The Tigers' Brad Ausmus is in his first season as a major-league manager (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Lakeland, Fla. — Tigers manager Brad Ausmus sits at his desk on a Monday morning:
A pack of cigarettes as a gag freshly removed from view, a glove in his locker, a clean desk geometrically arranged with the typical papers and pens you expect to find, a fridge filled with Gatorade and diet pop.
He speaks deliberately, knowledgeably, but with an easy nature. He’s quick to make a joke, comfortable enough to make one at the expense of those in the room with him.
Ausmus acts like he belongs, like he’s been there before, like none of what’s going on around him all comes as much of a surprise.
You don’t know what you really expected of a 44-year-old former catcher with an 18-year major-league career and no managerial experience beyond guiding Team Israel at the World Baseball Classic in 2013.
Was he supposed to be nervous, fidgety, uptight? Was his office supposed to take on the frazzled appearance of a scattered, overwhelmed mind?
No, Ausmus belongs, and he looks like a perfectly cast Hollywood star. He knows it, and you do. It’s not just talk and office window dressing, not just benefiting from a new cast of characters. Ausmus has a plan for this job, his own way of doing things, and the players seem to have bought into it from Day 1.
The Ausmus way
“We have meetings at 9:30 (a.m.) before we go out that’s pretty funny,” Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter said Saturday. “He has us laughing, our energy going before we even get out on the field. So it’s not so much just go out and stretch and run. He has us come together and laugh and talk and prepare ourselves for what we’re going to do that day. So he has us laughing at certain situations, rookies that stand up, we’re about to watch a little video of some guy. He’s awesome, man. That’s the way you should do it right there.”
That’s Brad Ausmus.
Here’s when you talk to Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, like Ausmus a former catcher. Matheny and the Cardinals were in Lakeland on Monday, and the men’s relationship goes back to their playing days and has continued since Ausmus was named the Tigers’ manager in early November.
Matheny made his managerial debut in 2012 at age 41, just six seasons after his final year as a player. Last season he guided the Cardinals to a National League pennant.
He scoffs at the thought he opened the door for Ausmus, saying the door was already wide open, waiting for Ausmus to choose to go through it.
Ausmus could not have stepped into a better position, in Matheny’s mind. He’s not only got a good team to write onto his lineup card every day, but he’s got people he can lean on who have been immersed with the team for years. That would be pitching coach Jeff Jones and bench coach Gene Lamont. Former manager Jim Leyland is around, too, now a special assistant to the Tigers’ front office.
Standing in front of the visitors’ dugout on the third base side and nodding toward Leyland, near the first-base line, Matheny shared a little advice that came from Leyland himself.
“One of the first things he said, ‘You’ve got to make sure you do yourself a favor and not try to be a second-rate version of Tony (La Russa). You’ve got to be yourself. That’s how you start winning over your club. I think that was very, very good advice.”
The other lesson: be consistent. From the first day of spring training until the last day of the season, whether it ends in the playoffs or before, the players need to know what to expect.
“I think that builds the confidence in your club, and I know that’s something that Brad does very naturally,” Matheny said.
Raising everyone's game
Here’s what it comes down to. What makes Ausmus an ideal choice for manager, what made him a candidate even before the Cardinals went to the World Series, is his ability and desire to make everyone around him better.
Ausmus did that as a catcher, going about his job deliberately whether he was calling the next pitch or working with the staff as a whole.
“They saw he was out for the good of the club, not for the good of Brad Ausmus,” Matheny said.
Ausmus is deliberate now, thinking through his answer to every question, yet not spinning away from a tough one like a PR machine.
Helping people is what a manager really does, Matheny said. A manager is trusted with an expensive group of players, and he has to help them play to their best.
“I think that Brad has done things in his past that have proven that’s kind of his makeup. You think it would be a natural transition,” Matheny said.
“There’s still all the resources there to take what he already does naturally and take the things that he has that a lot of other people don’t have. You’re talking about the intelligence, just the knowledge of the game. Everything’s right there and you can see that this can work out really well for this club.”
You come to Lakeland. You watch how Ausmus goes about his job. You talk to the players who buy into it. You watch the product on the field.
You come away impressed. You can see why Ausmus’ future as manager was projected so glowingly by so many, despite the lack of experience.
It’s early. It’s easy to be positive now when the games don’t count and mistakes are allowed.
How will Ausmus look when the Tigers hit a skid? If he stays consistent, there won’t be much to worry about. The Tigers have found a good one.
You get the feeling you’re watching the next managerial star in the making.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org