Brad Ausmus, 44, is introduced as new Tigers manager during a press conference Sunday. (Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News)
Scour the big leagues, from dugouts to front offices, and you might find two men in all of baseball as opposite from each other as Jim Leyland and Brad Ausmus.
On second thought, no, you wouldn’t.
Fans who wanted a new face, new administration, and new managerial style, may have gotten their guy in a 44-year-old ex-catcher, heavy on IQ, and familiar with Detroit’s baseball culture from two trying stints here during the Randy Smith front-office era.
Dave Dombrowski has just made 2014 the most interesting baseball year since Leyland arrived in 2005 to supervise a Tigers makeover.
Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office chief, gave the nod to a man with no experience managing in the minor leagues or big leagues. It’s a calculated risk, given the labyrinth of issues and challenges a skipper faces, but Ausmus is serious and compelling and clearly sold Dombrowski during last week’s interview.
The candidate who has lost is Lloyd McClendon. And it is cruel to see McClendon denied a chance to run a team for which he has worked so rigorously since he arrived in tandem with Leyland.
Dombrowski, though, had a problem that could well have become McClendon’s headache. Most fans, it seemed, wanted a break from the Leyland administration. They were ready for a new personality in the manager’s office and new people on the skipper’s staff.
Same as old boss
They have great ardor for the Tigers and for winning seasons that have steadily become the norm in Detroit. But there was a natural level of customer fatigue after so many years of the same cast. McClendon, if he had gotten the Tigers job, would have managed minus a honeymoon season normally reserved for first-year managers. He would have been cut little slack from fans who want a new regime.
Dombrowski understood it entirely. In bringing on Ausmus, who has been working in San Diego as a front-office assistant with the Padres, Dombrowski will opt for a man a generation younger than Leyland.
Ausmus is a Dartmouth guy who will talk and act differently from the brass-tacks, blue-collar Ohio gent who preceded him. He will delve into numbers and psychological realms that were not part of Leyland’s world.
He will also be asked to win a fourth consecutive division title in his inaugural year as a manager. And in that mission, with all its reliance on players and health and performances that are beyond a skipper’s control, Ausmus will be judged.
Dombrowski had indicated he preferred hiring an experienced manager, which is not the case with Ausmus. He had gone with a greenhorn before, when he hired Alan Trammell ahead of the 2003 season, and Dombrowski watched as a rookie manager was all but overwhelmed by a historically bad roster and team.
Ausmus inherits a squad infinitely better than those bedraggled groups. And because of this team’s maturity and clubhouse ethic, he no doubt believed he could afford to go with a manager light on experience but heavy in his knowledge of the game’s intricacies.
Like Leyland, Ausmus was a catcher. Catchers have a comprehensive knowledge of baseball — of how pitchers work, of how hitters think and perform, and how infields must be arranged, defensively.
Add to that curriculum an intellect Dombrowski is happy to deploy on his team’s behalf and you have a fairly remarkable choice as Detroit’s new manager. To appreciate just how much stands to change in these coming days and months, ponder some past names: Leyland, Sparky Anderson, Ralph Houk, Billy Martin.
Ausmus represents a new era, not only in terms of time line, but in the persona he will carry into Comerica Park compared with some hard-boiled Tigers predecessors.
He is also Jewish, which will stoke a sense of kinship between Ausmus and the Tigers’ deep Jewish audience. In that context, there has been something of a void in the Tigers’ profile dating to the end of Hank Greenberg’s hallowed years in Detroit.
It would be an assertive move, Dombrowski’s choice to freshen Motown’s baseball scene with a fascinating rookie manager.
Fans, though, were ready for some novel thinking as Dombrowski weighed his candidates.
It seems they got their guy in Ausmus, who will be safe from Detroit’s second-guessers until, oh, Opening Day.