Published September 23, 2017
The before and after photos of the young, first-time big league baseball manager are akin to those of the Presidents of the United States.
They enter the office fresh-faced, with an easy disposition, hair that doesn’t need Just For Men and a face that doesn’t look like corduroy.
They leave office with crow’s feet, graying hair and the overall countenance of someone who didn’t sleep a wink and who’s just been cut off in traffic.
Brad Ausmus is no different.
Almost four years ago, Ausmus bounded back into the town where he once played, slipped on the Old English D once more and took over the helm of the Tigers from the retired Jim Leyland, whose corduroy face had been years in the making.
Ausmus, 44 at the time, looked like he could still play. The face was still smooth, the hair was jet black and the smiles were easy to come by.
He leaves office 48 years old but looking about 10 years older than that. The smiles haven’t been nearly as frequent.
Friday, the news broke that had long been anticipated. Hoped, if you’re a typical bloodthirsty sports fan. Ausmus won’t be returning in 2018. The Tigers will let the fourth year of his contract expire without exercising the club’s option for a fifth.
Ausmus wasn’t fired. Not that it matters. I doubt the feeling for him isn’t any different than being canned, when the boss calls you into the office to tell you that there won’t be a contract extension and to get ready to clean out your desk.
Contract not extended. Fired. Pick your poison. It’s semantics.
This ain’t 2013
What’s not semantics is this. The Tigers will be hiring a new skipper. The circumstances surrounding the team’s search this time couldn’t be more different than when Dave Dombrowski went manager shopping in 2013.
In 2013, the Tigers were still in win-now mode. They were coming off a third straight Central Division title and an absolutely gut-wrenching loss in the ALCS to the Boston Red Sox. Yet they still had the makings of a contender.
Ausmus, when hired, practically went from taking off his catcher’s gear to making out lineup cards. His managerial experience consisted of one brief stint in the summer of 2012 as skipper of Team Israel in a failed attempt to qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The last time he had sat on a big league bench two years prior, he was still a player.
But despite the greenness of the manager, the Tigers were still considered a team that could win it all when Ausmus was brought in. They had star power and a big payroll. If a thing here and there had gone the other way—like a certain David Ortiz grand slam—many feel like the Tigers could have won the whole enchilada in 2013.
Today, the Tigers are like an airplane that’s lost power to all its engines. They’re headed for a crash landing despite jettisoning payroll by the money bagful. No contender, they.
General manager Al Avila’s charge in this manager search isn’t easy. It’s akin to asking someone to be the Tom Hanks character in “Cast Away”—but after that person knows what’s about to happen to him.
The Tigers will be the league’s deserted island for at least the next two years. Avila has to find someone who’s willing to try to kill his own food and fashion a canoe out of tree bark.
It’s the perfect job for someone who wants to manage in the big leagues in the worst way—literally.
The educating of Brad Ausmus
But back to Ausmus.
To be fair, some of the sourpuss fans had some concerns when Ausmus was hired that his lack of experience would be a factor—and not in a good way. Not all of the naysayers are looking at this with 20/20 hindsight.
I didn’t buy the “no experience” card then and I’m not sure that I buy it now. The Tigers didn’t hire Ausmus after he fell off a turnip truck. The man is smart and he played the thinking man’s position of catcher in the big leagues for 18 years.
But I understand the sentiment. Running a big league clubhouse isn’t for everyone. Game management can be learned on the job, but massaging egos and knowing when to push and when to pull doesn’t have a printed guide. I get that.
I think Ausmus did OK in Detroit as Tigers manager. He wasn’t exactly provided with the world’s best bullpen. Even his detractors will acknowledge that. Fans thought he wasn’t enough fire and brimstone for their liking. They love that stuff.
But this isn’t college football. There are no halftime speeches in baseball. The season is about 200 games long, counting spring training but not counting the playoffs. It’s a daily grind; a battle of attrition.
The fact of the matter is that all kinds of personalities have been successful in the dugout. The Billy Martin types have won a lot, but so have the Tom Kellys. The clowns like Sparky Anderson have won, as well as the humorless folks like Tony LaRussa.
Ausmus’s most egregious fault, to me, was being slave to the so-called “book” of managing, which surprised me because with his age and recent experience as a player—and for so many different organizations—I expected him to be a little more on the progressive, “outside the box” side of things.
Ausmus mostly managed by cue card. You know those hand held guides that the football coaches carry with them that tells them when to go for a two-point conversion and when not to do so? It seemed like Ausmus had one of those for in-game managing, and he rarely drifted from it. My opinion.
A baseball mind wasted?
One thing that the above examples of winning managers had in common—besides really good players—was that they managed by feel and instinct. They didn’t need spreadsheets; they used their gut.
If I was giving Brad his exit interview, I’d tell him that his legacy as Tigers manager would have been so much more respected if only he had thrown the so-called book away more often and relied more on those 18 years behind the plate. The man played for a lot of teams; it’s not like he learned his style from one person. That amalgam, I believe, could have been leveraged far more.
But it is what it is. Ausmus won’t be back and before long, a new man will be slipping on the Tigers home jersey. He will speak bravely about the task before him. He’ll try to convince us that his team isn’t the worst in the league. He’ll praise Avila and the rejuvenated farm system. You could almost write the quotes from his presser right now.
That’s OK. What else would you expect him to say?
Don’t bother asking me for possible names, because if you were paying attention, I already gave you one, about two months ago.
It was suggested to me by someone on Facebook that Lance Parrish should get the gig. You could do worse.
The Big Wheel, currently managing the Tigers’ Double-A team in Erie, checks off a lot of items on Avila’s presumed list of qualifications. Maybe not as many as my guy, Dave Martinez, but still quite a few.
Parrish has deep ties to the Tigers, obviously. He’s managed before, though not at the big league level. He’s worked with several of the players on the current 40-man roster. He was a catcher, which apparently has mattered a lot in MLB history.
And, maybe most attractive of all—and perhaps not even Martinez possesses this—Parrish truly understands the scope of the Tigers job, and would be willing to stick out a few lean years for the greater good.
What’s not debatable is this: the next Tigers manager will not be the man who will be the one leading the team when they’re good again. The guy after Ausmus will be transitional. Sort of an Alan Trammell type. The new man’s job is to set the team up for success for years to come, not to actually be the guy to be there for years to come. Think Ralph Houk, 1974-78.
To me, the legacy of Brad Ausmus is not that he was a bad manager, per se. But he could have been so much more, if he had only tapped into his own personal database of big league experience and trusted his instincts. I hope he gets another chance somewhere else, but the odds are against him. His Tigers resume won’t blow anyone away.
Ausmus’ time in Detroit as manager was tricky. He joined them when the window of opportunity was closing. And he wasn’t able to keep it open for longer than one year (2014). But I’m not sure another man would have had much more success, given the warts of the farm system and the regression of certain players. And that wacky bullpen.
Brad Ausmus was a rookie manager for a veteran team. It was a calculated risk taken by Dave Dombrowski. It didn’t work.
Now it’s time to move on. What the hell else can you do?