Brad Ausmus has thrived in his first year as a major-league manager. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Four months after he managed his first big-league game, Brad Ausmus can be looked at almost as a non-factor in the Tigers’ 2014 season.
That, by the way, is a good thing. If he were an issue, it more likely would be because of something Ausmus had done to make a good baseball team less potent. And that has not been the case for a rookie skipper who has been reasonably effective on all fronts.
He is confident and a communicator, which is why he is respected by his players. He is a longtime big-league catcher who’s smart in knowing the intricacies of an endlessly intricate game. He has found a comfort level with the fan base following eight years of Jim Leyland and his sometimes self-parodying ways (Ausmus, blessedly, doesn’t eat during postgame interviews).
Strategically, he has been no more or less susceptible to lightning strikes from second-guessers than any other manager whose decisions are ripe for, “He should have pulled him,” or “He should have left him in” quarrels, which flood the chatter chambers every time a team loses.
And yet the fan base has been generally pleased as Tigers Nation takes its time sizing up Ausmus. Folks still want to see him do what Leyland’s teams didn’t do. And if the Tigers don’t win a World Series, it will be a matter of a season or two before they will be tired of Ausmus and irritated by his decisions and ready to blame him for a team’s shortcomings.
General manager Dave Dombrowski had to have known this when he decided last November, shrewdly, to make Ausmus his pick over Lloyd McClendon and others. He could have gone with McClendon, who it should be noted, is popular as Seattle’s first-year manager as he and the Mariners chase a playoff spot.
But think about it for a moment — about what the tenor in Detroit might have been if McClendon were operating this team and not Ausmus.
The fan base, much of it, would have declared war on McClendon. They would have seen him as an extension of Leyland, whom critics were fatigued and irked by. They would have blamed McClendon for this team’s inconsistencies, for the lack of fire they say is behind too many losses. They would have placed at McClendon’s feet responsibility for another season when a good team was, in their eyes, underachieving.
Instead of dealing with a lot of peripheral nonsense, Comerica Park’s customers instead are focusing on what matters. On players. They study Detroit’s bullpen and rotation and lineup and generally see that it’s personnel, not a manager, who dictates a team winning or losing.
It wasn’t that way, particularly in later years, with Leyland, and it was never a fair or correct response by the “Leyland’s the problem” gang. They were simply frustrated that a good team hadn’t gotten past the finish line. For the sake of convenience and one-stop shopping, it became easy for the bleacher crowd to boil down Detroit’s shortcomings to one man: the skipper, especially when anyone can comfortably second-guess any decision that doesn’t result in a player performing well enough for his team to win.
Play ball, everyone
This is particularly true because baseball invites everyone to manage. The game is like the Statue of Liberty: Give me your weary, your huddled masses yearning for a World Series.
It’s like this in baseball, especially, because, so often, you played the game. You probably coached some baseball. In a fan’s mind it equips a smart baseball person to run the Tigers, at least in terms of basic strategy and incorporating rudimentary fundamentals, like getting down a bunt or advancing a baserunner.
And so a manager is particularly vulnerable to being the problem when in the span of a 162-game season there are so many mounting moments of impatience that stem from so many inevitable defeats.
Ausmus has absorbed and withstood a lot of basic, everyday managerial flak. Part of the reason is a first-year manager’s honeymoon. People like him. They see that he’s smart and detailed in his thought processes and game responses.
They’re comfortable with his low-key, I’m-not-the-show persona and with his wit, which can be self-deprecating and often disarms the angrier crowd.
He has made few stumbles since a man who had never worked a game in the big leagues or in the minors was handed a team any manager would have wanted — a competitive, contending, well-financed roster with no problem children and no clubhouse issues.
That’s what the Tigers have today in Ausmus: a capable, competent manager who looks as if he will have a long career running big-league teams, whether it’s in Detroit or elsewhere.
But the timing was right, for Ausmus, and for the Tigers. This has not been an easy year in Detroit. Rarely, in fact, if ever, has a first-place team produced as much consternation as have the 2014 Tigers.
The reasons, though, have nothing to do with a 45-year-old man in the dugout skippering his first big-league team. There are other explanations for a few too many defeats, a reality the Tigers followers would not have accepted as easily if McClendon, or Gene Lamont, or any of Leyland’s old regime, was now in charge, rather than that pleasant ex-catcher who yet has the benefit of a town’s abiding faith and hope.