Brad Ausmus has tried holding his hands close to his body, and he has tried holding them further away. He has tried holding them high. He has tried holding them low. He has angled his feet towards third base. He has angled his feet towards first. He has experimented with every physically possible degree of knee-bend. "For awhile it looked like I was sitting on a toilet," he says. But no matter how Ausmus has contorted himself, he has never arrived at a batting stance from which he has been able to hit a baseball with any consistency. "At some point, around 2001," Ausmus says, "I cut the line and let the whale go free."
By most statistical measures, Ausmus is among the poorest hitters ever to play in the major leagues for any significant length of time. His career batting average is .252, he has never hit as many as 10 home runs in a season, and his career OPS+ (an advanced statistic that normalizes a batter's on-base-plus-slugging-percentage for the park and league in which he played, and for which 100 represents an average player) stands at 75, which is the 11th worst among the 431 players who have ever amassed more than 6,500 plate appearances. He has had his moments at the plate -- most memorably a game-tying, two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth solo blast off Braves closer Kyle Farnsworth in Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS, which allowed Ausmus' Astros to clinch the series in the 18th ("There couldn't have been any less pressure, because there were no expectations," Ausmus says) -- but a compilation of his greatest hits would more closely resemble The Buggles' than The Beatles'. Ausmus did once tie a single-season National League batting record, as an Astro in 2002, when he equaled Ernie Lombardi's 64-year-old mark by grounding into 30 double plays. "I had two weeks to break it, and didn't hit into another one," Ausmus says. "I blame the people in front of me for not getting on base."
Were a sweet and productive swing the determining factor in a professional catcher's ability to hold on to his job, then Ausmus, like a ballerina with chronic vertigo or a fireman who's directionally challenged with a hose, would have long ago been forced to find a new line of work. Perhaps he'd now be a lawyer, a career path he once considered, and one that was followed by many of his classmates at Dartmouth, the Ivy League college from which he graduated in 1991. More likely, he'd be a manager, a position that virtually everyone in baseball who knows him believes he'll one day hold. But despite his offensive shortcomings, Ausmus, who turned 40 in April, is in his 17th consecutive season working as a major league catcher, a job that has paid him some $35 million and in which few have matched his longevity: He has caught 1,917 games, tied with Benito Santiago for eighth on the all-time list.
That Ausmus is still playing is not the result of a stroke of luck, of a benevolent club willing to give an aging player one last short-leash shot. No, this past winter Ausmus might have been the first 39-year-old free agent who was coming off a season in which he hit .219 to have made demands. Ausmus announced that he was leaving the Astros, with whom he had played since 2001 (that was his second tour with Houston, and he's also had two stints with Detroit and one with San Diego), in order to move closer to the home he shares with his wife, Liz, and two middle school-age daughters, Abby and Sophie, in Del Mar, Calif. Therefore, he would play for only the Dodgers or the Padres. He, in short order, received offers from both of those teams. "At the end of our season, when we had our organizational meeting, we went through all the free agents and I said, I want you to tell me guys who you think can help our club," says Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, who ultimately signed Ausmus to a one-year, $1 million deal last January 27. "It was almost unanimous that the staff, including Joe Torre, circled Ausmus' name."
"I was just fortunate that he was available, and willing to come to us," says Torre, the Dodgers' manager, who sounds as if he's discussing a 28-year-old slugger.
The reason that Ausmus has been a gainfully employed major leaguer for so long, and remained coveted even at his advanced age, is as simple as it is difficult to quantify: his skill as a catcher, a unique position that requires a rare and delicate blend of intelligence and athleticism, ranks him among the finest ever to have played there -- and in certain ways, as the finest, full stop.
"He's the best," says Mike Hampton, a batterymate of Ausmus' in Houston in 1998 and '99. "Without a doubt."
This season Torre has often discussed the positive impact that a group of players he likes to call "the grown-ups" has made on his generally callow club. That group includes 38-year-old infielder Mark Loretta, whom the Dodgers signed to a one-year, $1.25 million free agent deal last December; 31-year-old second baseman Orlando Hudson, signed for one year and $3.38 million in February; and 39-year-old slugger Jim Thome, whom the Dodgers acquired in a trade with the White Sox on August 31.
None of those long-toothed players, however, has boosted the Dodgers in as many nuanced ways as has Ausmus, even though he has primarily served this season as the backup to Russell Martin. The job of a major league catcher is among the most physically and mentally demanding of any in professional sports, and Ausmus' mastery of the position begins, but does not end, with his technical wizardry behind the plate, which remains elite even after 17 seasons of wear and tear -- during none of which, remarkably, has he spent even a day on the disabled list. "That's just luck," Ausmus says. "Luck and genetics. My parents were never on the DL, either."
While the strength of his arm is not what it once was -- in 1997 he trailed only Pudge Rodriguez in throwing out base stealers, but his success rate has declined since then, from 49 percent to 30 percent this season -- his skill at blocking pitches in the dirt, and thereby preventing passed balls, remains peerless. The 27 other catchers who have caught more than 1,500 career games have on average allowed 10 passed balls per 162 contests, and that figure doesn't even include poor Deacon McGuire, who yielded nearly 50 passed balls per 162 games but to whom we ought to give the benefit of the doubt because he played the majority of his career in the 1800s, and back then catchers were expected to receive pitchers with what in photographs appears to be a pork chop strapped to each hand. Ausmus has averaged five passed balls per 162 games, and in eight separate seasons, including this one, allowed two or one.
His pitch blocking -- "It's incredible. He blocks a ball and it drops right in front of him. Other guys, you see 'em block it and it trickles off, or it might shoot up," says his former Astros teammate Lance Berkman -- not only prevents runs, but allows his pitchers to confidently throw anything in their repertoires, at any time. "He's the type of guy, man on third, last game of the World Series, winning by one, you're not afraid to throw a ball in the dirt," says Astros ace Roy Oswalt, who spent his first eight seasons throwing to Ausmus.
Also a boon to Ausmus' pitchers is his talent for receiving balls in such a way that they almost always appear to umpires to have crossed the plate in the strike zone, or very close to it, even if they have not. "If you throw a curveball, especially if it starts high, he'll catch it real deep and let it break down in the zone," says Astros reliever Chris Sampson. "With a sinker, before it starts sinking below the knees he'll go out and get it. It always looks like you hit your spot, because he's got tremendous footwork and he always catches the ball in the center of his chest."
The most consistently praised aspect of Ausmus' game, however, is less physical and more analytical. "His ability to get the most out of each pitcher each night is probably the strongest tool that he brings to a club," says Baltimore Orioles scout and catching instructor Dave Engle, who worked with Ausmus when he served as the Astros' bullpen coach in 1998. "He's the Greg Maddux of catching. Maddux understood hitters' weaknesses better, by far, than any other pitcher of his era, and as far as catchers go, Brad's the same way."
That ability stems partly from experience, partly from instinct and partly from preparation. Ausmus has an impressive memory -- in April he was able to accurately repeat to a reporter a pitch-by-pitch sequence thrown by Dodgers starter James McDonald in the first game he caught in L.A., nearly a week after the fact -- but he has always kept a detailed record of the strengths and weaknesses exhibited by each opposing hitter he and his pitchers face. He used to do so on paper, but a few years ago he asked the Astros to build a secure website for him on which he could continually update his observations. He studies that record so intently that when each hitter comes to the plate, what Ausmus says that he visualizes in front of him is reminiscent of the special effects used to illustrate the way the mathematician John Nash's brain worked in the film A Beautiful Mind. "You can almost see a chart of where his weak areas are, where his strengths are," Ausmus says. "Then you have an idea of what pitches he hits, and what pitches he has trouble with. You see it right in front of you when he steps in. Now you just have to match it up with a pitcher's stuff."
"He takes a lot of the thought process and worry out of the pitcher's hands, because whatever pitch he calls is nine times out of 10 the correct pitch to throw," says Sampson. "All you have to worry about is getting the ball back and making that pitch. All the pressure's off your shoulders."
Opposing batters say that Ausmus' knowledge of them always seems to position him a step ahead. "As a hitter, I hate him," says Nationals slugger Adam Dunn, the former Red who frequently tangled with Ausmus in the NL Central. "It doesn't matter who's pitching when he's back there, you never know what you're going to get at a certain count. And whatever pitch I'm not hitting well at any point in time, book it, I'm getting it."
"I'm telling you, dude," Dunn adds. "The guy's amazing."
But just how "amazing" is Ausmus, in terms of his ability to help a team prevent runs and, as a result, win baseball games? That's a question that is very difficult to answer by statistical measures. In fact, the true impact that a defense-first -- indeed, defense-only -- catcher like Ausmus can have on a club represents one of the greatest disconnects between the school of brilliant statisticians whose work has in the past few decades revolutionized the way we understand the game, and the equally astute scouts, managers and executives who use more traditional observational methods to make their assessments. The former group generally believes that the offensive deficiencies of a player like Ausmus are so significant that the sum of his other skills could never make up for them, while the opinions of the latter group account for Ausmus' long and lucrative big-league career.
In his second stint in Houston, which ran from 2001 through '08, and represents the period in which Ausmus' familiarity with opposing batters and his own pitchers was at its most developed, Astros pitchers compiled an ERA of 3.80 in the 7,938.2 innings that Ausmus spent behind the plate, and a 4.81 ERA in the 3,615.1 innings that one of the team's 11 other catchers caught. An enormous difference, to be sure. But how much of it can we ascribe to the fact that Ausmus was generally called upon to catch his club's elite pitchers -- Oswalt, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte -- while leaving the scrubs for his backups? How much of that ERA can we ascribe to the elite pitchers themselves, and how much to Ausmus' ability to inspire confidence in them, his technical prowess and his knowledge of opposing batters? (Oswalt, Clemens and Pettitte each had the lowest single-season ERAs of their careers while throwing to Ausmus.) Further, how much higher might Astros pitchers' ERA have been when Ausmus was not behind the plate if not for his influence on the pitching staff, and on his fellow catchers, as a whole, in terms of game-planning and confidence-boosting?
Current statistical methods can only begin to address those questions, but what is perhaps impossible to assess is the impact of his personality. Ausmus is widely perceived to be baseball's active leader in the art of the constructive and perfectly-timed bon mot, a skill that he honed at his family's dinner table in Cheshire, Conn., where his parents -- Harry, a retired professor of European Intellectual History at Southern Connecticut State, and Lin, a wry native Bostonian -- delighted in trading barbs with each other and with Brad and his younger sister, Laura. "There are not too many who can hold their own against him with the one-liners. You try to outwit him, and you're going to lose," says Hampton. "Everything he says is pretty much right on, and he doesn't care if you're a guy like Nolan Ryan or a rookie who just got called up, he's going to bust your balls. You need guys like that."
Ausmus' wit has earned him a legion of friends and admirers among teammates and opponents alike -- their typical reaction, when his name is mentioned, is a smile and a chuckle, and then several uninterrupted minutes of praise -- but teammates believe that it has at times had a very real effect in their ability to win games, particularly high-pressure ones. Berkman and Oswalt, for example, love to tell the story of the morning of October 18, 2005, when it was a wonder that the Astros' plane was able to lift off the tarmac, so heavy were the hearts of the players it carried. The evening before, the Astros had come within one pitch of advancing to their first World Series, only to watch their All-Star closer Brad Lidge, who had begun the ninth inning with a 4-2 lead and had struck out the first two St. Louis Cardinals he faced, allow a two-strike single and then a walk, and then, famously, a three-run blast deep to left to Albert Pujols. It was the second time in postseason history that a team had entered the ninth inning of a potentially series-clinching game with a lead only to lose on a go-ahead home run. That fact weighed on the minds of the Astros as they quietly took their seats for what promised to be a somber flight to St. Louis, where they would now be forced to play an altogether unexpected NLCS Game 6.
As the jet shuddered through Houston's humid airspace, the pilot broke the silence in the cabin to deliver his standard early-flight spiel. "We've reached our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, and I've turned off the fasten seat belt sign and turned off the cabin lights," he said. Then he added, "If you look to the left of the aircraft, in the next two or three minutes you might be able to catch a glimpse of Albert Pujols' home run ball."
The players, Lidge included, gasped. Then, after an angry instant, it dawned on Lidge that the pilot was reading off a script -- reluctantly, as it turned out -- that could only have been foisted upon him by the teammate who sat behind Lidge: his catcher, Ausmus. Lidge whirled around and saw Ausmus' grinning face, and they started laughing. So, too, did everyone else. "There seemed to be a little bit of a cloud hanging over us, and the home run Albert hit kind of took the wind out of our sails," Ausmus says. "But the truth of the matter was that we were still in the driver's seat, up three games to two, and I wanted to get everyone thinking about that." It worked, or at least helped. The next night, the Astros dispatched the Cardinals 5-1, and clinched the series.
In his first season as a Dodger, Ausmus hit an uncharacteristic .295. "Small sample size," he says, and it's true that he was given a career-low 95 at-bats. But Colletti and Torre so eagerly sought Ausmus not only to be a serviceable backup but to tutor Martin; to work with the pitching staff, before every series and every game; and to deploy his veteran wiles to help stabilize a clubhouse that is rather young, on the whole, and features a certain be-dreadlocked fellow with a reputation for creating discord.
Torre is certain that Ausmus was integral to his team's success, and he has influenced and connected with his teammates in a deep way in which a coach simply cannot. "Even I didn't realize the impact he can have until I saw it firsthand," says Torre, a former catcher who selected Ausmus to his only All-Star team, in 1999, when Torre was the Yankees' manager and Ausmus a Tiger.
Ausmus has shared his scouting reports with Martin, and has passed along the numerous little tricks he's picked up over his long career, such as how he's learned when a pitcher misses badly with a breaking ball, it's a good idea to immediately call for another one, because the pitcher is usually able to sense what he did wrong on the first pitch and correct it on the second; and how when a young hitter steps to the plate in an RBI situation, it's usually effective to call for a first-pitch changeup, in order to take advantage of that hitter's youthful eagerness to drive a fastball and knock in those runs. Early in spring training, Ausmus sidled up to Martin and gently informed him that his legs split wider when he had called for a breaking ball than when he called for a fastball, as he subconsciously prepared for the possibility that he might have to dig the pitch out of the dirt. "You're tipping your pitches," Ausmus said. "You should think about fixing that."
"It's fixed," an appreciative Martin says now, "or else I wouldn't tell you about it."
The Dodgers' pitching staff ended the regular season as baseball's best: Its cumulative 3.41 ERA led the majors, and was the lowest by any club since the 2003 Dodgers' 3.16 mark. What makes that achievement even more remarkable was that L.A. lost last season's opening day starter, Derek Lowe, to free agency, and was forced to cobble together a rotation that featured 11 different starters, including an assortment of rookies (Clayton Kershaw, McDonald) and journeymen who had previously appeared to be washed up (Randy Wolf, Eric Milton, Jeff Weaver, Jason Schmidt, Vicente Padilla).
Ausmus' fingerprints are all over the staff's success, believes Kershaw. "He's still a good player," Kershaw says. "Defensively, he will block everything, he'll throw out guys, he'll obviously know the right pitches to call and stuff like that. There's a trust with a guy when you know he's been around for 17 years." Indeed, in the seven games in which Kershaw threw to Ausmus, the 21-year-old yielded only four runs and a .133 batting average against, and didn't allow either a triple or a home run.
"But I think we see his impact even more with Russell," Kershaw continues. "Russell's the guy that leads the [pre-series] meetings, because he's going to be the primary catcher. I know he and Brad get here at least a couple of hours early before the first game of each series, and talk about all the hitters' weaknesses and strengths and stuff like that. When it comes time for all of us to meet, from last year to this year I feel like from Russell's grasp of the hitters and the way he talks about them, you can just tell that Ausmus has rubbed off on him a lot."
Ausmus operates as effectively in the Dodgers' clubhouse as he does on the field and in meeting rooms. One early order of business for him this season was to integrate Manny Ramirez into the clubhouse, after he finally joined the team this spring in the wake of a generally nasty contract negotiation. "Hey, Manny," Ausmus said upon Ramirez's arrival. "Why'd you only get a two-year deal? I guess they only give three years to the really special players -- like Casey Blake." Blake, another of the Dodgers' offseason signings, has a career .266 average and 146 home runs, to Ramirez's .313 and 546.
"Hey, Manny," Ausmus called out in the clubhouse on April 16, after Ramirez had begun the season with nine straight games without a homer. "Have you checked the stats recently? You and me are tied for homers. Ramirez and Ausmus. Tied."
Ramirez cackled. "They don't pay me to start," he said. "They pay me to finish."
In some ways, Ausmus' role with the Dodgers is similar to the one he played with Dartmouth's team from 1987 to 1991.Ausmus signed with the Yankees after they selected him in the 48th round of the 1987 draft and agreed to allow him to attend classes for two trimesters a year, and to play in the minors in the spring and summer. (Despite that limited schedule, it took him only five and a half years to graduate, with a degree in government). As he was a professional, Ausmus was not allowed to play for the Big Green, but Dartmouth's then-coach Mike Walsh says that he never missed a practice while he was on campus, even if it meant arising before dawn in his Chi Gam frat house to trudge through New Hampshire snow drifts to attend February sessions that began at 5:45 a.m. "We arguably had the greatest catcher in the history of the Ivy League as our bullpen catcher," Walsh says. "We had one pitcher named Mike Remlinger who was a first-round draft pick," -- and who went on to play 14 big league seasons, most successfully with the Braves -- "but everybody else was kind of your average Ivy League pitcher. Brad would work with them, and those are the kinds of pitchers with whom you have to extract every ounce of ability out of them."
Ausmus' experience at Dartmouth prepared him to effectively work with the range of styles and skill-sets he'd later encounter in pitchers at the game's highest level, but perhaps equally important is that it nurtured his ability to relate to the wide variety of personalities with whom a major league catcher must deal on a daily basis. "It taught me to deal with people who are from different backgrounds, and have different beliefs," he says. "It socializes you in that sense. You learn to understand that there are going to be people who are very different from you, and to respect them, and even learn from them."
Ausmus' understanding of the game and of the people who play it has placed him atop the short list of current players who are widely believed to possess the characteristics to manage a club someday. "Of anybody in the game today you can see as a future manager, he's the guy," says Hampton. "In that regard, he's above and beyond any other player who has put on a uniform in the past 20 years."
If he is to follow that path, he would join the fraternity of former big league catchers who have had successful second careers as managers -- a group that currently boasts eight active members, including three of the four managers who remain alive in the playoffs in Torre, the Yankees' Joe Girardi and the Angels' Mike Scioscia. Ausmus, though, says he remains far from seriously considering that possibility. "There are only 30 managerial jobs, so to assume you'll get one of them is a bit arrogant," he says. "Whether I manage or not, I don't know -- I don't know if it would ever avail itself."
Besides, Ausmus still has plenty of other of things on which to focus: fellow catchers to tutor, 58-foot curveballs to block, superstar egos to put into check, pitchers to prepare. "When he gives you advice, you take it to heart a little differently because it's coming from one of your peers, as opposed to a coach," says Kershaw. "When a coach tells you to do something, I don't want to say it's like a teacher telling a kid to behave, but sometimes it comes off like that. But when Ausmus or one of your peers says, 'Hey, work on this, I'll help you out with this,' you take it to heart a little bit differently."
Ausmus did not have an at-bat during the Dodgers' three-game NLDS sweep of the Cardinals, and he might not see the field against the Phillies in the NLCS, but he'll continue to play the role that he has perfected in 17 seasons in the big leagues: that of a winning ballclub's heart and mind, if not its muscle.