LAKELAND, Fla. -- Brad Ausmus had made the drive down Interstate 4 and into this central Florida town plenty of times, whether as the Tigers catcher or as a visiting player with the Astros. In that sense, the early morning commute felt eerily familiar, even if it had been six years since his last such trek.
"There's more stores and restaurants," Ausmus said, noting the growth around town.
He walked into the clubhouse, made the left turn and found the corner office where he used to chat up his old bosses. He had never been called in there to be sent down, or released, or even traded -- both of his trades out of Detroit were offseason deals. On Tuesday morning, bright and early, he walked in for the biggest promotion of his life. His camp doesn't officially open until the first workout Friday, but he was done waiting.
"I remember talking to Larry Parrish in here for what felt like hours," said Ausmus, referring to the one full season Parrish managed in 1999. "LP and [pitching coach] Rick Adair and I sat in here one day for hours."
The portrait of Ty Cobb still stares down the manager in the office. It's still torn from the time Jim Leyland threw his spikes at it after a frustrating loss managing the Class A team here in the 1970s. Leyland was around the same age then, maybe a little younger, than the 44-year-old Ausmus is now.
If the glare of Cobb or the shadow of Leyland was supposed to intimidate Ausmus, it didn't work. His first on-the-job interview with reporters from his office took place with him in front of his desk rather than sitting at it. But by all indications, it did not take place with jitters. He should be nervous, he thought, but he wasn't.
"No, I'm not," Ausmus said. "It makes me nervous that I'm not nervous. I don't know why. Just driving here, I spent more than half my Spring Trainings in this area. It's very familiar to me, driving down 4, staying in the place that I stayed for three years that I played. It's all very familiar to me. It's not odd."
That can't be a bad sign.
He has had a full offseason to think about what he wants to say to his players when he talks to them in the coming days -- pitchers and catchers first when they all report this week, then position players early next week. He has that planned out in his mind, though he doesn't want to reveal anything so that players don't read about it first.
He has had almost as much time to plan out what he wants to accomplish this spring, but he has had help in that from the holdovers on his coaching staff. Jeff Jones, the returning pitching coach, has carried forth the spring plan that has helped prepare a formidable starting rotation in recent years. Gene Lamont, who made everything run on time in past springs as Leyland's top assistant, is doing the same for full-squad workouts.
Ausmus doesn't have to sweat the details, but the details are his priority. And as Ausmus talked about priorities, the sense of detail was impossible to miss.
"For me, the little things in baseball, though they may have a small impact on one game, can have a large impact on one season," he said. "The little things could be defensive positioning, could be baserunning, baserunning approach. Everyone loves to talk about hitting and pitching, which obviously are very important, especially when you're talking about trying to win a championship. But it's the little things over the course of 162 games that can make a big difference."
His offseason, off-field emphasis on communication hasn't changed, which is why he lists getting to know his players as his biggest challenge for this camp. No matter how many lunches and dinners he had with players this winter, he wants to see them on the field, get a sense of what drives them, get a first-hand idea of strengths and weaknesses away from scouting reports and second-hand observations.
At some point, he'll be putting those observations to work. The vast majority of his roster would appear to be set, but his final decisions will be his first ones. For all his experience on the field, he admits, he has never had to cut a player. He never had to be cut, either.
"It certainly has crossed my mind, having to release someone or send someone down," he said. "I never got released. The vast majority of the time, the player knows that he probably wasn't going to make the team. And I've actually talked with a couple managers about it -- Bud Black in particular, because 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. The vast majority of the time, the player kind of realizes what's coming, but there are the occasional emotional outbursts that happen."
The roster decisions will be done as a group, but for the first time, he's at the head of it, just as he faces decisions on in-game moves and strategy and priorities and injuries. He has the benefit of a veteran-laden, established roster, but also faces the burden of expectations.
All of that awaited him on his first drive back into town. Every indication Tuesday suggests he's ready.
"I've had four months to think about this," Ausmus said. "I'm not nervous about being here. I'm excited about being here."