Baseball / Sports

Mike Matheny, Robin Ventura, Walt Weiss and Brad Ausmus proving you can run club well with no previous experience

As the latest member of the First-Timers Club, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus knows people are watching his every move.

Like the Cardinals' Mike Matheny, the White Sox's Robin Ventura and the Rockies' Walt Weiss, Ausmus stepped into his high-profile role without any managing or coaching experience.

On the job training at the highest level of the game was mostly a relic of the past only a few years ago, but now anyone who knows the game and can communicate with players and media alike is a potential managerial candidate.

Will it last, or go the route of the Cubs' ill-fated College of Coaches?

"I guess it depends how it pans out to move the trend forward," Ausmus said.

"Obviously those guys have all done a good job, but really Matheny is a guy who took over a team that was coming off a World Series championship (in 2011). He had no managerial experience and was replacing a Hall of Fame manager (in Tony La Russa), and he succeeded.

"So he's the guy every organization looks at, and says, 'Well, Matheny did it and made a pretty good transition.' That's why the opportunities are starting to arise."

The only experience Ausmus had running a club was managing Team Israel during the 2013 World Baseball Classic. The former catcher spent the last three years as a special assistant in the Padres' baseball operations department.

But when Jim Leyland retired last October after the Tigers lost to the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, Ausmus was chosen to take over a championship-caliber club.

So far, so good. The Tigers are on top of the American League Central, and with Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer leading the way, they should be playoff-bound again.

"He spent 18 years in the majors, so he knows what he's doing," Scherzer said. "Really the transition has been pretty seamless.

"Not to take anything away from what Leyland accomplished. He was such a great manager himself. But Brad has been able to step right in and has done pretty much the same thing, though he has done a couple of different things."

Such as?

"Team things," he said with a laugh. "It is weird being around here and having a strict no-smoking policy."

Leyland was a chain smoker, so the Tigers no longer have to worry about the hazards of second-hand smoke. And there are so many veterans in the clubhouse, Ausmus doesn't have to worry about being a babysitter.

"He's like 'Just go play the game,'" outfielder Torii Hunter said. "The players dictate the game. The manager comes and (says) 'All right, it's time to take the pitcher out.' But we play the game.

"This is a veteran team. Guys have been around. And he's not too far removed from (playing) so he's not going to mess with the players."

Leyland's right-hand man, former manager Gene Lamont, remains as the Tigers' bench coach. Lamont's winding career path is more typical of most major league managers. He spent eight years managing in the minors before becoming Leyland's third base coach with the Pirates in 1986, and eventually got a chance managing the White Sox in 1992.

But after winning a division title in 1993 and having the league's best record in '94 before the strike ended the season, Lamont was fired only 31 games into the 1995 season. He got another shot with a rebuilding Pirates team, but has been passed over for jobs since.

Lamont says he gives Ausmus as much advice as he needs, and doesn't begrudge the new breed for being on the fast track.

"I like the route I went," he said. "I got to know the big leagues while coaching. There are some things you haven't come across before, but Brad's a fast learner."

The four members of the First-Timers Club share much in common. They're all bright, played a long time, served as clubhouse leaders and know how to deal with the media. And they all have veteran coaches helping them, like Ausmus with Lamont and Ventura with White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper.

"It's not like Robin couldn't have handled it without 'Coop,'" White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. "It is more of (an NFL) defensive coordinator kind of thing. Coaches lean on these guys to know their players and can handle them. But Robin is the one who makes all the decisions."

Matheny beat out five other candidates for the Cardinals' opening, including Ryne Sandberg and Terry Francona. On the day he was hired, Matheny said "catcher is a leadership position, and I was brought into this position because of (playing that position)."

Ventura was hired that same offseason and was the only one then-general manager Ken Williams interviewed.

"With the hiring of Robin and Matheny, maybe our clubs took a little bit of a leap to put that plan in place quicker than others would have," Hahn said.

"But when they had success, other (GMs) said, 'Yeah, there are guys who can manage some day. These guys have had success, so maybe it's not that crazy to just put them in without having the experience."

The four could open to the door for others with similar aspirations. One executive named Hunter, Paul Konerko and Jason Giambi as current players who could walk into a managerial role with no problem.

Ausmus said the transition from front office assistant to the manager's office has not been that difficult.

"It's not a huge adjustment," he said. "I still come to the field around the same time, maybe a little earlier now. The difference is I talk to the media twice a day."

(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

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