Tigers president CEO and general manager Dave Dombrowski, left, here with Jim Leyland during Monday's press conference, will need to look beyond former managers when considering candidates. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — If Jim Leyland had run out of gas a year ago, Dave Dombrowski’s job would’ve been easy.
Almost as easy as it was in 2005 when Dombrowski, the Tigers president, wasted little time bringing in Leyland, with whom he’d won a World Series with the Marlins in 1997, to replace Alan Trammell as manager.
That’s because last fall there was a ready-made replacement looking for a team to run. And he actually was working as a broadcaster covering the Tigers games during the postseason.
“Last year, I thought there was an obvious name out there that was a real blue-chip candidate to manage a good club,” Dombrowski said Monday, shortly after Leyland had officially announced he was stepping down as Tigers bench boss. “And that was Terry Francona.”
But, Francona, who led the Red Sox to a pair of World Series championships before getting fired after a late-season collapse in 2011, was hired by the Indians last October.
And now Dombrowski’s list has to be a bit longer.
“I don’t have a name like that out there this year,” he admitted.
That doesn’t mean Dombrowski won’t find one. Or that he’s not intrigued by some of the names that are out there. It just means he’s got a bit more work to do this time around. And here’s hoping he means it when he says he’ll be open-minded as he begins the search in earnest this week.
“Very few times is there a Terry Francona out there,” Dombrowski said. “But we’ll find somebody that’s good. They’ve got some tough shoes to fill. But we’ll find somebody that can handle the club.”
That last phrase is one that bears repeating, if only because Dombrowski kept saying it Monday.
Handling the club?
As Leyland reminded everyone Monday in a farewell news conference typical of the man himself — full of self-deprecating laughs and honest tears — “There’s a lot more than writing out the lineup and pulling the pitcher” in this job.
Especially here in Detroit, where the championship-caliber roster is full of top-end talent, yes, but also some complex egos. Add the expectations, fueled by three consecutive playoff runs and a 30-year championship drought, and it’s a big job, no question.
“I will say that whoever steps in here has to be able to manage a club that has a chance to win right now and handle some very good established major league players,” Dombrowski said. “This club is built to try to win, so the person that we’re going to hire will be a person that we think gives us the best chance.”
Dombrowski’s track record is pretty clear. He hired Rene Lachemann and Leyland in Florida, both experienced managers. In Detroit, after his first hire, Alan Trammell, finished his three-year tenure with a whopping 300 losses, he quickly went back to Leyland.
“I’m sure a lot of you are wondering about my not being a manager before,” Trammell had said the day he was introduced in 2003, “and that’s understandable.”
Likewise, it’ll be understandable if Dombrowski decides now to go with a plan that has worked before.
But rather than narrowing the focus to the best-available former managers on the market — Manny Acta, Dusty Baker, Charlie Manuel and Jim Tracy are some of the names — it might be a good idea to tune in to the World Series. Just to get a better handle, if you will, on what’s possible.
Two years ago, when future Hall of Famer Tony La Russa called it quits after winning another title in St. Louis, the Cardinals, who’ll face the Red Sox in this year’s Fall Classic, surprised everyone by hiring Mike Matheny as his replacement.
Matheny, a former catcher and minor league instructor in the St. Louis organization, had no prior managerial experience. He got the job over Francona, among others. And in his first two seasons, Matheny has taken the Cardinals to the NLCS twice, winning the pennant this year over the Dodgers.
Dombrowski is well aware of that, of course. He talked Monday about the recent “trend” toward hiring out-of-the-box candidates, including Los Angeles’ Don Mattingly, who also might be available as he grapples with ownership in L.A. And I hope he at least interviews Detroit catcher Brad Ausmus, the 44-year-old Dartmouth grad working in the San Diego organization. Ausmus already has interviewed with Washington this fall.
Dave Martinez, who is Joe Maddon’s bench coach in Tampa, also deserves a look.
Dombrowski just sounds as if he’d prefer not to go that route, if possible.
“I can’t say that I would eliminate that because I think it’s very important you look at each and every case and you get the best person possible,” Dombrowski said. “Is it most likely the person has managerial experience to some extent? Yes. Is it a for sure? I don’t know that at this point.”
Leyland’s retirement plans were a well-kept secret the past month, and that was by design. Leyland told Dombrowski, who says he told owner Mike Ilitch and no one else.
Leyland said he told only his wife, Katie, and his two closest friends in baseball, bench coach Gene Lamont and La Russa.
So while Dombrowski has been pondering his next move for more than a month now, he’s had to keep his thoughts mostly to himself, though he has consulted with La Russa about it “because I knew Tony knew.”
La Russa says he’s not interested in managing anymore, but he’s sure about one thing.
“Fortunately, you’ve got the right guy in charge, Dave Dombrowski,” said LaRussa, the former Cardinals manager and one of Leyland’s closest friends in the game, in an interview with ESPN 105.1 radio. “There’s no better executive in Major League Baseball or major league sports. And he’ll pick the right one.”
But it won’t be easy.
Not this time.