By: Jamie Samuelsen
Jim Leyland had a good run as Tigers manager. And when he retired two weeks ago, he was given the proper tributes for a job well done. We may never see another quite like Leyland and it’s a shame he never won a World Series in Detroit because it would have forever cemented his legend in this great baseball town.
But as fans and media lamented Leyland’s departure, one rather major factor was ignored. Leyland’s retirement didn’t just represent the end of an era; it represented an opportunity. It was an opportunity for GM Dave Dombrowski to keep the band together, keep the status quo and hire an experienced manager who knew this team well. Or it was an opportunity to shake things up, bring in a fresh voice and push this team to heights that it has yet to reach. And give full credit to Dombrowski for choosing the latter.
Dombrowski tends to be a private decision-maker, so we’ll probably never know exactly why he selected 44-year-old Brad Ausmus to be the Tigers new manager. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Dombrowski looked at his club, looked at what it had achieved and, more importantly, looked at what it hadn’t achieved. There’s a lot to be said for winning the AL Central three straight years and advancing to at least the ALCS in all three of those seasons. But there’s also something to be said for running away with a mediocre division and securing home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs. That was something the Tigers were never able to do under Leyland.
I would never say that the Tigers underachieved. But I’d also never say that the Tigers played up to or past their capabilities. Leyland was a genius at managing a clubhouse and keeping guys in line. If there were issues with this team, we never heard about it. And they won a lot. The Tigers were a very comfortable team. But sometimes, a team can get too comfortable. And the ascension of Lloyd McClendon to the manager’s office would have been an endorsement that the status quo was just fine. It’s not.
The hiring of Ausmus shows that this is a talented, championship-caliber team that needs a little shove. Whether it’s Ausmus’ knowledge of how to run a pitching staff from his days as a catcher or his admitted fascination with sabermetrics, he brings a fresh attitude to the dugout. Change isn’t always good, but smarts always are. And there is no doubt that Ausmus has that.
Some are concerned that he’s never managed a game before, that’s the inherent risk with the hire. But every great manager got his first job at some point. And the success of managers like Kirk Gibson, Mike Matheny and Don Mattingly in their first stints have to give those skeptics some comfort that success is possible in Detroit for Ausmus.
Defining a successful baseball manager has long been one of the biggest mysteries in sports. Joe Torre was a lifetime loser as a manager before getting the Yankees job in 1996. Four World Series wins later, he’s most likely headed to the Hall of Fame. Let’s not put such lofty expectations on Ausmus yet. But to win in the majors you need to command respect, think ahead of the game and lead in the clubhouse. Ausmus did all of those things as a player. There’s no reason to think he can’t do the same as a manager.
The Tigers are in full win-at-all-costs mode. Leyland had plenty of chances to push this team over the top, and for whatever reason, it didn’t work. The trend in the game is to hire younger managers who embrace the new metrics and can relate to their players. Ausmus is the poster child for all of those things and is the right pick for the Tigers.