The Houston Astros were one out away from winning the 2005 National League championship and moving on to the World Series. Catcher Brad Ausmus was eager to squeeze the last pitch.
Instead, the ball didn’t make it past slugger Albert Pujols, who smacked a monster home run to send the series back to St. Louis for at least one more game.
The Astros’ bus to the airport was like a funeral procession, and the dejected players quietly filed onto the plane. Ausmus, though, ducked into the cockpit. Shortly after, the bird climbing into the sky, the pilot came on the speakers to welcome his passengers.
“We have a beautiful day ahead in St. Louis, and we’ll have you there soon,” he said. “But if you look to your right, you will see the ball Albert Pujols hit last night. It’s still orbiting the earth.”
You can imagine how the Astros reacted to that dig, right?
“The pilot didn’t want to do it, but I told him I’d take the heat,” Ausmus said. “There was sort of a stunned silence, then Brad Lidge looked at me, and I was laughing. He started laughing, and then the whole plane broke up.”
Ausmus, the new manager of the Detroit Tigers, and outfielder Torii Hunter were at Fifth Third Field on Thursday night for a Mud Hens’ charity event.
Will the Tigers see that same sense of humor from their new skipper?
“Well, I’m not going to change who I am,” said Ausmus, whose ’05 Astros relaxed and recovered to win the NLCS. “I can be dry and sarcastic. They’ll see basically the same guy. We’ll have some laughs.”
If they win some games along the way, even better.
That will certainly be the expectation as the Tigers chase a fourth straight AL Central title and whatever postseason spoils might follow. Ausmus says he isn’t a bit intimidated by that.
“I’m not wide-eyed and awake in the middle of the night because the team should be good,” he said. “I’d have more trouble sleeping if the team was expected to be bad. I’d much rather have a team picked to win than having a rebuilding job and looking at a 100-loss season.”
Ausmus takes over for Perrysburg native Jim Leyland, who called it quits last fall after his 50th season in professional baseball.
Hunter had some fun with his new boss, and his old, when asked what the big difference might be between them.
“Maybe age?” Hunter said. “Brad is younger, in good shape. Jim was fragile. Seriously, 50 years, that man had experience. They are different personalities. Brad basically just ended his playing career and has a lot of fire. He knows players and how to play. He’s done some damage in the game.
“He’s going to be fine. You play 18 years in the big leagues, you earn respect. He’ll have no problem with the guys in that clubhouse. There will be a ton of respect. Plus he’s a lot of fun. He still cracks jokes like he’s a player.”
That 18-year career, which included a decade with the Astros, featured three different stints with the Tigers, for whom he was an All-Star selection in 1999. Ausmus retired after playing in 21 games with the Dodgers in 2010 and spent three years working in the front office in San Diego. This is his first managing job at any level.
That and his age — he’ll turn 45 shortly after Opening Day — raised some eyebrows when he was tabbed as Leyland’s successor.
“I’m pretty confident,” he said. “At the major league level, whether I’m 45 or 65, it doesn’t hurt that I played at that level as long as I did.”
He has met with a handful of his new players and spoken with the others on the major league roster. That roster has changed a bit with the Prince Fielder-for-Ian Kinsler deal with Texas and the signing of veteran closer Joe Nathan to clamp down the back of the bullpen.
“The style of play should match your players, so we won’t be as much of a base-to-base thumping team,” he said. “We’ll try to take advantage of athleticism, being aggressive, and being a dynamic defensive team.
“What manager wouldn’t want this roster, the Big 3 [Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez] at the front of the rotation and Joe Nathan to close?”
Yes, it could be fun.
Ausmus played it straight when a questioner, making a point about defense by mentioning young shortstop Jose Iglesias, asked instead what the manager’s thoughts were on Julio Iglesias.
“I should have said I liked his music,” Ausmus deadpanned.
VERLANDER UPDATE: Detroit manager Brad Ausmus exchanged text messages Thursday with pitcher Justin Verlander, who underwent core muscle surgery on Jan. 9, and reported that the Tigers’ ace was confident he’d be ready.
“I assume he meant by the start of the season,” Ausmus said at Fifth Third Field. “Knowing his work ethic, that wouldn’t surprise me. But we have to be smart. He’s too valuable to approach it any other way.”
Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 13. Opening day is March 31 against Kansas City.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.