December 20, 2013 at 9:57 am

Lynn Henning

Catching, curiosity shape Brad Ausmus' chops as new Tigers manager

New Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is low-key, and chooses his words carefully — just a little bit of what the national baseball media learned about him at last week's winter meetings. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

Amid the masses who ambled through the Swan and Dolphin Resort’s lobby, ballrooms, and suites during last week’s winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., one new face was of particular interest to anyone who follows baseball in Detroit.

Brad Ausmus made his official national debut as Tigers manager. He had been unveiled last month, but that was a formal and somewhat superficial glimpse at the man who succeeds Jim Leyland.

Last week was more revealing. On three consecutive evenings in the Tigers hotel suite, Ausmus sat alongside the man who hired him, president and general manager Dave Dombrowski.

He ate lunch with a half-dozen writers who cover his team, all part of an annual tradition commissioner Bud Selig’s office maintains for 30 managers and the winter meetings media.

Ausmus was showcased to a larger, national and international press corps during a half-hour interview inside the media workroom. Together, the Tigers suite appearances and the global Q&A session offered a sharper sense for the kind of man and brand of manager a Tigers audience greets following eight years of Leyland.

Impressions are in line with last month’s Comerica Park christening.

Ausmus should have an easy time with the Tigers camp. His personality is amiable but low-key. His baseball knowledge is intricate. His thoughts are spiced by an effortless wit that isn’t overdone. He does not try and impress you with a mind that is high-horsepower.

Taking it slow

I had not seen him in 13 years, not since his last season with the Tigers. He looks about the same at 43 as he looked at 30. Genetics have been kind to him.

But what came across was his ability to measure what he could, and needed, to say. During the sessions in Dombrowski’s suite, he deferred to his boss, mostly because Dombrowski is hard-wired to a roster and to an organization to which Ausmus still is being introduced.

He did not pretend to have answers about players and about a team he can’t begin to forge until spring camp convenes in seven weeks. He did not offer a single “we’ll do it this way” phrase or sentence that would signal a change from the Leyland administration.

The take-it-slow tone was as necessary as it was shrewd. He can’t be sure how his batting order will shake out, or how his bullpen will align, or what he will be able to do with baserunners. Not until personnel are determined and situations arrive can he offer much insight.

Nor will he insult Leyland’s skills and legacy by playing to the crowd when he has yet to manage a single big-league game. Fans expect there to be a distinction between Leyland’s ways and Ausmus’ lever-pulling. Some of Comerica’s customers are itching for Ausmus to show that the Marlboro Man was an anachronism of old-school thought and antiquated habits.

Ausmus, though, knows baseball strategy isn’t so much a matter of imagination as it is a product of your roster. Yes, he will run more than Leyland’s teams did — all because Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler are in the lineup and Prince Fielder is gone.

When his 2014 Tigers team manufactures a run by way of a bunt, a stolen base, or something simple, there will be cheers that, by gosh, this is the kind of manager the Tigers needed. A tactician. A guy who, unlike Skipper Smokes, wasn’t always playing for the big inning.

Catching shapes views

Ausmus will be the first to laugh.

To a point, anyway.

In fact, things will be different. I don’t know how much it will affect a win-loss record — too many fans think managers win or lose games — but Ausmus has his own thoughts. He has carefully honed views about everything that happens in a game:

Pitch counts and what they dictate. Defensive alignments and the degree to which shifts should be deployed. Pitchers and what they telegraph to him when he must decide whether to pull a starter. These are the imprints from a man who spent 18 years as a catcher.

“I think that’s part of it,” he said. “As a catcher, you’re always planning ahead. In terms of the game situation, you’re sitting there, you have to put a sign down, know who’s up, what are his strengths, weaknesses, who is on deck, what’s the score, what inning, who is in the bullpen, who can pinch-hit.

“These are the things that cross your mind. The more experienced you become, the more reflexive those decisions are.”

He has a new staffer with a title straight from football’s galaxy: Matt Martin, who is the first defensive coordinator for the Tigers, and a coach who will be at the core of game plans. He also has a boss, Dombrowski, who bought into all of this because Dombrowski knew ahead of Ausmus that the Tigers were about to undergo roster tweaks as they shift to a team more tuned to defense and speed.

A quick study

Dombrowski hired Ausmus when it seemed inconceivable — here, anyway — that a general manager would entrust a team so talented and seasoned to a man who has never managed in the minor or major leagues.

He did it because Ausmus knocked him out during last month’s interviews. He did it because Ausmus had the intellectual curiosity to ask his earlier managers — Joe Torre, Phil Garner, Larry Dierker, etc. — during the course of a game why they made a particular move. Those explanations helped assemble a future manager whose interview answers left even Dombrowski stunned, as he later mentioned.

Ausmus talked last week about Torre, who clearly had heavy impact during the short time they were together. He spoke of Torre’s “temperament” and how a Yankees manager was ever serene.

“He never had to yell,”Ausmus said. “And, he was never out-managed. He was always prepared. You didn’t necessarily always agree with what he did, but you always understood why he did it.”

Dombrowski, though, hired Ausmus because Ausmus passed a verbal test on one of a manager’s cornerstone skills: Can he handle a big league clubhouse and its personalities?

In words he repeated last week, Ausmus said it was a matter of communicating and treating men like adults. He made clear to his new boss that clubhouse spats weren’t going to threaten a 43-year-old catcher who held his own in whatever conflict flared during all those years as a big-league catcher.

Those understandings, those experiences, all became part of a young man’s inventory of baseball wisdom. They’ll be on display next season in Detroit. And, apart from the won-loss column that will determine the degree to which a fickle fan base ultimately bonds with its new skipper, the Ausmus inaugural promises to be fascinating theater.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

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