For Ausmus, long road began in San Diego
Laid-back manager credits Padres, Black with essential management experience
For months, almost since he got the Tigers' managerial job, Brad Ausmus had been looking forward to this point, when he could get out of the ballpark after a game and go home. Not home to his in-season place in Detroit, but his actual home in San Diego.
Ausmus couldn't have envisioned this type of night at the office before he could get there.
The crowd at Dodger Stadium, long stereotyped for arriving late and leaving early, was still around four hours after first pitch on Wednesday, and it was roaring. It wasn't just pockets of fans across otherwise empty sections of seats. This crowd was expecting something big to happen again in the 10th inning of a 7-6 game.
Joe Nathan, Detroit's closer, was long gone, having given up a three-run lead in the ninth while dealing with a dead arm he hadn't mentioned to the manager. Ausmus found out when reporters asked him about Nathan's comments on a national radio show.
The rest of the bullpen had nary a closer in the bunch, a combination of unproven young arms and veteran bounce-back candidates. Ausmus had to get them through the heart of the Dodgers' lineup in the 10th inning, protecting a one-run lead.
Ausmus knew in his mind how to get through the 10th. He did not have a reliable way to relay it to the guys who would have to do it.
"We didn't know. Our bullpen phone stopped working," said left-hander Ian Krol, who struck out Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier with the tying run on base to leave Al Alburquerque with one out for the save. "We had a walkie-talkie that [bullpen coach] Mick [Billmeyer] could barely hear, because the crowd was so loud."
If the new manager was going to go home with a win, he was going to have to play matchups with three relievers, a walkie-talkie nobody could hear and guys waving signals between the dugout and bullpen. Who said managing a big league game was supposedly easy?
Ausmus at least tries to make it seem that way.
"I'm usually telling [bench coach] Gene Lamont to calm down," Ausmus said later. "When Krol got Ethier out, [Lamont] started yelling at me to go make a pitching change. I said, 'I'm going! Relax!'"
If there's one early theme from Ausmus' brief managerial tenure, beyond the on-field strategy, it's that he doesn't freak out, even when everyone around him is jumpy. He wasn't born in California, but he picked up the personality.
Since Ausmus left home for Spring Training, his challenges have included the loss of his gifted young shortstop with stress fractures in both legs, the similar absence of his 103-mph-throwing setup man to Tommy John surgery, the loss of his young left fielder to back surgery, an off-field issue involving a reliever, the frighteningly slow start of his veteran closer and the general shakiness of a bullpen that hasn't posted zeros in a game since Opening Day. So far, the only way to measure the stress is to count the gray hairs peeking out from under Ausmus' cap.
Even Wednesday, as the bullpen kept Ausmus from getting home to Del Mar, Calif., until Thursday morning, it did not seem to faze him.
"I'm certainly not happy about it, the way it's going," Ausmus said, "but I've been there before. Not as a manager, but I've been there. It's part of the game. I think you learn to deal with things like that as a player; at least, I learned to deal with it."
Ausmus had 18 years and nearly 2,000 games as a Major League catcher to do so.
"I've been there in the [National League Championship Series] and Albert Pujols hits a 475-foot home run to take the lead in the top of the ninth. That stuff happens," Ausmus said. "Getting upset about it isn't going to make your decisions any more sharp. Can't control it. Once it happens, it's over. You have to think about what's next."
For this weekend, what's next is where it began. Ausmus made his Major League debut with the Padres 21 years ago, a 24-year-old catcher on a rebuilding San Diego club long on young talent, but short on wins. Among the pitchers he caught that day was a rookie setup man named Trevor Hoffman, acquired just a month earlier for Gary Sheffield. The two became friends and stayed that way long after Ausmus' Padres tenure was done.
Around that time, Ausmus bought his first home in San Diego. He never left, through the trades to Detroit, then to Houston, then back to Detroit.
"I believe I am on record as early as 2000 as saying Brad will make a fantastic manager when his playing career has ended," wrote Randy Smith -- formerly the Padres' and Tigers' GM and now San Diego's vice president of player development and international scouting -- in an email to MLB.com. "I think his intelligence, leadership and ability to deal with people was clearly evident early in his career."
The playing career honed Ausmus' leadership and game skills. His last three years as a Padres special assistant, Ausmus has said several times, showed him the view from the management side. While Ausmus taught prospects the art of catching, San Diego taught him the game from the front-office view, from roster construction to player development to long-term planning.
Ausmus was never released as a player. The only time he was sent to the Minors was in 1993 with the Rockies out of Spring Training. If Ausmus was going to manage, he had to learn how to deliver that news to a player.
"I watched Bud Black as a member of front office, even sat in a few times with Bud as he talked to people before he sent them down," Ausmus said in Spring Training. "The vast majority of the time, the player kind of realizes what's coming, but there are the occasional emotional outbursts."
Ausmus and Black ended up talking regularly. As much as he learned playing for managers like Phil Garner, Joe Torre and Bruce Bochy, Ausmus can count Black as another influence.
"I spent a lot of time with Bud over the last few years, whether it be in Spring Training or during the season, pregame in his office or postgame in the coaches room," Ausmus said. "There's quite a bit I learned from Bud. ... I'm sure there are things on the field that I do as a result of being with the Padres and being around Bud."
The morning meetings that became famous in Spring Training? Ausmus got the idea from Black. The rag ball drills, in which coaches used softer baseballs and smacked hard-hit choppers right at pitchers from short distances to get them used to comebackers? That, too, was a San Diego import.
"We've talked a lot over the last three years," Black said this week, "and actually became closer over the last couple years."
Like Ausmus, Black became a manager after a lengthy big league playing career -- 15 years as a left-handed pitcher. Unlike Ausmus, Black had a lengthy coaching history before he got his first opportunity as a manager. Black, however, saw the qualities in Ausmus.
"I saw right away that the leadership skills, the ability to relate with players, the ability to teach, the ability to manage those around him, I think would be something he'd be very astute with," Black said. "Obviously the playing career, I think that's instant credibility for his players. His grasp of the game is high-end.
"We talked this winter, when he was going through the process and eventually got the job. We've talked a number of times since, and he's going to do great. He's going to be a very good manager."
For one well-anticipated off-day Thursday, though, Ausmus was looking forward to being a homebody. He still surfs, he says, and he hoped he might be able to get to the beach on Thursday. The way Wednesday's game unfolded, Ausmus had to navigate treacherous waters just to get home.