LAKELAND, Fla. — Detroit Tigers fans knew what to expect with Jim Leyland. His game strategy, quirks and personality became common knowledge to even casual fans.
But now there’s a new manager in town, and we began getting acquainted with Brad Ausmus during spring training.
Two things stood out after observing him on a daily basis.
Ausmus seems to always be in control and well-prepared. If he didn’t have the answer to a question, he would check data stored on his smart phone or quickly duck into the coaches’ room next to his office and ask.
He also has a great, dry sense of humor. Ausmus said plays reviewed by umpires in New York this season will be a lot like jury decisions: "If you get a quick answer, you probably are not going to be happy with it."
His certainty in making decisions and ability to laugh should come in handy while managing a top contender during the ups and downs of 162 games. We’ll learn more about Ausmus in the months ahead, but wanted to provide readers a glimpse at what makes the Dartmouth graduate and 18-year major-league veteran tick.
After a Grapefruit League game earlier this month, I spoke exclusively with the 44-year-old manager about the game, his family, his job, his passions, and the season that begins at 1:05 p.m. Monday in Detroit against the Kansas City Royals.
SK: You remember listening, as an 8-year-old, to Boston Red Sox announcers calling the first game Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker played together for the Tigers at Fenway Park in 1977. How did you get hooked on baseball?
BA: My mother grew up in Brookline (Mass.) and my grandfather was a big Red Sox fan. And so I was introduced to Red Sox Nation as a young child. I listened to a lot of games on the radio, watched any games that were on TV, read the box scores and anything I could get my hands on. We went to a couple of games every year (on trips from Connecticut) and my favorite player was Jim Rice. We lived in kind of a no man’s land — halfway between the Yankees and Red Sox. But I was definitely a Red Sox fan.
SK: What are you most looking forward to about managing regular-season games?
BA: The same things I enjoyed as a catcher: the chess match, the cerebral part of the game. And, ultimately, you want your players to do well and win.
SK: Phil Garner managed you in both Detroit and Houston, and you spent far more time with him than any other manager. What’s the most important thing you learned from him?
BA: The one thing Gar did for me, and it was a tremendous asset, was to take the time in Houston to explain during or after games why he did certain things. I’ve always appreciated that because it really helped me learn the game.
SK: When did you start thinking about managing?
BA: Other people, when I was well into my career, started bringing that up to me. And so I started thinking about it. People thought I could manage, but I wasn’t sure they were right … I’m still not sure (laughter). You can ask me that question again one year from now."
SK: Randy Smith, the general manager of the Tigers when you played here, traded for you twice, traded you away twice and also selected you in an expansion draft. How do you explain what happened there and what you’ve gained from Randy, who you also worked with over the last three years for the San Diego Padres?
BA: Between Randy (and his father) Tal Smith (a Houston Astros executive), I had a lot of opportunity in that family. Both traded for me and traded me away. Randy and I are still good friends. We have dinner and talk. And we can talk about anything — not just baseball.
SK: You hit a game-tying homer in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS vs. Atlanta, which Houston won in 18 innings on its way to the World Series. You didn’t go on the disabled list until the 18th and final year of your career. You won three Gold Gloves and made the 1999 All-Star team. And you’re third all time for the most put-outs by a catcher, behind Ivan Rodriquez and Jason Kendall. What are you proudest of from your career?
BA: Not going on the DL for 17 years. But I realize it was some good luck and good genes. But I never used injuries as excuses.
SK: Did that attitude come from the work ethic you saw in your parents?
BA: I’m sure it did, with the way they raised me.
SK: Is your wife, Liz, or are your daughters (Sophie, 16, and Abigail, 14) big baseball fans?
BA: My youngest daughter, not so much. My oldest daughter plays softball and so she follows it. But my wife really enjoys baseball, and she even watched Padres games when I was playing for the Dodgers. (The Ausmuses live in Del Mar, Calif., just north of San Diego, and have a summer home in Birmingham, Mich.) My wife, she thought I was a basketball player when I met her in high school, though. It was my senior year and her junior year. She didn’t know I played baseball until that spring, but she’s grown to enjoy the game quite a bit.
SK: You love surfing. The waves in Detroit aren’t so hot. So what are you going to do during the season to take the place of surfing?
BA: There won’t be one thing that can do that … There have to be waves to do that. I like to go out at Del Mar and get shoulder-high or bigger waves. It’s cathartic.
SK: You like to throw batting practice before games. Why do you do that?
BA: I enjoy it, and I can also see their swings from out front. I’m the youngest guy on the staff, so I might as well throw.
SK: You’ve been letting us reporters sit in your seat in your office during interviews. Is there a reason why you want to do that?
BA: It just started out as a joke, but it’s worked out well.
SK: Some managers are very reliant on sabermetrics. Others like to go more with their feel for moves in games and lineups. What will your approach be?
BA: I’ll look at the numbers for some things, but it’s still a game played by humans. I’ll take everything into consideration.
SK: You’ve been the on-the-field manager of the Tigers for over one month now. What have you most enjoyed about the job?
BA: The people, the players and the camaraderie in the clubhouse. That never gets old.