LAKELAND, Fla. -- At about 11 o'clock Friday morning, in bright sunshine and a mild wind and almost-warm temperatures, Brad Ausmus did his first hands-on managing.
It happened on one of the four practice fields on which Tigers pitchers and catchers were having their first official workout of spring training.
Ausmus was standing at third base, wearing his catcher's glove, as a half-dozen hurlers took turns working on a play that you can go a long time without seeing: the pitcher picking a runner off third.
Back in the manager's office in the clubhouse after the workout, Ausmus was asked why he would have the pitchers immediately work on an uncommon play.
"We discussed some parameters of it," Ausmus said. "A lot of these guys have never done that before. So we wanted to expose them to it.
"Quite frankly, there will be some guys that aren't comfortable with doing it, and you eliminate it for those guys. But defensively, it's a weapon."
All the pitchers worked on the third-base pickoff. They worked in four groups and rotated among the four fields for a lesson at each. Perhaps the toughest part of the play is throwing the ball to the third baseman as he's on the move to cover third.
The immediate work on the third-base pickoff shows how Ausmus, in his first managing job, will look for every small edge possible. The Tigers have some big assets and talents, but the execution of fundamentals can decide games--and championships. Remember how a Tigers pitcher made an error in all five games of the 2006 World Series with St. Louis?
On another field Friday, Ausmus had the Tigers pitchers perform a drill to improve their fielding. It took place in centerfield.
A few coaches stood about as far away from the pitchers as a batter would when he's at the plate. The coaches hammered the balls at the pitchers.
Fear not--these weren't real baseballs being drilled at the hurlers. They are imitation baseballs that go by the name IncrediBall.
This was a new drill in Tigers camp. It's called "rag ball." Ausmus brought it with him from San Diego, the team with which he was affiliated for the last few years.
"It's for pitchers to react to balls hit right back at them without the risk of being hit in the face," Ausmus said. "It can be tough."
There's another good reason to have the drill: It eliminates some monotony from these early days of camp before the infielders and outfielders join the drills Tuesday and provide the quasi-competition of batting practice.
Before and after the approximate two-hour workout Friday, Ausmus held entertaining, eloquent sessions with the media in his corner office in the clubhouse. He didn't sit behind the desk the way Jim Leyland and other Tigers managers have done. For the pre-workout session, he perched on a front corner of the desk, one leg dangling. For the post-workout get-together, he sat in a chair away from the desk.
He mentioned Buddy Bell, who succeeded Sparky Anderson as Tigers manager in 1996. Ausmus, like Bell then, is in the business of succeeding a silver-haired legend who gave many a lot of wins and words by which to remember him.
But that's not why Ausmus brought up Bell. He was discussing managers who have impressed him with the way they went about the job. Bell, for whom Ausmus played only a half-season, was high on his list.
Like the players, Ausmus walked by a group of several dozen fans. Only a few said anything. One asked for an autograph. Without breaking stride, Ausmus held up his hand and politely declined.
"I have to go to work right now," he said.
A few hours later, after looking at ease throughout his first day in uniform in his new job, Ausmus said, "It was a good day. It went surprisingly smoothly for a first day of spring training, especially for a first day with a new manager and an almost entirely new staff."
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