LAKELAND, FLORIDA — Brad Ausmus opened his office to the media at 8:45. It was impeccably neat and organized and during his meeting he spoke accurately and incisively about various medical subjects. Based on the comments of regular Tigers writers, this is juuuuuust a bit different than the Jim Leyland years.
The medical talk came in response to questions about shortstop Jose Iglesias, who will be held out of action for the next week due to a recurrence of some issues with his shin. Ausmus referred to it as a “stress reaction” that, rather than being attributable to some incident on the field, “may be attributable to a genetic issue.” When asked where Iglesias felt pain, Ausmus said he “felt it in his tibia.” When he said “tibia” he gave a shrug and sheepish kind of look as if he had guessed the proper name of the bone, and that caused the assembled reporters to laugh, but you could tell Ausmus knew the right name of the bone. The shrug reminded me of when the smartest guy in the room is trying not to come off as the smartest guy in the room. And Ausmus is very clearly the smartest guy in most rooms he enters.
After the anatomical term came up a reporter jokingly asked Dr. Ausmus if Iglesias’ “superior vena cava” is doing OK.
“Well, I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night . . .” More laughs. But it seemed to me more of the fine balance a cerebral and athletic-minded person has likely had to manage his whole life. It’s fascinating to see.
The cerebral side came out after some discussion of Bruce Rondon, the Tigers reliever who can throw 100 miles per hour. Ausmus was asked if it’s strange to him that so many pitchers routinely hit the high 90s and even higher on the radar gun these days, and why he thinks that is. If you have that conversation in a bar people will talk about steroids. If you have that conversation with sports fans or even some people in the game, you’ll hear generalizations about kids just being bigger and stronger now. Ausmus, even though he was clearly being asked to offer some pithy generalization about hard-throwers, offered a much longer, thoughtful take.
“The money changed,” Ausmus said. Larger signing bonuses and arbitration awards for hard-throwers with high strikeout totals, even if it doesn’t always translate to great pitching results. The money leads to “greater specialization at younger an younger ages,” with kids focusing on just pitching when they’re younger. And prospects playing in more competitive, sophisticated youth and travel leagues. “And there is just natural evolution at play,” Ausmus added. Noting that baseball is no different than a lot of sports where the records and metrics are better and more impressive now than they used to be.
Ausmus’ manner is free and easy and he’s quick with a joke, but he’s not hilarious the way Jim Leyland often is. And he doesn’t give a flip answer to anything. Even if it seems like he’s talking off the top of his head, you get the impression that he has already considered everything you might ask. Any subject that might come up. It’s an organized brain. It’s evident in his speaking and manner.
It’s even evident by looking at his desk. Every notepad, pen, stapler, and electronic device was neatly and squarely placed on his desk. More neatly than I’ve ever seen on anyone’s desk. It’s like those guys who arrange the place settings with rulers for royal dinners arranged his desk. And you can tell he likes it that way. During his interview, he sat in a side chair and let one of the veteran Tigers reporters sit in his desk chair, partially as a joke, partially out of actual respect. At one point the reporter knocked over his empty McDonald’s coffee cup on Ausmus’ desk calendar. It made no mess, not even a drop, and the reporter quickly picked it up and resumed his question.
Unless, as I was, you were looking right at Ausmus to see his reaction, you may not have noticed that, just for a moment, he dropped his free-and-easy demeanor. That something was interrupted in the intellectual order of his universe for a second. He focused on the cup and the calendar and was briefly concerned that chaos had entered his office. As soon as it was clear that there was no disaster, he snapped back to attention to matters at hand. Control and order had once again been restored.
If you can’t tell, I am fascinated by this guy. There aren’t many beasts like him in managerial ranks. I’m going to be watching him closely.