LAKELAND, Fla. -- A warm Florida morning under a cloudless sky, the defending champions of the National League dressed in their iconic red tops stretching along the third base line at Joker Marchant Stadium while 43-year-old Cardinals manager Mike Matheny watches from just in front of the dugout. On the field the American League runners-up take grounders and fly balls in their navy blues while 44-year-old Tigers manager Brad Ausmus throws batting practice. The mind wanders, envisioning a time eight months from now with the clubs meeting in the cooler air of Busch Stadium or Comerica Park and the World Series about to begin.
Matheny and Ausmus come together behind the batting cage a few minutes later as the Tigers leave the field and the Cardinals prepare to take the cage. The younger man has the experience here. He's entering his third season as a major league manager after taking the reins of a World Series champion from Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa. That's either a great way to begin a career or a horrible one, depending on whether you have strong enough shoulders to carry the hopes of the Midwest through a grueling nine-month season. Matheny's shoulders are plenty strong, and in just his second year he had the Cardinals back in the Fall Classic. Some would say he opened the door for Ausmus with his success.
Matheny returns to his dugout, where he stands watching his club take batting practice while speaking with a collection of media members. It's not long before he's asked to size up Ausmus, the man the offseason managerial market stopped for last fall, despite the retirement from his 18-year playing career coming just three seasons earlier, despite his only experience being guiding an Israeli national team that failed to qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. "From all my experience," Matheny laughs at the question. "Two years. I'm the ultimate source of expectation around here."
Actually, Matheny is. Named St. Louis' manager less than a month after the franchise won its 11th World Series championship, Matheny had exactly nothing on his managerial resume. No trophies. No wins. No games. No minor league experience. Other than during his playing days, the former catcher hadn't even spent time on a bench next to a manager. Following retirement from a 15-year career, Matheny first spent time as a special assistant in the Cardinals' front office, then served as a minor league hitting instructor.
Parallels to Ausmus appear readily. Ausmus spent his post-career years serving as a special assistant in the Padres' front office. He steps to the front of a team coming off three consecutive American League Central division titles and a 2012 World Series appearance. Ausmus takes over for famed manager Jim Leyland, who has 1,769 victories and a World Series title to his name to go along with six division titles. The Tigers, again favored to win their division and given good odds by many to return to the World Series, could have chosen a safer pick, a manager with experience, but instead they chose a former catcher who looks like he could step back into the game as a player today.
Introducing Ausmus in November, Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski admitted the hire was a risk but said you have to look at the contemporary direction of the game. He noted that younger, less experienced managers have been able to step into situations and succeed right from the start, managers such as Matheny. When talking to people in the game ahead of the interview process, Dombrowski found many kept coming back to the same recommendation: Ausmus.
"Many years ago you'd look at that list and you'd find a lot of guys managing 10, 12, 14 years, who ended up coaching at the major league level," Dombrowski said. "That was how they paid their dues. A lot of the players, who are paid substantially more than they used to be, sidestep that. They're still involved in the game in an assistant capacity, helping on the field. There's not a lot who can do it, but I think [Ausmus] has a chance to be a very good big league manager for a long time and help us win right now."
Parallels to an earlier speech: All great managers start somewhere, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said in 2011 when introducing Matheny. "What we were looking for are characteristics that would make a manager successful. And (Matheny's) got those." So does Ausmus.
Matheny's Cardinals opened 2012 with a 4-1 victory, then went on to win seven of their first 10. They posted an 88-win season that year, capturing a National League wild card spot before falling in the seventh game of the National League Championship Series to the eventual World Series-champion Giants. A year later Matheny's team won 97 games, tying the Red Sox for the most in the majors before eventually losing the World Series to Boston. You could say with some accuracy that Matheny's success in St. Louis opened the door for Brad Ausmus. This is an idea Ausmus accepts but Matheny rejects.
"The reality is Brad probably could have been managing a couple years ago if he wanted to," Matheny says. "One of those conversations I remember he and I having a long time ago is the respect the people in the game have always had for Brad, and how he went about his business. It was inevitable, once the timing became right for he and his family that he would be in this position."
The pair held a near monopoly on the National League Gold Glove Award for catchers throughout the first decade of this century. From 2000-07 one or the other took home the prize. Matheny won in 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2005, the first three coming with the Cardinals. Ausmus earned his in 2001, 2002 and 2006, each as a member of the Astros. Neither was seen as much of a hitter, even at a position not known for great batting figures. Matheny hit just .239 for his career with not a lot of power in most seasons. Ausmus batted a slightly-better .251 with not much power either.
"Mike and I talked when we played," Ausmus says in his office before the Cardinals arrived for the day's game. "The Astros and Cardinals kind of had a very respectful rivalry, and Mike and I would talk with each other, whether it be in the weight room or batting practice. We kind of had that common bond but we never really discussed what we'd be doing when we were done playing. We were too busy trying to hit." They also spoke at the Winter Meetings held in December in Orlando, sitting down together for about an hour and a half. Matheny shared what he learned, that some things he was told won't be nearly as big a deal as others believe, to always be himself yet to remember the lessons he took from playing under some pretty good managers.
What always made Ausmus a popular player and what will make him successful as a manager, Matheny says, was that he always worked to make others better first. Ausmus was active behind the plate and in helping create plans to get batters out, even if it came at the sacrifice of his own game. That's the kind of thing that other players notice. "They saw he was out for the good of the club, not for the good of Brad Ausmus," Matheny says. "That's a quality certain people have that doesn't just set them up well for managing, it sets them up well for helping other people. That's really what a manager does. I think that term, ‘manager,' doesn't really get used the right way all the time. We've been given a trust. A trust of talent, and then to be able to try to maximize that talent the best possible way."
Another piece of the managerial puzzle is consistency. The notion is often there that because spring training results mean nothing, it's a relaxed time. A visit to camp would confirm the relaxed atmosphere in the clubhouse and as the players go about their business on the field. Matheny, however, says he could not even sleep before he made his spring training debut in 2012. "I thought it was Game 7 of the World Series," he says. "I showed up at like 3 [a.m.] at the field." The lesson for a young manager: Whether the games don't count at all or if one game can decide everything, approach it exactly the same. "Consistency needs to happen in spring training and carry right through the last game, whether it's in the playoffs or wherever they make them stop playing," Matheny says, "and I think that builds the confidence in your club, and I know that's something that Brad does very naturally."
Some questioned whether Ausmus would be able to command players' respect, entering the managing ranks with no track record and hardly older than the men he's charged with leading. That question has been put to rest. During his introductory press conference in the fall, Ausmus said he thought his relative youth could be used as a strength. Players respect players who have been in the game for a long time, and the close proximity to his playing years means he understands how younger ones think and act. "Something I bring that a veteran manager wouldn't is I was just playing three years ago," Ausmus said. "I was intermingling in the Dodgers clubhouse with 20-year-old Clayton Kershaw and 35-year-old Manny Ramirez. I have a pretty good feel of the modern-day player's mindset."
Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, just six years younger than his manager, counts himself among the fans of the new skipper. Hunter points out how Ausmus makes mundane tasks like watching video in the morning fun, as the manager usually starts the day with a funny video or by having some fun at rookies' expense. "He understands chemistry. He understands how guys think now, or what guys can and can't do," Hunter said. "He understands a little bit of everything on both sides. Most coaches that are removed from the game for a while forget how the game was. So he knows that you're going to fail. He knows if a guy's hot, no matter what the numbers say he's going to hit that guy, that day. He's going to go more gut feeling. I like Brad, man. He's awesome. You talk to someone, you ask them about Brad, they'll be like, ‘Wow. Awesome guy.'"
Ask around the Tigers' clubhouse and you'll hear a similar answer nearly every time. Ausmus has lived the life. He understands. You get the feeling this team has already committed to his leadership.
Still, that question of experience keeps recurring. Knowing enough to realize there is a lot they just don't know, both men immediately sought experience and continuity with the past, even while forging fresh futures. Matheny kept several members of Tony La Russa's staff, including pitching coach Dave Duncan, hitting coach Mark McGwire, third-base coach Jose Oquendo and bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist. Mike Aldrete was promoted from assistant hitting coach to bench coach. Matheny surrounded himself with the men who'd just won a World Series title.
Ausmus' first decision was to keep former manager Jim Leyland's right-hand man around, Tigers bench coach Gene Lamont. The 67-year-old managed 468 games in the majors and won two division titles with the White Sox. He's been a member of the team's coaching staff since Leyland brought him in Detroit in 2006. He's been with the team for two World Series appearances, three division titles and one wild card berth. "Geno's the guy I lean on the most during the game," Ausmus says. "If something's crossed my mind that I'm unsure of, I'll ask him."
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The experience doesn't end there. Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones has been with the club since 2007, and has served in his current role since 2011. Leyland, who retired in October, accepted a job as special assistant in the Tigers' front office. He has been in Lakeland with the team, available to mentor Ausmus as much as the manager wants. Third base coach Dave Clark has spent time as an interim manager with the Astros and was twice named manager of the year while serving in the minor leagues. Assistant hitting coach Darnell Coles has two seasons of experience managing in the minors, too.
There will be times when the game seems to speed up. Having the right staff around him should help Ausmus to slow it back down and give mind time to think several steps ahead. Matheny concurs in this approach: "Trying to figure out all the X's and O's of the game, if you have people around that you can trust -- [Ausmus has] got a bench coach and a pitching coach that have been here before -- you can kind of lean on them, as far as the template goes for what spring training looks like," Matheny says. "I remember I spent hours and hours and hours trying to prepare that and really we already had an idea and trust that that's enough to get the guys ready."
Ausmus' office feels a bit too small for the gathered media as he sits at a perfectly kept desk. In the corner of the room his jersey hangs in a single locker, his phone and a mitt contained on the top shelf. Nearby a refrigerator hums, with Diet Sierra Mist and Diet Mountain Dew filed a shelf above assorted flavors of Gatorade, that a shelf above a collection of bottled water. White boards on the wall help keep organized where players are in their workouts, with the number of pitches thrown and whether they came in a bullpen session noted in each dated square.
Media file into his office in the morning and again after the game, questions in hand about what they saw or what they might expect to see. Ausmus is a Dartmouth man, a distinguishing feature that never escapes the mind for long, and he handles these questions like a public relations professional. He never seems misleading. He thinks through the implications of his words before he says them, speaking at a comfortable pace. He deflects storylines with ease as they approach, defeats lines of questioning meant to get him to commit to his Opening Day starter or where a player might bat in the lineup. He updates on players' health issues, usually asking for someone to retrieve his phone so he can provide the most up-to-date and accurate information. He's careful, yet at ease, quick to make a joke, either self-depreciating or at the expense of one of the men in the room he has begun to get to know during his first few weeks on the job. When speaking of a player's injury, he names the specific bones in the leg, riffing on a popular advertisement from a few years earlier: "I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night." He corrects his grammar one day, realizing he said "good" when "well" was the proper choice. He is in clear control of his message.
Yet the most interesting periods of the session come when he begins to get away from the state of his own team and just talks about the game of baseball. Ausmus had been speaking about former Braves pitcher Mark Wohlers, who threw as fast as 103 mph in the 1990s. At the time that was an impressive figure. It still is. Directing the topic, a reporter asks Ausmus why so many more pitchers can hit 100 these days. "Because the money changed," Ausmus declares, leaving no doubt it's a topic he's thought about. "It's well publicized what athletes make. You've got pitching coaches on 11-year-old travel teams. Better pitchers, stronger arms. They work harder, they train at it. It's the natural evolution of the game."
Later a reporter relates the score of the Tigers' split squad team that traveled to Clearwater to face the Phillies, losing 10-6. "Geno's fired," Ausmus laughs. Clearly, he feels comfortable, but he doesn't just joke about himself or his staff. He readily makes jokes about those in the room with him, a fact that seemed to put everyone at ease. Ausmus' boyish looks, good natured-humor, intelligence and confidence give the appearance of a man who would be successful no matter the field he chose. You could just as easily picture him the English teacher at the front of the class, his students transfixed as if Robin Williams himself were playing the character.
Mike Matheny was asked his advice for Ausmus. After all, only two years earlier he was running his first media sessions, spending long days at the park, earning the respect of players only a handful of years younger than himself and coaches dozens of years older, just as Ausmus is doing now. "Just to be yourself," Matheny says. "Which was really the best advice I got, even from Jimmy over there. It was one of the first things he said: You've got to make sure you do yourself a favor and not try to be a second-rate version of Tony. You've got to be yourself. That's how you start winning over your club. I think that was very, very good advice." That's a lesson Ausmus seems to have mastered already.
It comes as no surprise Matheny believes the Tigers -- and their manager -- should be set up for a lot of success this year. "There's still all the resources there to take what [Ausmus] already does naturally and take the things that he has that a lot of other people don't have," Matheny says. "You're talking about the intelligence, just the knowledge of the game. Everything's right there and you can see that this can work out really well for this club."
Add in the fact the Tigers have a roster that includes two-time defending American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Cabrera, recent All-Stars at nearly every position, two Cy Young Award winners in their rotation, a closer with the 10th-most saves in MLB history, veteran coaches who have had success, a general manager willing to make daring moves and ownership that is willing to do whatever it takes to win, and you can see why Matheny's expectations are shared by others. Betting odds have already listed the Tigers as favorites to represent the American League in the World Series and they're a popular pick among experts as well.
Should Ausmus' club reach that pinnacle, a year from now he'll be the one standing outside his dugout surrounded by reporters, answering questions about his advice for the next young, inexperienced former player about to start a career of his own. And Should the Tigers win it all for the first time in 30 years, it would be Ausmus, not Matheny, being used as the measuring stick for success.
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