Brad Ausmus retired in 2010 after 18 big-league seasons behind home plate. Now a front-office executive with the San Diego Padres, the 43-year-old is also managing Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic qualifier round starting on September 19 in Jupiter, Fla. The top finisher — France, South Africa, and Spain are the other participants — will compete in the 16-team tournament next March.
JASON EPSTEIN: You did not practice Judaism growing up, but there is a recent photo of you in the New York Times putting on tefillin (phylacteries) in Jerusalem. In what ways do you feel you are closer to the faith today?
BRAD AUSMUS: I did not practice Judaism growing up, and I am still not practicing. However, through both my trip to Israel and my interactions with Israeli people, I have become not only more aware and respectful of my heritage, but I also have a better understanding of the pride of the Jewish people.
EPSTEIN: What is the biggest misconception you had about Israel before your first visit?
AUSMUS: I didn’t have any misconceptions about Israel per se. I had an open mind when traveling to and throughout the country and wasn’t sure what to expect. I didn’t realize how beautiful the beaches in Tel Aviv are.
EPSTEIN: The Israeli Baseball League, which played games in 2007, had a short and troubled existence. Should its founders have taken efforts to educate the population about the sport and nurture homegrown talent before starting the league?
AUSMUS: I was not involved with the Israeli Baseball League and don’t know why it had a short existence. The best way to grow the sport of baseball anywhere is to start with the children. It takes only one generation of kids who have been educated in the game of baseball to instill a love of the game in succeeding generations. It doesn’t hurt if familiar names in baseball today promote the game internationally, as well.
EPSTEIN: Tell us a little about your current roster. Undoubtedly, there are several position players and pitchers who have impressed you, but are there one or two you think scouts should keep an eye on during the games in Jupiter?
AUSMUS: The WBC schedule limits the amount of time that Team Israel will train together. The team will work out for five days prior to the start of the qualifying tournament. That is not a lot of time for teammates to get to know one another. Team Israel will consist of Jewish-American minor-league players, former major-league players, and Israeli natives. Their ages range from early 20s to 40. Keep your eye on Shawn Green — I hear he was a pretty good player at one time.
EPSTEIN: Kevin Youkilis has said that if the team advances beyond the qualifying round to the March 2013 tournament, he would like to play. How many other Jewish players currently in the big leagues or minors do you expect to join the roster? Might Roger Clemens consider converting?
AUSMUS: I don’t like to look beyond the qualifying tournament because if we do not advance, it is irrelevant which MLB players will participate. Rest assured, if we do advance, we’ll contact all Team Israel–eligible MLB players.
EPSTEIN: MLB opened up the 2012 regular season in Tokyo and reportedly is considering opening up the 2014 regular season in Sydney. Do you see Israel being in a position to host opening day a decade from now?
AUSMUS: This WBC, Team Israel will be made up of predominantly American-born players. The goal would be, in 20 years, to field a team from Israel that is almost entirely native-Israeli players. If baseball can grow and thrive in Israel, I see no reason why a Tel Aviv opening day wouldn’t be possible.
EPSTEIN: You spent most of your playing career in Houston with the Astros. According to reports, first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow and his staff are debating the future of Tal’s Hill in deep center field at Minute Maid Park. If you had to make that decision, would the grassy incline stay or go?
AUSMUS: I like stadiums that are not cookie-cutter. Each stadium should be a little unique, have its own fingerprint — so I would leave Tal’s Hill.
EPSTEIN: You grew up in Connecticut as a Red Sox fan. What was it like being drafted by the hated Yankees?
AUSMUS: I was a die-hard Red Sox fan growing up. I even had a sign, which I made, hanging in my room that read, “Yankees stink!” It was ironic when the Yankees drafted me. I changed allegiance overnight.
EPSTEIN: You graduated with honors from Dartmouth and played for Yankees farm teams only in between school quarters. How did a 47th-round draft choice — and Boston fan to boot — convince the Bronx Bombers to agree to such unorthodox terms?
AUSMUS: It was actually the Yankees’ idea for me to go to my first full freshman year at Dartmouth before reporting to play. They understood that getting a college degree was important to me and my parents, and they always supported me in my efforts. It didn’t hurt that Dartmouth’s quarter system fit well with the baseball schedule.
EPSTEIN: According to Fangraphs, you were a catcher in 1,938 of the 1,960 major-league games (98.9 percent) that you played, and yet you were still on a big-league roster in 2010 at 41 years old. What accounts for your ability to play such a demanding position for so long?
AUSMUS: There have to be some genetics and luck involved when you play any position for that long. I feel fortunate that until my final season, I never spent a day on the disabled list.
EPSTEIN: Speaking of age, baseball may be a young man’s game, but an American cannot serve as vice president of the United States unless he or she is at least 35 years old. Leaving ideology aside, what do you think of the fact that in January we may have a VP who is younger than both of us?
AUSMUS: I’m not concerned with the age of any VP candidate. It’s his decisions I worry about.
— Jason Epstein is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC, and a contributor to Right Field.