Ausmus takes helm as workouts begin
Tigers manager begins career with pitching, catching drills
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Brad Ausmus spent all offseason readying for this. Realistically, as he waited for his first team meeting as Tigers manager, he'd been preparing a lot longer than that.
When asked if he was still working on his address to the team, Ausmus shook his head.
"No, I'm good. I've had four months," Ausmus said. "Really, I've had 20 years."
From his 18 seasons behind the plate to his three years as a special assistant, this is where many thought Ausmus' career was headed. His leadership skills, his knowledge of the game, his knowledge in general pointed toward a life as a manager if he wanted it.
Finally, as pitchers and catchers gathered in the clubhouse at Joker Marchant Stadium on Friday morning, Ausmus had his team in front of him.
He talked with pitchers and catchers for about 20 minutes, basically going over what he expected out of them. By all accounts, there was no rah-rah speech, no motivational tactics, no authority power grab.
"Just going over what he expects, what he wants, just getting to know him a little bit and the coaching staff," left-hander Duane Below said. "It was good to hear and get to know him a little bit."
"Same stuff: 'We're here to work,'" Max Scherzer said. "Nothing out of the ordinary. It's exactly what every manager says at this time of year."
Ausmus has been in camps where managers tried to motivate in mid-February. This wasn't one of them.
"The speeches that stand out are either really good, really bad or really funny," Ausmus said.
Aside from a couple tweaks, the Tigers' workout was much the same as in previous years. Pitchers moved station to station, from fielding practice to covering bases to pickoffs. Ausmus joined in on one drill, fielding ground balls and tossing to pitchers as they scrambled to cover first base.
"For a split second, I felt like I was a player again," Ausmus said. "But then a ball was hit to me that reminded me what the reality is."
The one wrinkle Ausmus added to the mix was a drill he learned in San Diego. Out near the center-field fence on one practice field, pitchers took their turns trying to field hard-hit comebackers from new infield coach Omar Vizquel.
"They call it ragball," Ausmus said. "The balls they used were like Incrediballs, soft. It's basically just for the pitchers to react to balls being hit right back at them without the risk of being hit in the face with a baseball. And it can be tough. It's more of a reaction drill."
Ausmus estimated Vizquel was hitting them from about 60 feet away. Scherzer estimated the distance more like 20 feet.
Though Vizquel wasn't hitting baseballs, they still could leave a mark.
"That's something we've never done before," Scherzer said. "But I liked that we did it."
If there was a factor missing, it was the noise level. The usual yelling Jim Leyland used to provide -- instructions, encouragement, even the occasional jokes -- was absent. If there was a presence Leyland gave to early workouts during his eight seasons in charge, that was it.
Ausmus can't recreate that. He can't fake that personality. His predecessor, Leyland, had more years managing in the big leagues than Ausmus had preparing for it, but he also had to win players' respect without a Major League resume as a player.
Realistically, Ausmus can't try to duplicate Leyland's style. He has to be himself. That's all his new players want from him.
"When you have a team that's made it three times to the [American League Championship Series], you don't need a culture change," Scherzer said. "It is nice to have a little different feel in the clubhouse.
"Skip was great. We appreciate everything that he did. He gave everything he could, all the way to the end. Obviously, his time has come. I think Brad is going to pick up where he left off and add new stuff and make us even better."
Scherzer still uses the 'Skip' term for Leyland, just as Justin Verlander referenced earlier in the week. Ausmus understands if players don't call him that. He neither wants nor needs it.
"I personally don't care what they call me," Ausmus said. "But I've had other players ask me, 'What do you want me to call you?' You can call me Brad. A lot of people call me 'Aus,' [teammates] that I played with. It doesn't matter. Don't call me Coach Ausmus or Manager Ausmus."
Whatever the name, the title is the same. The Tigers are now Ausmus' team. Even if there wasn't an individual moment that hammered that point home with Ausmus, Friday was the day it became physically clear. After four months of planning, now he can get to work.
"I do feel like this is kind of where it starts," Ausmus said. "But again, like I mentioned the other day, I'm not nervous, I'm not uncomfortable. I can't really explain it. I feel like I should be nervous and a little bit uncomfortable, but I'm very comfortable in the surroundings with the people that are here. I have faith in the staff that I have around me.
"So far, smooth sailing. I'm sure there'll be bumps in the road, but so far, knock on wood."