Brad Ausmus talks to Tigers fans during the team's Winter Caravan last month. (David Coates / Detroit News)
I've been thinking of late about Jim Leyland and Brad Ausmus. I need a calculator to keep tab of all the ways in which the old Tigers manager and the new Tigers manager will differ.
Here are a few early projections about two men different, in style and substance, as the Ausmus era begins when spring camp convenes next week at Lakeland, Fla.:
Game strategies: Everyone wants to believe Ausmus will run more, bunt more, display genius on hit-and-run calls, etc. This, they reason, is because Leyland is Old School and played for The Big Inning, while Ausmus, the cerebral Ivy League guy, will be more prone to scientific options and elevating Small Ball to heavenly heights.
Reality: Ausmus has a completely different team from Leyland. He will run more because half the lineup will no longer be sprinting with legs that last year were more like concrete posts. Because his lineup will have some legitimate mobility, Ausmus’ team will run more. Of course, with the same roster, so would Leyland. But that sort of ruins the popular narrative entering 2014.
Personal idiosyncrasies: Fans liked Leyland. They didn’t always like his post-game interviews, and most of the time it’s because he was trying to talk for the cameras at the same time he was working on a plate of beef Stroganoff. They also knew he smoked heavily, and that didn’t endear them, especially if Jose Valverde had just turned the ninth inning into a crime scene.
Reality: Ausmus will be smoother. He is 43. Leyland last season was 68. Ausmus is wry, and so was Leyland, who had one of the driest wits anywhere. If the Tigers and Ausmus win in 2014, Ausmus will be there in George Clooney land with the female fans, who, in tandem with the males, will be glad the new guy wins and doesn’t try to consume a forkful of rice as he details his seventh-inning decision to pull Max Scherzer.
Clubhouse styles: This is big. This is what got Ausmus hired. He convinced Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ front-office steward, that he, in his own way, would be as effective as Leyland was at managing 25 personalities and egos during an ultra-sensitive, ultra-combustible campaign known as the big-league schedule.
Reality: The new guy will probably be fine. Ausmus knows that running a clubhouse is about treating men like men -- as men who are individual in their skills and in their personalities and needs. Leyland was a grand master at balancing authority with just the right personal touch. They will operate differently. Ausmus won’t greet a player with a loud, “Hey, Santy (Ramon Santiago), how’s it going today, podner?” But he’ll have his manner, naturally crafted, that should keep the lines of authority and relationships clear as it minimizes player grumbling.
Dealing with media: Fans aren’t altogether interested in this facet of managerial conduct. But it’s big -- all because the media are a manager’s conduit for communicating with customers, TV viewers, and general observers spread across the fan spectrum.
Reality: Leyland was excellent at this part of the job. It’s tough, because a manager on game days has two sessions with the writers and broadcasters, before and after a game, which includes a debriefing with the scribes once those TV cameras have been shut off. Ausmus has shown, in the early going, he will be cooperative and insightful. Losing, of course, can change dispositions. We’ll see how a five-game slide affects Ausmus.
Media will initially adjust to hearing several million fewer swear words during the course of a given season. Ausmus knows the language. But he’ll prefer to speak in a different dialect. He’ll offer up, especially for the Twitter universe, countless quips, all concise and dry as dust, which Leyland was also gifted at providing. Ausmus’ humor will differ slightly in tone. Leyland could be occasionally, and delightfully, outrageous with his stories and with his colorful indictments. Ausmus will be funny, powerfully so, in a lower gear.
Emotions: This will be an evolving show, for sure. Leyland would get moist-eyed talking about anything that spoke of people and their (and his) love for baseball. That meant his voice could begin quivering at least five times a day. He would talk about fans who “go to work at 5:30 in the morning and then spend their extra dollars, if they even have any, on a Tigers game” – and, oh, a Johnstown flood of tears would begin to form. Ausmus, from what we know, will cry only if he left his Nietzsche book in the hotel room.
Reality: This is going to be interesting, in great part because we aren’t yet sure how Ausmus will react when an umpire calls a strike on a Tigers batter that Ausmus could see wasn’t within the same zip code as the strike zone. But, on balance, Ausmus almost certainly will be more measured. Again, if the Tigers win, fans will love Ausmus’ restraint. If they don’t, the audience will begin rumbling that the new guy lacks the Marlboro Man’s fire.
Resting players, pitching changes, etc.: Leyland was big on giving players a break. He and Dombrowski agreed, mutually, that “you can’t be afraid to lose a game.” It would be a surprise if Ausmus greatly differed here, but we’ll see how his particular philosophy plays out. Pitching changes are made because of matchups, and because of communication with the pitcher. Again, prepare for some nuances here that will be part of the Ausmus era’s ongoing theater.
Reality: Comerica Park patrons who believe Ausmus will go with his best lineup every day are in for a crushing shock. He won’t. He’ll rest players because, as Leyland knew, if you grind these guys to dust during the season’s first four months, you’ll have a burned-out bunch in September and October. Will he go with the relief pitcher the fans want in every match-up situation? No. Ausmus knows you have only so many available bullpen arms on a given day or night. The second-guessers will emerge in proportion to how many of those decisions are confirmed or nullified by victories.
Next week, a new manager’s profile will begin to take on broad and fine lines. We will learn by the hour who Ausmus is, as a manager, as a personality, as a presence, as the new visage of baseball in Detroit.
It’s going to be a show worth watching. If you think Downton Abbey has some storylines and characters that are endlessly fascinating, wait for the next eight months of a Motown managerial reign to reveal itself more fully.