Published September 15, 2016
Brad Park, eventual Hall of Fame defenseman, was sitting at home when his phone rang on Christmas Eve, 1985.
On the other end of the line was Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch.
Ilitch told Park, who had played for the Red Wings in his final two years (1983-85), that the owner was considering a coaching change. The Red Wings, under Harry Neale, were having an historically bad season.
Park was doing some broadcasting at the time.
Ilitch’s gambit to sign a bunch of college and NHL free agents in the summer of ’85 and hire the well-traveled Neale to be coach was backfiring badly.
“Do you know of anyone who might be a good fit?” Ilitch asked Park.
Park said he’d have to give that one some thought.
Then, after a pause, Ilitch dropped a Christmas Eve bombshell on Park.
“Would YOU be interested in coaching my team?”
At first Park said no. But then he thought about it and rang Ilitch back.
The two hammered out some details about Park’s role beyond coaching—specifically in giving Park some say-so in personnel decisions, which was being handled exclusively by GM Jimmy Devellano.
Park, of course, had never coached a hockey team in his life. But Ilitch was showing his impetuous, knee jerk side that would rear its head many times in his ownership of the Red Wings and the Tigers.
Ilitch’s loose cannon ways brought Brad Park back to the Red Wings as coach and Director of Player Personnel, which naturally led to a power struggle between Park and Devellano, which Devellano eventually won.
The Red Wings were just as awful under Park as they were under Neale. A large problem was keeping the puck out of their own net less than five times per game.
Park was out by June.
Jacques Demers was hired away from St. Louis, and again it was Ilitch’s aggressiveness that sparked a tampering charge against the Red Wings by the Blues.
For all the loyalty assigned to Mike Ilitch over the years to certain people in his sports organizations, there is also quite a bit of typical sports owner impatience in him as well.
Hiring and firing general managers of the Tigers left and right shortly after purchasing the team in 1992.
Turning a cold shoulder to iconic manager Sparky Anderson after Sparky refused to manage scab replacements in spring training of 1995.
Making a bold move to hire Scotty Bowman as coach of the Red Wings in 1993.
Doling out big free agent contracts to baseball and hockey players, often unexpectedly and maybe in an ill-advised manner at times.
Signing off on trades that nobody saw coming.
Firing Tigers President and GM Dave Dombrowski in 2015.
Ilitch will be loyal to you—see Holland, Ken—but he’s not above being abrasive and unpredictable, either.
It’s the owner’s age, health and that unpredictability that will be the brew that decides the fate of Tigers manager Brad Ausmus if the team fails to qualify for the playoffs in a couple of weeks.
If the post-season starts and the Tigers are on the outside looking in, there will, of course, be the usual post-mortem on the season with the team’s brass.
Every team does it.
GM Al Avila and his lieutenants and advisers will gather and assess the 2016 season and talk about what went wrong and what went right.
They will discuss whether what went wrong was mostly beyond Ausmus’ control, or if some of it was self-inflicted by the skipper.
Finally, they will render their decision as to whether Ausmus should be brought back in 2017. Because that decision will determine the direction of the team and could figure into any trades and free agent signings that Avila chooses to make this winter.
But the wild card is Ilitch.
All of the discussion and all of the assessing and all of the two cents put in by all of the brass won’t mean a hill of beans as much as the owner’s countenance will.
It won’t necessarily matter that there may not be any attractive candidates to replace Ausmus who are readily available. The Tigers’ bench doesn’t have any manager-ready candidates on it, like the Red Sox—Dombrowski’s team—have with Torey Lovullo. So Avila would have to look outside the organization, most likely, for a new manager.
If the owner decrees, then that’s what Avila will do.
It won’t matter if the prevailing opinion of the team’s front office, backed by facts and well-measured arguments, is that the manager deserves another year.
Mike Ilitch will determine Brad Ausmus’ fate, plain and simple.
Now, to the reasoned baseball observer, an owner’s impatience, age and possible health concerns shouldn’t, by themselves, mean that the manager needs to go.
So much will have gone into the Tigers’ missing the playoffs, if that’s what ultimately happens.
Injuries. Guys performing below their resumes. More injuries.
All of these are beyond a manager’s control.
But stubborn use of relievers such as Shane Greene and Justin Wilson, when their performances have been trending downward for weeks, won’t help Ausmus’ cause.
Yet this is nitpicking. You could put any big league manager under the microscope and find faults or disagree with his decision making.
Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe was on the MLB Network last week and said that Red Sox skipper John Farrell is “wildly unpopular” with the fan base in New England. Ryan added that if the Red Sox don’t make the playoffs this season—David Ortiz’ last one as a player—then Farrell is in trouble.
And Farrell won the World Series just three years ago.
Yet Dombrowski didn’t hire Farrell; he inherited him when Dombrowski took over the Red Sox last summer.
It’s a “What have you done for me lately?” business, this professional sports thing.
It’s my opinion that giving Brad Ausmus the ziggy if the Tigers don’t make the playoffs will smack of making a change for change’s sake. Of course, sometimes that’s a good thing.
Other times, not so much.
I’m also not sure who would be available that would appear to be a decided upgrade, barring unforeseen circumstances, such as a high profile guy leaving his team unexpectedly (*cough* Mike Scioscia *cough*).
Again, that is not enough of a barrier if the impetuous, aging owner wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one day.
So what Ausmus has before him is a scenario in which he’d better make the playoffs—and maybe get beyond the play-in game—in order to feel safe. Anything less than that makes his return in 2017 a coin flip.
Would it be fair to let him go? Would it be reasonable?
Does it matter?
Not in the least.