There’s something about being a catcher in baseball.
First, you have to be a little different—maybe even a little nuts.
There has to be something a bit off about a guy who is willing to squat 150 times a game while pitches are thrown at him between 90 and 100 mph, knowing full well that he will be used as a human backstop for three hours—with ricocheted baseballs battering his mask, his knees, his feet and his hands.
The catcher is the quarterback on the baseball diamond—or maybe the free safety, as we’re talking defense here. He is also the pitcher’s best friend, confidante, guide and caddie. The golfer asks which club to go to—the catcher is asked which pitch to throw.
The catcher sees the whole game, because the whole game happens in front of him. He doesn’t have to turn his back to see what’s going on.
It’s this perspective on the field of play that has made the former catcher an attractive managerial candidate throughout the history of baseball.
The Tigers won their first world title in 1935, under the guidance of Mickey Cochrane, a catcher whose playing career was cut short thanks to a bean ball. Before the pitch to the head, Cochrane was a player-manager for the Tigers, following many years as a star for the Philadelphia A’s.
The Tigers pennant of 1940 was directed by Del Baker, another former catcher.
Five years after losing the 1940 World Series to Cincinnati, the Tigers won their second championship. The manager was Steve O’Neill, who had been—you guessed it—a catcher in his playing days.
The Tigers, like every team in baseball, have called upon the former catcher multiple times to become the team’s skipper. It hasn’t always worked, but that hasn’t stopped teams from trying it over and over.
Ralph Houk was a backup catcher for the Yankees. Jim Leyland was an erstwhile catcher, stumbling around in the minor leagues for the Tigers, before hanging up his chest protector and mask and turning to managing.
The Yankees have turned to catchers frequently to manage their ballclubs.
Yogi Berra. Houk. And, more recently, Joe Torre and Joe Girardi.
One of the top candidates for 2013 Manager of the Year, Oakland’s Bob Melvin, was a marginally talented catcher for the Tigers in the mid-1980s. Bruce Bochy, who has led the San Francisco Giants to two world titles in the past four years, was a catcher for the Padres. Bob Brenly, whose Arizona Diamondbacks upset the mighty Yankees in the 2001 World Series, was a catcher.
Looks like the Tigers are going back to the former catcher well, as they seek to replace Leyland, who retired on October 21.
Brad Ausmus is, by all accounts, a smart guy. He graduated college with a degree from Dartmouth, no less. In a sport where a hayseed from Podunk, Iowa has often become a Hall of Famer, an Ivy League education has hardly been a prerequisite for success. But Ausmus has it.
What Ausmus doesn’t have is any experiencing managing—unless you count that brief stint managing Team Israel in 2012 during the qualifying rounds for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
The Tigers, multiple reports say, are about to tab Ausmus—a former Tiger—to replace Leyland in the dugout.
The contrast between Leyland and Ausmus couldn’t be more distinct.
When the Tigers introduced Leyland as manager eight years ago, his resume spoke for itself—for good or for bad.
There were all those years in Pittsburgh, and the three straight divisional titles (1990-92). But the World Series had eluded him, sometimes painfully so.
There was the 1997 world title with the Florida Marlins, which was ironic because Leyland’s team didn’t win its division—it was a Wild Card.
There was a jaded year in Colorado (1999).
Leyland’s managerial chops weren’t in question; the Tigers hired a veteran skipper who was 61 years old. There was wear on the tires.
Ausmus is 44—just a few years removed from his days as a player. He was one of the best defensive catchers of his time. He has worn the Old English D, as then-GM Randy Smith kept trading Ausmus and trading for him. But in contrast to Leyland’s resume as a manager, Ausmus offers a big baseball brain and not much else.
Ausmus has yet to be second-guessed. He has yet to hear his name besmirched on sports talk radio. Nobody wants to fire him—yet.
It’s the cleanest of clean slates—a manager with not a speck of big league managing experience.
It’s also a hell of a risk.
The Tigers aren’t a team in development. They’re not in rebuilding mode. This isn’t a situation where a manager and his players can learn on the job, together. This job isn’t warm and fuzzy. It’s win or else.
The Tigers expected to win in 2011. They expected it again in 2012. The pressure to do so in 2013 was off the charts. So what do you think expectations will be in 2014—Ausmus’ rookie year as a big league skipper?
GM Dave Dombrowski apparently feels that Brad Ausmus, all 44 years of him, has what it takes to enter this win-or-else pressure cooker and come out without being so much as scalded.
In a way, Ausmus couldn’t ask for a better gig to start his managerial career. He inherits a wealth of talent, great starting pitching, an owner who will spend money, maybe the best GM in the business and fan support beyond belief.
But this is going to be on-the-job training, and that prospect makes a lot of Tigers fans squirm, Ausmus’ Ivy League education notwithstanding.
Fancy book learning a great manager doesn’t necessarily make.
But a catcher? Now we might be talking.