November 4, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Expectations are high for Tigers manager Brad Ausmus

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Detroit — It seems risky, almost reckless, to turn over a championship-caliber team to a guy who has never managed a major-league game, or a minor-league game, or any game of real consequence. And then you hear Brad Ausmus speak, and hear others talk about him, and you understand the gamble.

There’s a new face to the Tigers, and it certainly isn’t the same as the old face. Dave Dombrowski had preferred someone with more experience to replace Jim Leyland, which made sense considering the Tigers are deep into win-it-all mode. So, how did they end up on a Sunday afternoon introducing a Dartmouth-educated former catcher who’s 44 and barely looks 34?

It’s fair to say, the market for available proven managers was weak. It’s fairer to say — to use a baseball term — Ausmus simply blew the Tigers away.

“I was taken aback by how impressive he was,” Dombrowski said. “In today’s world, you can’t settle into what you’ve been doing year in and year out. You have to at least keep an open mind into other types of situations, and that’s where it led us.”

It sounds strange, but the fact is, it’s no longer a strange path to a major-league manager’s job. The Tigers weren’t the only ones who coveted Ausmus, who interviewed with the Cubs in Chicago last Friday, then flew back to Detroit, met with Mike and Marian Ilitch at their home Saturday morning and later accepted the job.

No, Mike Ilitch isn’t dialing down expectations, not a bit. And Dombrowski said he wasn’t purposely altering the team’s direction with a youthful energy jolt. But a candidate with no track record isn’t a much bigger risk than a candidate with a mediocre track record, at least theoretically. It’s a theory Ausmus always knew he’d test, even while playing parts of three seasons with the Tigers during an 18-year major-league career.

He played as recently as 2010 with the Dodgers, and spent the past three seasons as a special assistant with the San Diego Padres. To ease the transition, Ausmus is retaining Tigers bench coach Gene Lamont, who worked with Leyland for years. Does that ease concerns about his experience level? Perhaps a little, but with a team of established stars, Ausmus will have to command respect on his own, and the Tigers believe he has the intellect and communication skills to do it.

“Something I bring that a veteran manager wouldn’t is, I was just playing three years ago,” Ausmus said. “I was intermingling in the Dodgers clubhouse with 20-year-old Clayton Kershaw and 35-year-old Manny Ramirez. I have a pretty good feel of the modern-day player’s mindset.”

Ausmus is stepping into an ideal situation and a difficult situation, if that’s possible. Ideal because with Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and others, he doesn’t have to change much. Difficult because he does need to change some things.

The Tigers haven’t won the World Series since 1984, and haven’t been overly adept in certain areas, such as navigating the base paths. As Dombrowski talked to former managers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, they kept referencing the new trend in baseball, to give bright young minds an earlier shot. The Cardinals did it with Mike Matheny, who’s only 43 and took them back to the World Series after La Russa retired.

The Washington Nationals, another expected contender, just hired relatively unproven Matt Williams. The Dodgers reached the playoffs with first-time manager Don Mattingly, and so did the Diamondbacks two years ago with a fiery guy named Kirk Gibson. What’s unusual about Ausmus is, he hasn’t directed a single game from a professional dugout, and his only experience was managing Team Israel for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

So there’s no sense denying the risk here.

“Sure, but anybody you hire has some risk attached to it,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t think the risk is as high as people would think. ... I think he’s a tremendous communicator, and that’s a very, very important part of the job, probably the most important.”

Not to make Ausmus nervous, but if there’s a learning curve, it can’t be much longer than, oh, the first week of the season. He’s been preparing for this his entire career, and even recognized the importance of learning Spanish to communicate with that growing segment of players.

He’ll have to do a whole lot of connecting quickly because his last season in Detroit was 2000, and he doesn’t really know anyone here. Dombrowski just got to know him, and the only player familiar with him is Prince Fielder, who was a first baseman with the Brewers when Ausmus played for the Astros.

“I played against him,” Ausmus said, “and because I reached first base a lot, I’d talk to him a lot.”

That elicited laughs, because reaching first base was not Ausmus’ primary talent, although he was a .251 career hitter and an All-Star for the Tigers in 1999. There’s a fresh feel to Ausmus, who’s glib and subtly humorous. He said he appreciates the numeral nuances of the game — sabermetics, as it’s called — but isn’t beholden to it.

If you’re wondering whether he’s a small-ball, bunting advocate, I doubt it, not with this lineup. But in case you missed the point, he doesn’t have a track record to define him yet. As a former catcher, he has worked plenty with pitchers, which is paramount. Of course, he hasn’t been second-guessed yet by media and 40,000 fans after pulling Verlander or Scherzer in the seventh inning.

“I’m well aware you don’t generally get dropped into a situation like I will be, with a team like the Detroit Tigers,” Ausmus said. “I’m not taking anything for granted. No details will be glossed over.”

On a chilly November day, it was easy to like the hire and appreciate the enthusiasm Ausmus brings. He’s a respected, educated man, and now must show how quickly he can learn.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

The Tigers' newly named manager, Brad Ausmus, is 'a tremendous communicator,' said general manager Dave Dombrowski. / Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News