Starter Max Scherzer fell behind to the Rays, 4-0, Tuesday night before the Tigers starting chipping away. (Brian Blanco / Getty Images)
St. Petersburg, Fla. — When a rookie manager talks about the manager’s role in a team’s fate, good or bad, he is neither indicting nor exonerating any skipper, himself included.
He speaks generally, without offering any specific triumphs or failures, minus any deep self-critiques, which was at the heart of a conversation Tigers manager Brad Ausmus had Tuesday with a small media crowd in the visiting manager’s office at Tropicana Field.
“I certainly haven’t done everything right,” Ausmus said as the Tigers got ready for a three-game series against the Rays that began Tuesday night. “But show me a manager who’s done everything right, and I’ll show you fantasy.”
The Tigers, a team Ausmus inherited last November, began the week bruised, if not bashed, having seen its extended stay in first place disappear, which threatens to end a three-year string of division championships.
The Royals have replaced Detroit as the top team in the American League Central and the manager is feeling every lump laid on him and his team by the standings and by fans upset with a baseball club’s fade.
Ausmus understands how suddenly popular is that word “accountability.” Fans want to know why a team they long have regarded as a contender is behaving more like a group that has October vacation plans, which might not include the post-season playoffs.
The manager concedes these are dark thoughts no one attached to a Tigers uniform easily bears. And that group, at least as it applies to those who work on the field, in dugouts and in clubhouses, begins with the skipper.
“One difference — and I don’t want to say it was a surprise — is that you carry the weight of losses much more (as a manager) than as a player,” said Ausmus, who turned 45 in April and who is managing his first team following 18 years as a big-league catcher.
“There’s never one player responsible for a team losing,” Ausmus said. “As a manager, you feel responsible for all players.”
He talked Tuesday of managers he most appreciated and, perhaps, made part of a personal managerial model. He did not recite names, but their profile was consistent.
“I think the best managers I’ve enjoyed playing for the most, first of all, they made it easy for players to play,” Ausmus said, submitting that managers do, in fact, matter; that they cannot be viewed as interchangeable parts where any person with a modicum of baseball experience can function.
“Major league players need to be given direction,” Ausmus said. “You still have to have someone make out a lineup card. Somebody has to say yes or no. You have to decide whether to bunt or to steal. You definitely need some kind of head coach or manager.
“The best managers,” Ausmus said, “allow talent to come to the surface.”
That was what Tigers fans liked — initially, any way — about the man who preceded Ausmus. Jim Leyland arrived in 2006 just as a Tigers team that had not won in 13 years suddenly became a more regular victor, beginning that season when Detroit made it to the World Series.
But while Leyland had a core of Tigers followers who believed records had more to do with players than with a manager, there was a loud and increasingly irritable Tigers crowd that argued Leyland was at least partly responsible for Detroit missing a world championship, despite four trips to the postseason.
Those who insist managers make an ultimate difference — and Leyland had been culpable in a couple of near misses — were excited about Ausmus. Now, some of them are worrying about the new Tigers skipper. Talk radio’s legions, which tend to shoot at an all-inclusive list of targets, are also getting in their rounds. Ausmus says he pays no attention — to the airwaves or to print.
“You can’t un-read something,” he said, meaning his preference is to ignore the community squawks and chatter. “I don’t really listen to the talk shows. If people are going to be critical, it doesn’t do me any good.”
His wife, Liz, he said, is more the reader.
“She’ll see the criticism,” said Ausmus, who insisted Tuesday that he does not bring to the couple’s Birmingham home any undue emotions from whatever happened that day or night at Comerica Park.
“I’m not one to throw a party when we win,” he said, explaining that nothing changes when a game hasn’t worked out as well. “We lost Sunday, and we still went to dinner.”
The restaurant, Ausmus explained, was Streetside Seafood, a Birmingham eatery. There, perhaps, on a summer Sunday evening, a plate of perch might soothe the sting from a bad day at the office.