McCosky: Ausmus wasn’t perfect, but principled

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
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Detroit — Now comes the part where Brad Ausmus becomes carrion and the vultures circle and pick his carcass clean.

Everybody who thought he was too green, too smug, too Ivy League, too smartest guy in the room, too deer in the headlights, too laid back, you can stand here today and say, “About time, should’ve happened two years ago.”

Ausmus is an imperfect manager, certainly. He’s the first to admit that. Name me a perfect one. Not bringing him back is absolutely the correct move. He was the first to admit that. The organization, entering a full-on rebuild, should have a new voice and a new energy at the helm.

He told general manager Al Avila that himself.

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Ausmus knew, on Aug. 31 after the Tigers traded Justin Upton and Justin Verlander, that if the Tigers were going to offer him a new contract, he probably would not accept it.

I was aware then that Ausmus likely did not want to return. We talked about it and he always put me off —saying he hadn’t decided yet what he wanted to do. Things could change.

I also knew he was adamant about finishing the season, honoring the final year of his contract right to the last day. That meant something to him. Finishing what he started, even though his goals would never be realized, even though this last month has been abject torture for everybody associated with this team, was a point of pride for him.

“I’ve never thought of myself as a quitter,” he said on Friday.

And I knew if I wrote a story in early September that Ausmus probably didn’t want to come back, if I’d written that story before he and Avila talked, Avila might have pulled the plug on him right then and there.

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What good would that have served? I could have written the story, without any organizational confirmation, with Ausmus’ denials and maybe today it would look like I was prescient.

But Brooming Ausmus on Sept. 1 would have changed nothing. Ausmus deserves to finish his contract and I think his desire to do so shows more about his character than anything on his critics’ long list of complaints.

This isn’t the first time he’s displayed this sea captain’s determination to go down with the ship. When the Tigers brought Bruce Rondon back in July, Ausmus fought the move. He didn’t think Rondon earned the call-up.

There were players in the clubhouse who were incensed by it. One player told me he thought Ausmus should quit over it. But to Ausmus, that would be akin to quitting on the team and that’s not in his DNA.

Ausmus was in a no-win situation. He would have preferred simply not to use Rondon, but with a taxed bullpen, that wasn’t feasible. Besides, he’s wasn’t going to gain anything by showing up the front office in that manner.

Instead, he ran Rondon out there in the eighth inning night after night – again giving the enigmatic pitcher enough rope to hang himself.

A hands-on skipper

Again, Ausmus is an imperfect manager. But he was also saddled with an imperfect roster. Compare the team he managed in 2014 – with Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander, with Torii Hunter and healthy and productive Miguel Cabrera – to what he’s put on the field this season.

Are you really going to blame the decline on him?

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Unless he has some cure for aging, Ausmus can’t be held responsible for the under-performance of the club’s core players – Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Francisco Rodriguez and others. Their production didn’t wane because Ausmus wasn’t fiery enough or because he didn’t hold them accountable or he put them in untenable situations or that he didn’t have them prepared.

Jim Leyland, Joe Madden, Tommy Lasorda, Sparky Anderson, Connie Mack – no manager in the history of baseball has outfoxed father time.

And no manager in the history of the game could win consistently with the pitching staffs Ausmus has had to work with the last three seasons, either. That’s just a plain simple fact.

Nobody is offering Ausmus complete absolution here. He wouldn’t accept it, anyway.

He was overly loyal and overly protective of the veteran players with proven track records (Rodriguez, Joe Nathan, Martinez). He might’ve stayed with struggling players too long at times.

But you can’t deny what his patience meant for Nick Castellanos, Justin Upton and James McCann. He helped all three of those players get through the worst slumps of their careers.

He not only helped unlock McCann at the plate – using the same heat charts he makes up for opposing hitters to show him he was beating himself swinging at pitches up in the zone – but behind the plate, as well. All the tools Ausmus used in his 18-year career as a catcher, the scouting reports, game-planning, pitch-calling, he’s passed on to McCann.

He’s as hands-on a manager as you could want. He pitches batting practice every day. He hits fungos. He catches bullpens. These things matter.

Fire could’ve burned hotter

Some players would’ve preferred that he was less calm. They would have preferred he ranted and raved more, made the clubhouse less comfortable at times. But that’s not his nature. He’s got a lot of New England stoicism in him and to suddenly start upturning tables in the clubhouse would be viewed as forced and phony.

You want a window into Ausmus’ demeanor. Watch the replay of when his Astros team clinched the National League championship in 2005. He catches the last strike and just walks to the mound to congratulate the pitcher. His teammates are dog-piling, but he’s as calm (on the outside) as if it was a ho-hum win in April.

It’s just how he’s wired.

He preferred to do his lecturing, his disciplining, his teaching in private. One on one with the player in question. He had one or two team meetings per season. That’s all. Any more than that and the meetings, he felt, would lose their intended impact.

Although fans would have loved to see him show more emotion in the dugout, he didn’t need to make scenes for the sake of public relations. Leyland used to call it eye-wash. Ausmus didn’t feel he was in the eye-wash business.

Ausmus said from the beginning he would not throw his players under the bus publicly, and he was true to his word. And that was perceived publicly as being too soft, too lenient, even though privately he scolded players and held them accountable. He just would rather the heat fall on him than the players.

Maybe his fire could’ve burned hotter. But, there is no denying his unflappability helped the Tigers stay in contention until the end of the 2016 season. It was a tumultuous, injury-riddled year, with key players slumping and surging and it could easily have gone off the rails.

But his mantra – forget yesterday (PG version), forget tomorrow, just win today – took root that season. He kept things together and despite leaning on three rookies in the rotation -- Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd and Daniel Norris – the Tigers took it to the final weekend of the season.

Ausmus is an imperfect manager. Yes, he was handed the keys to a Maserati in 2014. But that car aged poorly and was systematically stripped of its vital parts over the last three years.

Go ahead and pick over his carcass now, but my guess is, his work these past four years will gain appreciation as the years go by.

Twitter @cmccosky

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