By Jamie Samuelsen
Jim Leyland and Tony LaRussa are close friends.
Both are well-respected, World Championship managers. Both took teams from both the National League and the American League to the World Series. And both retired from the game within two years ago – LaRussa after the 2011 season and Leyland this morning.
Given the symmetry, it only makes sense that the Tigers should follow the Cardinals’ lead and hire a former catcher with zero managerial experience to take over the reigns of the team. If it worked for St. Louis, why shouldn’t it work for Detroit?
It’s not that simple of course. But the Cards decision to tab Mike Matheny as LaRussa’s successor brought plenty of confused looks around baseball. Matheny had never managed at any level. He’d only been retired as a player since 2007. And he’d been just a roving organizational hitting coach for two seasons. But since taking over in the St. Louis dugout, he’s taken the Cardinals to Game 7 of the NLCS last year and has them in the World Series this year.
Who is the Mike Matheny for the Tigers? Former catcher Brad Ausmus.
Ausmus is a front office assistant with the Padres, a job he’s held since retiring from the game in 2010. He played for the Tigers in 1996 and from 1999-2000 and even then had the reputation of a ‘brainy’ player who one day would manage. That opinion came courtesy of Joe Torre who knows a thing or two about pushing a talented team over the top. Someone in Major League Baseball told me today that Ausmus would be a perfect manager because he’s young enough to relate to the players but has always been a strong leader. That leadership was evident throughout his career, even here in Detroit when he was named a “tri-captain” for the 1999 team along with Doug Brocail and Dean Palmer.
According to reports, Ausmus has already interviewed for the Nationals job and appears to be one of the main contenders to replace Davey Johnson there. There were some rumblings that the Cubs were also interested in Ausmus but prefer to hire someone with managerial experience.
That’s the mistake that many teams make and that the Tigers should not make.
True, this is a veteran club who like to do things their own way. But it’s just as true that this veteran club has coasted at times through the regular season over the past few years when they could just as easily have put their foot on the pedal. We’ll never know exactly how Leyland handled his clubhouse or handled and problems that lied there in. But judging from what we saw on the field, players were allowed to do their thing as long as the results on the field stayed positive.
You can’t duplicate Leyland. That may come as good news to some and bad news for others. But the Tigers shouldn’t just look at the usual suspects. Dusty Baker would be a disaster here. He’d destroy this pitching staff. Kirk Gibson is the most logical option, but Arizona is unlikely to let him out of his contract given the success he’s had so far with the Diamondbacks.
The Tigers are built on pitching and Ausmus, like Matheny, would have enough in depth knowledge to handle the staff as well as anyone.
As for his lack of experience, I’m just not buying it. First of all, every great manager needs to get that first job. Secondly, if you’re worried about some clubhouse revolt, you’re not giving the players enough credit. There are leaders on this team like Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera. They’re not about to let this ship go down because some ego clashes get involved. And a first-time manager is far less likely to have an ego issue than some retread who can’t change his ways.
The Tigers are a step away from winning it all. But they’re clearly lacking something to push them over the edge. They can go safe and hire a name. Or they can go bold and hire the ‘next’ name. By all accounts, Ausmus fits that description. He should be the choice.