In Ausmus, Tigers find their man
Former big league catcher was destined to join managerial ranks
Many of my former teammates went on to become Major League managers. Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, Eric Wedge, Robin Ventura and John Farrell are all on the list. The news that Brad Ausmus had been named the next skipper of the Detroit Tigers, another former teammate of mine, was the least surprising of them all.
For Ausmus, it wasn't a matter of if he would become a big league manager, it was a matter of when. There are teammates you play with over your career who you see as potential coaches or managers. For me, Ausmus was easily the strongest candidate, and I had over 1,000 teammates in my 19 years as a player.
It's not unreasonable to wonder why Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski would chose Ausmus, 44, an 18-year veteran catcher with zero managerial or coaching experience, to manage his team. With three consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series and a World Series appearance in 2012, a championship ring is well within reach for the city of Detroit. Is this really the right time to let a manager with no experience take over? If, and only if, you're confident he's the right one.
Ausmus is a bright guy, you'll hear a lot about this. As a 47th-round Draft pick of the Yankees, he attended Dartmouth College in the offseasons. On its own, earning your degree from Dartmouth is an accolade to be proud of, but doing it while trying to maintain a professional baseball career takes his accomplishment to a whole new level.
But it is not just an Ivy League education that makes Ausmus an impressive candidate for this job, it's more about who he was as a player and who he is as a person. I played with Ausmus for parts of four seasons with both the Houston Astros and Tigers. We were traded together twice and once shared a home during Spring Training in 1997.
There is a lot to admire about Ausmus. Getting drafted in the 47th round tells you all you need to know about his raw baseball ability, it was not exceptional. Yet, he found a way to have a lengthy and impressive Major League career. Three Gold Gloves and one All-Star selection are on his resume to go along with five postseason appearances, including a trip to the 2005 World Series. That doesn't happen without incredible work ethic and a burning desire to learn.
I've always felt the best managers are rarely former superstar players. They are guys exactly like Ausmus, grinders. Guys who figured out a way to survive in the extremely competitive world of Major League Baseball with less to work with. It is those players who understand failure so well and who can relate to the average player struggling just to survive in the game. It is a necessary component in my opinion to be an effective manager, someone who understands what his players are dealing with on a daily basis and never forgetting how difficult this game is to play.
As a catcher, Ausmus has already managed personalities and he's done it well. Pitchers can be fickle creatures, sensitive at times, stubborn in others and admittedly we're not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. In my years with Ausmus, he was excellent in managing his pitching staffs. He knew when it was the right time to give you that kick in the butt and when it was the right time to help you navigate through a tough time with a little more sensitivity. He was excellent at calling a game and he knew how to take the pressure off a pitcher when it came to strategy. He often led our pitchers' meetings, showing excellent leadership skills. He had a plan, he knew what he wanted to do, and more importantly, he communicated it well. He was the best defensive catcher I worked with, with Pudge Rodriguez running a close second.
Not to be missed in all of all of what you'll hear about Ausmus is his competitiveness and desire to be a winner. I remember one time in 2000 with Detroit when this part of him was truly revealed.
It was late in the season and we had just won a game. We weren't a good team and our playoffs chances had all but evaporated. The team was in the clubhouse in Comerica Park celebrating. The music was loud and the guys were having fun. You might have thought we just won a postseason series by the way we were celebrating. Ausmus had made his way into the clubhouse a little bit late and noticed the raucous celebration. He didn't participate. He walked slowly through the clubhouse toward his locker. I don't remember exactly what he said, but it was something to the effect of, "Great, now we're only 15 games out of first place." He was bothered by the way our team was reacting to the win.
That stuck with me, and it took me a while to understand, but eventually it made perfect sense. We had been a bad team for a long time and we had seemed to accept that. We were overcelebrating a win in a season of failure. We were appreciating mediocrity when we shouldn't have been satisfied with who we were as a team that season. Brad wasn't interested in celebrating mediocrity, as a manager he won't let his team be OK with it either.
A lot of this things will contribute to Ausmus' success as a Major League manager, but what will likely put him over the top is the fact that he is only three years removed from his playing days. He has intelligence, he knows the game, he's competitive, he's a plus communicator and he'll command the respect of his players and get the most out of them. But the fact that just a few seasons ago he was sharing a clubhouse with this generation of players will give him an uncanny advantage over most managers.
The game changes over time, and whether we like it or not, players change, too. In order to effectively manage each generation you have to have an ability to connect with your players, relate to them and understand who they are in today's game. Antiquated ideas and management techniques don't work in any field. When you're trying to manage 25 personalities who are facing all the pressure in the world to succeed under the microscope of professional sports, you'd best be able to relate to them or you're destined for disaster.
Ausmus has that ability, and Dombrowski recognized it right away. That is why he jumped at the opportunity to hire Ausmus as the next manager of the Tigers, one he expects to bring the city of Detroit a World Series title. He knew if he waited, someone else would hire him, managerial candidates like him don't come along every day. The Detroit Tigers are in great hands.
C.J. Nitkowski is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.