Lakeland, Fla. — There was symbolism present when Brad Ausmus earlier this week sat on — on — the manager’s desk inside Marchant Stadium’s clubhouse.
It was his debut, more or less, as Tigers manager, in the sense that Ausmus was finally in charge of a Tigers team that Friday officially begins six weeks of preseason drills.
Ausmus stepped into the manager’s office and rather than sit at the big captain’s chair behind his mahogany desk, he rested half on the dark wood desktop, half off, as he spoke with a handful of writers.
The message was unintended but difficult to miss. Ausmus is in charge. He is self-assured. He also carries with him some deeply rooted humility.
The new guy
Ausmus is brand new to running a big-league baseball team and is mindful of the men he is following, with primary focus on Jim Leyland and Sparky Anderson.
He has no lack of regard for his own baseball knowledge and insight. He believes in his talents as a communicator and as a man who, along with all of us, is experiencing this journey called life imperfectly and minus all the answers.
But, no, he will not act presumptuously or with any sense of entitlement.
Because he has zero professional managerial experience, Ausmus represents a significant gamble by Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office boss who hired him in November. Consequently, the new skipper must let others assess him, knowing that an ultimate measuring stick of his skills will be simply applied. He needs to win baseball games, a lot of them, for anyone to believe Ausmus is a manager who makes a difference.
In that sense, he almost perfectly parallels the team he begins overseeing Friday when pitchers and catchers meet for their first formal workout.
The Tigers are well-built. They have all the component parts. They have won three straight division titles and all three times made it to the American League Championship series, with one trip sending them to the World Series.
But knowing you are good and being judged a winner can be two different experiences. You must achieve, which means getting into the playoffs and surviving a three-series crucible if you care to finally snare that world championship the Tigers last won 30 years ago.
In that regard, Ausmus and the Tigers arrive at camp with shared skills and missions. Included is a sharp sense of reality. They know how difficult it is to win in big-league baseball when so many variables can make fools of would-be contenders.
Consider something few fans sufficiently appreciate about the 2006-13 Tigers: They made it to the initial, best-of-five division series four times and all four times won their inaugural series, including three Game 5 victories on the road.
That’s a crazy percentage against competition so good. As my Canadian friend and statistical expert, Dave Chilton, has computed, a team has a 1-in-16 chance of winning all four of those five-game series.
Ausmus appreciates the odds. So did the last Tigers manager, Jim Leyland, who realized a team good enough and lucky enough to have won all four of those crushingly tense division playoffs deserved at least one World Series victory, which might well have arrived last season had either Miguel Cabrera or Bruce Rondon been able-bodied.
That’s how thin the line can be between winning and losing big-league games and playoff series. In the Tigers’ defense, and to the advantage of Ausmus, his new team is sturdiest in the one area that tends to be baseball’s great edge during 162 games and extending into October’s showdowns.
Ausmus has good pitching.
Winning the arms race
Potentially, his bullpen is even better than the Tigers featured in 2012 and 2013, as much as the game’s most explosive element, relief pitching, can be forecasted.
But so much is beyond a manager’s control. It’s something to consider as a 43-year-old man, learning his newest craft on the big-league stage, begins Friday taking competitive control of his team.
“We’re all here to win,” Ausmus said, with a half-smile and with a shrug, when he was asked about making the relatively recent shift from big-league catcher to manager, and how it would be perceived by Tigers players. “Somebody has to have the title of manager.”
The man who owns the title in Detroit is named Ausmus. He has skill to match his confidence. And, in tandem with his Tigers players, he has 100-plus years of baseball history reminding him how fragile it all can be.