Detroit – Taking the easy way out would have been a snap. The Tigers could have said, properly, that Brad Ausmus had a hand in Detroit’s 2015 baseball disaster. They could have fired him in eight or nine days and surprised absolutely no one who follows baseball or who understands professional sports and its political realities.
They also would have been bowing to a certain populism, tempting for sure, given that plenty of ticket-buyers have made clear they would prefer a new skipper in Detroit’s 2016 dugout.
But that wasn’t going to be Al Avila’s way. And when a new general manager was blessed by his boss, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, to make a decision that speaks of Ilitch’s impressive deference, Avila made a principled call.
Just before 4 p.m. at Comerica Park, Avila walked into the Tigers dugout, took a seat and announced Ausmus was returning for 2016 and the third year of his three-year contract.
A new man is in charge of the Tigers. The team’s owner backs him. And as much as it was a stunner to learn Ausmus would be back in the wake of a frequently miserable, last-place season of baseball in Detroit, what impressed Saturday was how different Al Avila is from his more corporate predecessor, Dave Dombrowski.
“There’s been a lot of stupid (stuff) going on,” Avila said, bluntly, in language fans understand and the buttoned-down Dombrowski never would have used.
Avila was referring to earlier reports that Ausmus was officially done in Detroit. And, in fact, it was believed Ilitch would want a new man in the dugout when in early August he fired Dombrowski and opted to make Avila his GM.
But in recent days it had been said by various sources that Avila was leaning toward keeping Ausmus, and for reasons that are hard to dispute. All he needed was Ilitch’s go-ahead, which had been granted.
Avila had finally to acknowledge the Tigers’ pitching has been all but rock-bottom in 2015. Important people got hurt (Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and others). Key starters and relievers in too many other cases pitched abominably.
Factor in a six-week layoff for his lineup’s superstar, Miguel Cabrera (torn calf muscle), and a bad knee that has made hitting an often-anguished ordeal for Victor Martinez, and presto, you have a last-place team.
Avila didn’t dispute that a manager has accountability. He’s in charge. And, although he didn’t agree, for example, the Tigers’ baserunning suggests some tightening is in order and that it probably begins with the manager, there was little about 2015’s miseries you could justly lay at Ausmus’ feet.
Avila is right.
The Tigers won often during the past nine years because, fundamentally, their pitching and their roster was chock full of performers. Fans always will ascribe too much influence to a manager, as they did in Jim Leyland’s waning days when half of Tigers Nation seemed to believe Smokes, as the critics called him, was remote-controlling the Tigers into defeats galore.
In over his head
The same crowd, for the most part, had concluded Ausmus was incompetent. And they have said so loudly, clearly, and in detail.
But a front office loaded with experienced baseball people, including the likes of Al Kaline and Leyland as counsel, knew this often-ugly year was not for a moment about a manager.
It was about the people who win and lose games: the players.
Those who question the timing of Saturday’s announcement raise a great point. Why, if Avila was so certain Ausmus wasn’t culpable, did he not announce weeks ago that Ausmus would return for 2016?
Avila’s answer was persuasive: The Tigers wanted a full hearing on Ausmus. They needed to evaluate all points, get as much sense for what players were thinking, and conclude whether a new man might give them a better shot at winning in 2016.
They determined, finally, that a new manager wasn’t the answer. A better and healthier roster, augmented by trades and free-agent investments you can now bet Ilitch and Avila will push aggressively, are the tickets to better baseball in Detroit in 2016.
Whether fans like it or not — and put to a vote, there would have been a landslide for hiring a new manager — Avila made clear Saturday his will not be a GM tenure that has much concern for politics.
“I think the criticism (of Ausmus) is piling on without any merit,” he said as part of a straightforward 20-minute address that was, at times, amusing for its no-frills candor.
Plenty of fans will see Saturday’s news bulletin as Avila and Co. caving to the status quo. Some will view it as Avila saving a few million bucks (Ausmus probably makes in the vicinity of $3 million a season). But the Tigers aren’t playing games at manager because of a salary that isn’t much above a bench player’s payday.
They hung onto a guy for reasons not always associated with professional sports.
They thought it was the right and fair thing to do.
Imagine a team in this era making that choice. It’s something, some day, you can tell your grandkids about.