Still meticulous in public presentation, David Dombrowski is nonetheless older and a little greyer than he was in the 1980s when he was referred to as The Boy GM.
He couldn’t deliver a much-desired World Series to owner Charles Bronfman back then as general manager of the Montreal Expos, but he now stands four wins away from handing another civic scion of a totally different city, Mike Ilitch, the richest prize of his 83 years on the planet.
This is a made-over team from the 2006 Detroit Tigers team that was buzz-sawed by the St. Louis Cardinals in a sloppy five-game World Series, barring a few uniformed personnel such as manager Jim Leyland and ace Justin Verlander. In that time, the now 56-year-old Dombrowski has traded for the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez and three years ago sent Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson to the New York Yankees for Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Max Scherzer. All of them play prominent roles on the American League champions.
He also, of course, signed Prince Fielder this off-season to a nine-year, $214-million (all currency U.S.) contract after a conversation in which Ilitch, who was a minor-league player before he became a pizza magnate and owner of the Detroit Red Wings, suggested the Tigers pursue the free agent.
Paul Beeston, the Blue Jays president and chief executive officer, jokes that he always viewed Ilitch as “a baseball guy who happened to get lucky in hockey.”
A conversation with Dombrowski – whose official title is president, CEO and GM – does nothing to detract from that notion. In a sport in which many ownership groups run and hide from super-agent Scott Boras and his clients, Ilitch has doled out roughly $400-million to players such as Fielder who are or were represented by Boras, including the likes of Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez.
As the Tigers worked out at Comerica Park on a glorious fall morning on Monday, Dombrowski compared pulling out all stops to get Ilitch his first World Series to the charge he received from Bronfman after the 1988 season.
Knowing that Bronfman was preparing to sell the club, Dombrowski pulled off what in 1989 was a spectacular in-season deal. He sent pitchers Randy Johnson, Brian Holman and another highly touted pitching prospect named Gene Harris to the Seattle Mariners for left-hander Mark Langston, who had already suggested he would pursue free agency at the end of the season.
Johnson would go on to be a Hall-of-Fame calibre pitcher, but he was a wildly unfinished product. Langston, a more polished performer, had gone 15-11 (3.34) with a 1.270 WHIP in 1988, and went 12-9 (2.39) with a 1.308 WHIP following his trade to the Expos. Montreal led the National League East from June 26 to Aug. 4 and was up by as much as 31/2 games on July 26 but the Expos were consigned to an 81-81 finish, 12 games back of the Chicago Cubs. In 1991 Bronfman sold the Expos to a consortium of local owners led by his club president, Claude Brochu. Erm, the rest has been well-documented ...
“Charles had pretty much known that he wasn’t going to own the team much longer, and that’s not the case here,” said Dombrowski, the leading candidate for the Toronto Blue Jays job that went to J.P. Ricciardi in part because Ilitch offered him an ownership stake in the Tigers. “Charles was very clear, in his own mind, that he felt this was it. He wasn’t concerned about prospects, or the future.
“Mike is a guy who played the game, and I think he has a more passionate feeling for the on-field part of it. Charles enjoyed the game, but his interest was more civically oriented. Mike’s passion for the game itself is different.
“As a GM, you could have a lot worse things happen to you than have somebody say: ‘Hey, we want to win a championship. Let’s see what we can do,” said Dombrowski, who won a World Series ring with the 1997 Florida Marlins and then oversaw owner Wayne Huizenga’s orders to dismantle the team.
He can make another wealthy man’s dream come true this time around, without fear of a similar order.