positions in 2013. Dave Dombrowski, who hired Ausmus in Detroit, said, “Every time Brad’s name came up, it was effusive with praise.”
In spring training in Lakeland, Fl., Ausmus begins managing the champions of the American League Central, a team that’s very good right now, but — young manager aside — is aging. Given that the farm system is ranked among the bottom few, his rookie year as manager may be the best shot he ever gets at a World Series.
He glows with the goodwill he earned as a player and fan favorite. He has a face that can be marketed — women shrieked when he arrived at the stadium and when he left.
But it won’t be long before someone or something disrupts his idyllic clubhouse. Some player will lose his self-discipline or put self over team. Tough love will be needed. Ausmus will have to be The Sheriff who maintains order. Or he will be run over by his players and then run out of town by the same legions of fans who cheer him now.