New Tigers manager Brad Ausmus arrives in Lakeland on Monday. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)
Detroit — It’s been some six years since Brad Ausmus has been to Lakeland, and a whole lot longer since he called that his spring-training home.
Well, with spiffy ballpark renovations and rabid fan interest, it’s not what it used to be, Brad, and that’s a good thing.
“I heard attendance has skyrocketed since the days of us losing 100 games,” the new Tigers manager said over the phone from San Diego on Friday. “That definitely adds energy.”
That’s surely a plus — though it’s not as if Ausmus will need anything on the periphery to pump him up for camp, which officially opens next Friday.
Ausmus will be flying from San Diego to Lakeland on Monday and plans to arrive at Joker Marchant Stadium bright and early Tuesday morning, eager to get going in his new job — and eager to see his roster with his own eyes, rather than simply on paper and scouting reports.
“I’m not nervous,” Ausmus said, and that’s certainly understandable given his previous credentials as an 18-year big-league catcher. “I’m definitely excited, and I’m getting more excited — because it becomes a little more real.
“I’m most excited about getting started, getting rolling.”
There weren’t many revelations during a 15-minute conversation with Ausmus. Really, there haven’t been many concrete statements from him since he was hired in November, the surprising choice to replacing the retired Jim Leyland.
That’s because Ausmus hasn’t had the chance yet to see for himself just what he has.
Oh, sure, he knows about all his stars and veterans. He played against most of them.
“Really, it’s the guys I don’t know,” Ausmus said, of who he’s most excited to get to know. “It’s the players that I don’t know much about. I’ve never seen (third baseman) Nick Castellanos, I’ve seen very little of (shortstop) Jose Iglesias.
“Those are guys I’m more excited to see, and more specifically, some of the bullpen arms.”
Ah, the bullpen.
While Ausmus said, “There’s nothing I’m concerned about, per se,” the bullpen figures to be, outside of the everyday lineup — which Ausmus has pondered greatly, but isn’t close to committing to — the story of spring training.
And for a second straight spring, Bruce Rondon is likely to be at the center of the saga. His elbow, after an offseason of rehab, is healthy, according to reports Ausmus has received. So Rondon figures to be the ideal candidate to setup All-Star closer Joe Nathan.
Again, though, Ausmus preaches patience.
“As far as what his role will be, I’ll take a wait-and-see approach,” said Ausmus, 44, who also will be getting to known relievers such as Al Alburquerque, Luke Putkonen, Ian Krol and Joba Chamberlain. “These are guys I have not laid eyes on.”
He has, however, seen Nathan, the Tigers’ $20-million free-agent pickup who is 39 — yet coming off one of his best seasons. Interestingly, though, only three times in the last three years as Nathan worked more than one inning.
Asked if that’s how he sees himself using the veteran right-hander, Ausmus only said he’d be inclined to go with Nathan’s wishes.
“The key is to keep him healthy, and everyone healthy,” Ausmus said. “Sometimes that’s the most difficult thing, is keeping everyone healthy for seven months of baseball.”
Ausmus reports new hitting coach Wally Joyner already is in Lakeland working with early arrivals. Pitching coach Jeff Jones gets in Sunday. Then Ausmus on Monday.
He’s no stranger to spring training — but this obviously will be different. The camp is his, to run as he sees fit. He said he’s grateful to have Gene Lamont, who organized many of Leyland’s spring schedules, on staff as bench coach. He also picked the brains of managers at the winter meetings in December, and chatted up Padres manager Bud Black a couple times over dinner.
One thing he knows: He has no big speeches planned. Ausmus said he’ll address the pitchers as a whole, and same with the position players. Briefly, he emphasized. Heck, when you consider his introductory press conference, the winter meetings, and TigerFest, he’s probably talked-out.
“It’ll be good to get down there,” Ausmus said.
Of course, with the new job comes the time away from family. But Ausmus’s wife and daughters are planning a couple trips to Lakeland, then will be moving to Birmingham — they’re close on closing on a house — once school lets out.
It should be mentioned, by the way, that Ausmus also has maintained a dialogue with Leyland, who is eager to help — but also eager to not overstep.
Leyland will be in Lakeland later on this spring, in an advisory role to GM Dave Dombrowski.
“I’m sure he wants to step back a bit,” said Ausmus, “but I might drag him back in.”
Leyland, of couse will be accommodating, particularly if Ausmus is looking for night-on-the-town tips. One of Leyland’s favorite hangouts in Lakeland, believe it or not: Applebee’s.
The reporters dug that locale, too, but for a different reason: the two-for-one drink specials.
“Ah,” Ausmus said, chuckling, “managers enjoy that, too.”