DETROIT — Dave Dombrowski knows he’s taking a chance by hiring inexperienced Brad Ausmus to be the new Detroit Tigers manager.
After meeting Ausmus and talking to many people around the sport, it is a risk he’s willing to assume.
“After a lot of discussions and a lot of meetings, I am very confident that we’ve made the right choice,” Dombrowski said at the press conference held to introduce Ausmus on Sunday afternoon.
“Everyone we’ve talked to is positive that Brad is going to be an exceptional manager, and we strongly believe that he is ready to help us win right now.”
When previous Tigers manager Jim Leyland announced his retirement two weeks ago, Dombrowski mentioned several times that he prefers hiring managers with experience, even if it is at the minor league level.
Ausmus, though, has never managed or coached in the minors or the majors. He did manage Team Israel in the qualifiers for the World Baseball Classic this spring, but that was only three games.
However, as Dombrowski started the process of interviewing prospects, Ausmus not only convinced Dombrowski to break his own rule, but he was so impressive that the Tigers didn’t even finish their own list of candidates.
They interviewed Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, Padres coach Rick Renteria and Dodgers bench coach Tim Wallach, and were turned down by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, but didn’t talk to the final person on their list. Dombrowski wouldn’t name the sixth candidate, but Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo was rumored to be a candidate for the job.
Instead, knowing that Ausmus was a finalist for the Cubs job, Dombrowski went to work finalizing the deal. Ausmus flew to Detroit, met with Dombrowski and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch on Saturday afternoon, was offered the job and accepted after discussions with his family.
“Brad was in Chicago on Friday, which we knew about, but we had always planned to have one or two candidates meet with Mr. I to get his blessing,” Dombrowski said. “When I called him, I knew he was the person I wanted to hire, as long as Mr. I approved. He’s usually very good about doing that, but he, obviously, gets to make the final decision.”
In the end, Ausmus’ interview plus strong recommendations from some of Dombrowski’s best friends in the game — Joe Torre and Moises Alou among them — were enough to make Dombrowski reconsider his bias in favor of men with managerial experience.
“When I was first in the position to make these decisions, a lot of baseball people paid their dues by going to the minors and taking a managerial job, and then working their way up to becoming a big league coach, and then a manager,” Dombrowski said. “In today’s world, though, you have to recognize that there are people who are sidestepping that process and moving right into a job.
“You can look at Mike Matheny, who just managed in the World Series. He didn’t have that experience. Colorado hired Walt Weiss. Don Mattingly was in the postseason this year.
“Times have changed, and I wanted to keep my eyes open to that prospect. Frankly, when we interviewed Brad, we were taken aback at how impressive he was.”
Dombrowski and Ausmus both feel that his 18 years as a major league catcher make up for never having been a manager.
“I would guess that Brad has managed every game he’s ever played in, because that’s part of the role of being a catcher,” Dombrowski said. “At that position, you are in charge of communicating with everyone on the field, and you are always thinking about strategy in the short term and long term.
“Mike Matheny was a catcher, and so were lot of other successful managers, including Joe Maddon and Jim Leyland.”
Ausmus also impressed Dombrowski with insisting on having a bench coach with managerial experience, which is why Gene Lamont is staying with the team.
“Gene is someone who would I would have chosen even if he weren’t already part of this organization,” Ausmus said. “He’s one of my best friends in the game, from when we were together in Houston, and he has decades of experience in every possible job. If there’s something I don’t know about managing, Gene does.”
Lamont is the only Tigers coach to keep his job, although Dombrowski said that others will be considered as Ausmus builds his own coaching staff. The most obvious candidate to return would be pitching coach Jeff Jones, who helped shape what is considered baseball’s best starting rotation.
“I know Jonesy from when I played here, and he’s, obviously, going to be a prominent name on my list,” Ausmus said. “We just haven’t made any final decisions.”
Another possible pitching coach would be Doug Brocail, who played with Ausmus in both Detroit and Houston. Brocail has served as the pitching coach in Houston, and is now working in the Astros’ front office.
At the end of the press conference, with Ausmus wearing the same No. 7 jersey he wore as a Tiger in 1996, he pointed out that he has no intention of trying to tear down everything Leyland built up.
“You don’t generally get dropped into a situation like this, with your first managerial job being a team that just played in the ALCS,” he said. “I’m not Jim Leyland, and I’m not going to try to be Jim Leyland, but I know that I’m taking over a very good ballclub because of what he’s done.
“I would be foolish to try to come in here and make sweeping changes.”