On Tuesday, the Tigers fired general manager Dave Dombrowski, a move that seems surprising in the moment but really isn’t. Sure, the baseball world sees Dombrowski as an extremely successful general manager, a guy who built four straight AL Central champions before the team reverted to mediocrity this season. But that’s not how team owner Mike Ilitch sees him. Ilitch just thinks: I let you spend all that money, and you never won a World Series? Buh-bye.
This was personal. There is really no other way to look at it. Ilitch and his son Chris immediately promoted Al Avila, who is a wonderful guy and a more-than-capable executive, to be Detroit's general manager. But you know what? Avila has spent almost his entire career with Dombrowski. Wherever you see Dombrowski’s fingerprints, you see Avila’s.
The Ilitches did not change philosophies. They did not decide to go in a different direction. The Tigers are moving in the exact same direction, with largely the same management team. They just got rid of the guy at the top.
If you go back to the moment Dombrowski was hired, and the man who hired him, you can understand the dynamics at play. Ilitch brought in Dombrowski at the end of the 2001 season. Nobody realized it at the time, but it was a classic Ilitch move: He paid well above market value for somebody, simply because he wanted him, even though he didn’t have a position for him, because he was desperate to win a World Series.
Dombrowski was a respected general manager, but the Tigers weren’t looking for a general manager. They had Randy Smith in that role. So Dombrowski came on as team president, a title he carried to the end of his tenure. It was silly. He was never really a team president. I don’t think he ever had much interest in the business side of the team. But Ilitch was willing to pay Dombrowski millions to be team president, so Dombrowski took that job. Then, six games into the 2002 season, he fired Smith and made himself general manager. It was the best move for the Tigers in the long run—Dombrowski is a far better GM than Smith—but the way it happened was a little unseemly.
With Dombrowski getting paid like the leader of a business but doing the job of a general manager, Ilitch had to find other people to fill the president’s role. And for four more years, the Tigers lost and lost. Ilitch stuck with Dombrowski—not out of any personal affection, or even because he recognized that Dombrowski needed time to turn the organization around. He stuck with Dombrowski because, if there is one constant to Ilitch’s two-decade-plus ownership of the Tigers, it is that he hates starting over.
Ilitch is impatient, sometimes to a comical degree. He hung on to Smith for far too long. When Victor Martinez suffered a season-ending knee injury in January of 2012, Ilitch didn’t settle for a one-year rental until Martinez was healthy. He signed first baseman Prince Fielder to a $214 million deal, even though the Tigers already had Miguel Cabrera at first base.
Ilitch won’t start over now, either. There was never any chance of that. Starting over would mean hiring a hot young executive from another team, maybe going with somebody who is more sabermetrically inclined than Dombrowski, or stripping down the roster and building for 2018. Ilitch just turned 86. He isn’t thinking about '18; he wants to win immediately. He is angry it hasn’t happened yet, and that explains why he got rid of Dombrowski.
This decision was borne of emotion and personal feelings, but most of Ilitch makes most of his baseball decisions that way. Dombrowski knows that better than anybody, because that’s how he got the job in the first place. It’s also how he ended up with Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Fielder. It’s part of the deal when you work for Ilitch.
From the outside, the Tigers appeared to be a model of stability. Not only did Dombrowski run the team for 15 years, but chief lieutenants Avila, John Westhoff and David Chadd also all stayed with the team for most of that time, too. From the outside, the Tigers almost made it look like a family business. But this was always an arrangement between two men who were getting what they wanted from the other. Ilitch had a very good general manager who could deliver the World Series title he has wanted his whole life. Dombrowski had an owner who let him outspend every other team in his division, as well as most of baseball.
Ilitch basically admitted this Monday. Look at this statement announcing that Dombrowski has been “released” from his contract, which ends this fall anyway: “Together, we've enjoyed some success, but we're still in aggressive pursuit of our ultimate goal: to bring a World Series title to Detroit and Michigan.”
Some success? Most teams would kill or die for the success the Tigers enjoyed since 2006: two World Series appearances, five playoff appearances, and another year when they missed the postseason by losing a one-game playoff.
There were no warm fuzzies in that statement, no acknowledgement that this move might look crazy from the outside. And it does look crazy. Dombrowski did a fantastic job with the Tigers; the record speaks for itself. The biggest thing you can ask for, as a sports fan, is a management team that gives you a chance, and the Tigers almost always had a chance.
Dombrowski was not perfect. He repeatedly failed to build a great bullpen, largely because the bullpen is the hardest thing to fix with money: You can’t just sign the three most expensive free-agent relievers and be done with it. Teams with great bullpens usually build them largely through their farm system, and that’s not how the Tigers built their team.
And you know what? They almost won the World Series. They made it twice, and in another year, 2013, they probably should have won it. They were on the verge of taking a 2–0 lead in the American League Championship Series when Joaquin Benoit threw a mistake to David Ortiz, and Ortiz crushed it for a grand slam. If Benoit threw a better pitch there, who knows what would have happened? Maybe the Tigers would have won the World Series. And if they did, Dombrowski would still be the Tigers’ general manager.
Everybody should come out of this OK. Dombrowski will get another job and do it very well. Avila was ready to be a GM 10 years ago, and he understands how Ilitch operates, so the Tigers will be in good hands. And Ilitch … well, he will still have almost everything a man could want, except the one thing he wants most.