Ausmus well suited to follow tough act in Detroit
Facing first season as manager, longtime catcher heeds advice from Leyland
The best advice for someone following a legend in any line of work is generally this:
"Don't even bother."
It is difficult work, especially in a situation in which success has been the norm. Constant comparisons. Constantly coming out second-best in the constant comparisons. People constantly saying, "That's not the way the other guy would have done it."
But there can be exceptions. Can we make one of those exceptions in the case of Brad Ausmus, who is replacing the retired and widely admired Jim Leyland as manager of the Detroit Tigers?
It is always dicey to predict these sorts of things before the first game has been played under the new administration. But I'm going to say "yes," for two essential reasons.
One is Ausmus himself, known as an intelligent fellow who has considerable standing of his own in the game. The rookie manager getting a winning team in his first job used to be a real rarity. Then Mike Matheny -- like Ausmus, a former catcher with lots of character references -- took the Cardinals to within one game of the World Series in his first season and to the World Series in his second.
This offseason three new managers landed with clubs that could be expected to win: Matt Williams with the Nationals, Bryan Price with the Reds and Ausmus with the Tigers.
Of those three clubs, the most proven commodity is the Tigers. And that is the second component that makes managerial success likely for Ausmus.
The Tigers have won three American League Central titles in a row. Even with the departure of Prince Fielder, they will have a powerful lineup. And they will have a lineup with more speed. Even with the loss of Doug Fister, they will still have one of the best rotations in the game. And their bullpen has received some needed upgrades, with added depth and with the addition of one of baseball's finest closers, Joe Nathan.
There is no reason to expect the Tigers will become a second-tier operation no matter who manages them. But success here would have to be measured in terms of a fourth straight division championship and then a deep postseason run.
Is Ausmus a candidate for that sort of success? Let us answer that question with another question: Why not?
He knows who he is. He knows who he isn't. He made this extremely clear in his recent remarks at a Winter Meetings media session after a question about what a tough act Leyland is to follow.
"Jim was one of the best managers of his time," Ausmus said. "And we're talking about the time where there were some pretty darned good managers; three just got elected to the Hall of Fame. But I don't go in trying to be Jim Leyland. I'm not Jim Leyland. I wouldn't expect anybody to want me to be Jim Leyland.
"In talking to a few managers that I know here, Mike Scioscia [of the Angels] I was talking to about this, he said the most important thing is to be yourself. If I try to emulate Jim Leyland or be Jim Leyland, I think people would look at me as being kind of fake. It doesn't carry a lot of weight. Certainly wouldn't gain any respect. The most important thing is being myself."
On the flip side, Leyland went out as manager on his own terms and will remain with the Detroit organization. Leyland has been generous with assistance for the new manager.
"Jim has been fantastic with me, starting with the organizational meetings we had the day after I was announced as manager," Ausmus said. "I've talked to Jim a number of times. Every time I have a meeting, Jim is basically sitting next to me or two seats over. I've talked to him a lot.
"He's been great in two ways. One, he'll give me any information I ask for or any information that he thinks I might need. And also makes it clear, 'I'm not the manager, you are. You need to do this. Just because I'm telling you I did it this way or I like this, doesn't mean you have to say that.' He's been fantastic."
Ausmus had the good fortune to play for a diverse but capable cross section of managers during his catching career. He also had the good sense to learn something from each manager who was worth learning from.
"I played for Joe Torre," Ausmus said, "and two things I took away; one is temperament. He was always calm. He never had to yell. And, two, he was never outmanaged. He was always prepared. You didn't necessarily always agree with what he did, but you always understood why he did it.
"Phil Garner I enjoyed playing for. He was more fiery. Looking back, I played for Larry Dierker in Houston for three years, and I was a young player. And he actually handed me the reins as a catcher. I was fourth-year in the big leagues, handed me the reins to control the running game, the first-and-thirds, I would call whether we threw to second or pump-faked, and at the time I thought he was throwing a lot on my plate. I was only 28 years old.
"But looking back, that taught me a lot about the game of baseball, because I had to figure out when to pitch out, who we were supposed to throw to. It was fortunate for me. A lot of catchers don't get that option at 28, they don't get that opportunity. Larry Dierker has had an impact."
Next up, Brad Ausmus will be having an impact with the Tigers. The team's talent is not in dispute. And even as a first-year manager following one of the managerial giants, Ausmus comes to this moment with considerable knowledge on his side.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.