Don’t call it a comeback, call it a homecoming.
Brad Ausmus returning to manage the Detroit Tigers represents a return home. Even though Ausmus didn’t play in Detroit longer than five years during his tenure at catcher, he was the man who stood last in a commemorative flag line during Tiger Stadium’s closing in 1999, and who stood first to receive the same flag at Comerica Park in 2000. Ausmus caught the last win in the old stadium and the first win in the new stadium, bridging the gap between everything old and new for Tiger baseball. For that, he always remained remembered and appreciated in a city where he only spent 2 1/2 unremarkable seasons.
Given that history, it seems fitting that Ausmus would also be the one leading the Tigers as they try to take another big next step organizationally, from hardened contender to World Series champion. Ausmus will be chalk full of fresh ideas, inspiration and excitement as he prepares to manage the Tigers. Given age (44) and contract length (three years with an option for a fourth), Detroit is clearly banking on him as much for a bright future as they are for a quality present.
But what about that most important near future? How will Ausmus, short on solid managerial experience in any league, bridge the gap in a veteran major league clubhouse and fit in seamlessly occupying the shoes of Jim Leyland, a veteran skipper who knew how to command respect from clubhouse personalities as well as deal with a lineup, bullpen and starting staff?
The second part of that question shouln’t be much of a probem. Ausmus has long been known as one of the brightest players in the game and a tactician, and as a former catcher, he knows the lay of a baseball diamond and clearly has an appreciation for the game’s inner-workings. Pair him with an experienced bench coach like Gene Lamont and the managerial rough edges should be smoothed over during games. Joe Torre even let Ausmus manage a game when he was a player and the pair were with the Los Angeles Dodgers, so knocking his managerial acumen immediatly might be farfetched.
Personality-wise, though, the calm, cerebral Ausmus does have his hands full in year one with Detroit’s expectations and loaded roster. Miguel Cabrera seems to have matured and doesn’t pose much of a problem, but he’s an All-Star talent who may need special attention during a long year. Prince Fielder, meanwhile, will be entering his most tumultuous season in Detroit. Fresh off a disappointing playoff season which saw him draw ire and blame from plenty of fans for multiple mistakes, someone needs to reach Fielder in a big way, bridging the gap between the game and off the field issues.
Based on his comments Sunday, Ausmus seems to think he’s got what it takes because he stuck in the league for a while. “I think something I bring that a veteran manger wouldn’t bring is, I was just playing in the game three years ago,” Ausmus said during his introductory press conference. “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 intermingling with 20 year-old Clayton Kershaw and 35 year-old Manny Ramirez, so I have a pretty good feel, I think, of the what modern day player’s makeup and mindset is.”
The fact that Ausmus played alongside Ramirez, one of the wackiest players in baseball, doesn’t necessarily qualify him for the challenge of managing Fielder, a quiet and moody competitor who’s known more for being a streaky hitter than urinating in the Green Monster. Perhaps the fact that Ausmus is a quiet, calm man himself might resonate with Fielder and inspire him. Maybe Ausmus will take a new approach to dealing with Fielder and his high-dollar Detroit talent from the Laissez-fair approach Leyland brought. Either way, something has to be done to repair the relationship, as Fielder likely isn’t going anywhere this offseason.
How happy Ausmus keeps the stars of Detroit’s clubhouse will say as much about the Tigers chances in 2014 as his stance on letting starters pitch deep into games or his thoughts on use of relievers. Sunday, Ausmus was right about the game changing. With sabermetrics and contracts beginning to get more bloated by the day, players and managers each have new demands and different pressures old time leaders like Leyland and Charlie Manuel could only pretend to comprehend. Given he played during the most recent decade, Ausmus himself should grasp both of those concepts quite easily, which could help make him a quick clubhouse hit like Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura have been.
“I understand I’m very fortunate, that being said, I’m not taking anything for granted, no details will be glossed over and I’m not assuming anything going into the job,” Ausmus said regarding his opportunity in Detroit. That’s a good start for the man being counted on to deliver a fresher approach as much as victories.
Fortunately, after helping open and close the only two baseball stadiums the city has ever known with victories, Ausmus already knows a thing or two about winning big games in Detroit. How he handles the personalities, though, will determine if the Tigers manage to win the biggest games.
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax