Ausmus credits Matheny with managing opportunity
Tigers skipper believes contemporary opened door that led to high-profile team
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The way Brad Ausmus sees it, he might not have been standing in the Tigers' dugout on Monday if Mike Matheny wasn't still doing the same with the Cardinals.
The comparisons between Ausmus and Matheny draw themselves. They're both intelligent, well-respected former catchers who played during the same era. They cornered the market on National League Gold Glove Awards from 2001-06, with each winning three. And they've faced questions about whether someone can lead a high-profile Major League team with no prior managerial experience.
The answer, as Matheny has proven, is yes. Ausmus believes Matheny's smooth, successful transition helped open the door for his return to the dugout.
"I think it had an impact in the sense that teams started interviewing me," Ausmus said before the Tigers and Cardinals met at Joker Marchant Stadium. "No one told me that, but I think it's pretty obvious."
It wasn't quite so obvious to Matheny, actually.
"The reality is Brad probably could have been managing a couple years ago if he wanted to," Matheny said. "I think it was inevitable once the time became right for he and his family that he'd be in this position. I'm sure he's going to do a great job."
The two managers spoke for a few minutes behind the batting cage before Monday's game, but they'd already spoken at length during the Winter Meetings in December to discuss the challenges and other aspects of being a first-year manager. Ausmus estimated they spent an hour and a half talking, more time than Ausmus spent with any other skipper there aside from Bud Black of San Diego, where Ausmus worked in the front office.
Ausmus said he sought out Matheny before the meetings, but their relationship goes back to their playing days. Matheny caught for the Cardinals in the early 2000s, when Ausmus was with the NL Central rival Astros. Ausmus said they occasionally talked in the weight room or on the field, but not about their post-retirement plans.
"We were too busy trying to hit," Ausmus joked.
So they found time to chat during the Winter Meetings. Matheny said he relayed some of his experiences, a few things that people said would be big issues, but actually weren't, and a little bit of the advice he received when he took over for Tony La Russa in 2012.
"Pretty simple stuff that I know a Dartmouth guy already knows, and that's just to be yourself," Matheny said. "That was really some of the best advice I got, even from [former Tigers manager Jim Leyland] 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, and that's how you start winning over your club.' That was very, very good advice."
Matheny and Ausmus also were handed the same double-edged sword: a talented team with a desire to win now. The Cardinals had just won the World Series when Matheny took the reins, and the Tigers have at least reached the American League Championship Series in each of the past three years.
Though that might create higher expectations than most first-time managers face, Matheny said it actually made his job easier.
"There's a culture that's already in place. It's not as if this organization's trying to revamp everything. What's been done here has been done right for a long time," Matheny said. "It's, 'How can I jump in and keep that momentum, keep reinforcing that culture and figure out how I can put my piece in to help us always get better and drive each individual get better?' It's a pretty simple philosophy."
Matheny said he downplayed the significance of micromanaging the "X's and O's" to Ausmus, and Matheny stressed the importance of consistency and delegation. Like his counterpart, Ausmus inherited a coaching staff with plenty of experience and expertise. Ausmus said Monday he's comfortable asking questions to bench coach Gene Lamont during games, and Matheny called that a "huge help" for any young manager.
While fielding questions about his advice for Ausmus, Matheny teased reporters for treating him like "the ultimate source" for such knowledge, considering his relative youth and two years' experience. But it's worked out well for him and the Cardinals so far, and he's confident it will for Ausmus and the Tigers, too.
"You can see Brad had that confidence in his teammates when he was a player, that they saw that he was out there for the good of the club, not the good of Brad Ausmus. You can see that he made investments mentally in every pitch in how he was going to get the most out of his pitchers," Matheny said. "I think you can translate that into how he works with the pitching staff, the other players, getting the best out of them. Just a quality certain people have that I think doesn't just set them up well for managing; I think it sets them up well for helping other people, and that's really what a manager does. I think the term 'manager' probably doesn't get used the right way all the time. We've been given a trust, a trust of talent and being able to try to maximize that talent in the best possible way.
"I think Brad has done things in the past that have proven that's kind of his makeup. You think it would be a natural transition. You mix that in with a good team ... he has all the resources there to take what he already does naturally and some of the things that he has that a lot of people don't have, as far as just knowledge of the game. Everything's right there to see that this could work out really well for this club."