For the first time in his career as one of baseball’s best-known general managers, Dave Dombrowski has assembled a title-contending team he can keep.
He’s built before, of course. He was the young GM who brought promising players to Montreal, only to leave for an expansion team as the Expos’ payroll evaporated. Then he fused the 1997 Marlins and broke them apart, mere days after winning the World Series, as club ownership prepared for an eventual sale.
In both cases, Dombrowski was denied his profession’s ultimate triumph: sustainable, championship-level success. Now, he may have found it in Detroit, a city that seemed to forget about baseball even before the horrific 119-loss season in 2003.
Dombrowski, Baseball America’s Major League Executive of the Year, has presided over what may be the most remarkable three-year turnaround in baseball history. His tenure with the Tigers–he began as club president in November 2001, and added the GM title after firing Randy Smith the following April–has been characterized by decisive moves.
He was the general manager when 21 of the 25 men on Detroit’s postseason roster joined the organization. He hired and fired two managers–Luis Pujols and Alan Trammell–before summoning the reinvigorated Jim Leyland from retirement. The result was a 24-win improvement and the American League pennant.
Perhaps most importantly, the team is set up for future success. The Tigers lost only one free agent–lefthanded reliever Jamie Walker–from their World Series roster after the season. The acquisition of outfielder Gary Sheffield for the next three seasons should push the club’s payroll above $90 million for the first time in franchise history. And there are capable reinforcements throughout the farm system, as the team’s scouting staff has capitalized on favorable draft position in recent years.
In fact, one could make the argument that Detroit’s first-round picks in the last three drafts–righthander Justin Verlander (2004), outfielder Cameron Maybin (2005) and lefthander Andrew Miller (2006)–constitute the most promising young trio in baseball. Greg Smith drafted Verlander in his final year as scouting director, and David Chadd is off to a strong start, with his selections of Maybin and Miller.
In short, the Tigers should be good for a while, and Dombrowski realizes his responsibility to fulfill that expectation.
“It’s exciting,” said Dombrowski, who celebrated his 50th birthday during the season. “I think we’re very good now, and we’ll continue to be very good for a long time. We have ownership that wants to win, and good baseball personnel in the organization.
“It’ll be fun. It’ll be a nice challenge.”
Same Approach, Solid Results
In an era characterized by great change in the structure and function of baseball front offices, Dombrowski’s methodology has remained constant. Little has changed with his daily routine. He maintains many of the same work habits he learned from his mentor, longtime White Sox executive Roland Hemond.
During the season, he begins each day by checking box scores in the morning newspaper. The practice enables him to notice trends, as players move in and out of the lineup. Sometimes, the information will prompt Dombrowski to explore trade discussions.
“I’m sure the average fan would say, ‘That’s tremendous, you get to start your day reading box scores,'” Dombrowski said during the season. “It’s my job. I have to do it every day.”
Dombrowski has surrounded himself with veteran scouts, and has a legendary ability to retain information from their reports. He is often capable of recalling, verbatim, something a scout wrote years before.
“The thing is, he doesn’t just remember the report,” said Mike Russell, who has scouted for him in both Florida and Detroit. “He remembers the exact conversation.”
Dombrowski was quick to credit his scouts when asked about the team’s postseason success. Veteran scout Dick Egan coached Kenny Rogers early in his career, and, following Rogers’ 2005 run-in with a cameraman, assured Dombrowski that Rogers possessed quality makeup; Rogers signed a two-year deal with the Tigers last offseason, started the All-Star Game, went 17-8 during the regular season, and didn’t allow a run in three postseason starts.
Another example came in the middle of the 2005 season, when Dombrowski called Russell to ask for his opinion on Philadelphia’s Placido Polanco. Russell’s response: “Trade for him right now.” Dombrowski completed the deal in an hour. Polanco has since become one of the team’s most essential players, and was named MVP of the 2006 American League Championship Series.
Team owner Mike Ilitch took note of the working relationship between Dombrowski and his staff, and authorized a batch of contract extensions less than one week after the World Series. Dombrowski received a four-year extension (through 2011) worth about $2 million per year, which should make him the Tigers’ longest-serving GM since Jim Campbell. The team’s top-level executives and professional scouts–many were with Dombrowski in Florida–also received extensions, through either 2008 or 2009.
“There’s a camaraderie among all of us,” said Dan Lunetta, the team’s director of minor league operations who has worked with Dombrowski since their time in Montreal. “I don’t know if it’s unique in the industry, but we’d all say it’s pretty special.”
Said Dombrowski: “They’re part of the appeal of being here. We work so well together. They’re so integral to the success.”