Matheny paved the way for Ausmus
LAKELAND, Fla. — Brad Ausmus met behind the batting cage for several minutes on Monday morning with St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who the new Detroit Tigers manager believed had an impact on him getting the job.
Matheny, 43, had never managed anywhere before going straight to the majors and finishing 88-74 his first season before winning the National League pennant and 96 regular season games in 2013. He was a Gold Glove-winning, light-hitting catcher with a great reputation for working with pitchers and commanding the respect of teammates.
Sound like anyone you know? Ausmus, 44, is cut from that exact same cloth and also embarking on his first season without managing anything besides Israel’s national team and two games as a Joe Torre substitute with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
How did Matheny’s quick success with a veteran team in a traditional organization influence the way the Tigers and other teams looked at Ausmus?
"I think it had an impact in that teams started interviewing me," said Ausmus, who retired as a player after 2010. "I think it’s pretty obvious.
"Mike and I talked when we played. The Cardinals and Astros had a very respectful rivalry. We never discussed what we were going to be doing after the game. We were too busy trying to hit."
Ausmus is big on self-deprecating humor. But his .251 career batting average is higher than Matheny’s .239. Though, Matheny nipped him with four Gold Gloves to three.
When told that Ausmus believed he paved the way for him, Matheny said, "The reality is that Brad probably could’ve managed two years ago. With the respect people in baseball have for him, it was inevitable. I know I always had a great deal of respect for him and how he went about the position. He was so smooth."
Matheny leaned back on the dugout railing and smiled, saying he was more of a "bulldozer" who "grinds" through his task. You should know that Matheny is completely unassuming. When he said the losers of an intra-squad scrimmage would have to clean the clubhouse bathrooms, Matheny, who was an observer of the game, took on the worst task. He cleaned the toilets.
When Ausmus got the job, Matheny was one of a handful of current managers he sought out to pick his brain.
"We spent time together at the winter meetings," Matheny said. "I went through some of the expectations I had. ‘Just be yourself’ was the best advice I had from Jimmy (Leyland) over there."
Leyland, now a Tigers consultant after eight years of managing the club to two pennants, was standing behind the batting cage wearing a neon orange shirt, shorts and sunglasses. He’d scouted for the Cards in between managing jobs and is a close friend of their Hall of Fame manager, Tony La Russa.
"(Leyland) said, ‘Don’t try to be a second version of Tony.’ I had a lot of people pour into me, and Brad had the same."
Matheny, who played at Michigan for Tigers catching legend Bill Freehan, broke in with the Milwaukee Brewers and ended his career with St. Louis in 2004. The one advantage Matheny had over Ausmus was being a roving instructor for the Cardinals prior to receiving the job that La Russa fully supported him getting.
"What an opportunity for a young manager," Matheny said. "(For me) to get a catcher like Yadier (Molina) and a tremendous coaching staff like this.
"Brad has that same advantage — a culture is already in place. What had been done here was already in place."
The Tigers went to the World Series two years ago, reached the ALCS last year and have two recent Cy Young Award winners (Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer) and two recent MVPs (Miguel Cabrera and Verlander).
Matheny said Ausmus also brings a "transferable" respect from his playing days as a confidence builder and team player.
"Everything’s there to see it could work out really well for this club," Matheny said of the Ausmus-Tigers combo.
— Before meeting the media, Ausmus picked up an empty pack of Marlboros from his desk and told reporters that they could probably guess he was talking with former Tigers manager Jim Leyland earlier
— Ausmus is holding 9:30 a.m. team meetings before drills and batting practice. "We discuss this day’s fundamentals. It can be anything. Part of it is what happened yesterday, and what’s going to happen today."