Henning: Reasons for Ilitch-Dombrowski divorce unclear

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Jim Leyland, Mike Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski with the American League championship trophy in 2012.

Sometimes you can feel tension. Even if it exists in the sanctum sanctorum of an owner's chambers and in secret conversations between him and his next-in-charge, you can sense an undercurrent of friction, frustration, and maybe, mutual exhaustion.

There is no appealing way to frame Tigers owner Mike Ilitch's announcement Tuesday that Dave Dombrowski was being fired after 14 years running the Tigers. We're left to conclude, as had been the growing feeling this summer, that 14 years was a relationship's expiration date for two iron-minded men who, for so long, needed each other and no longer do.

Yes, of course, this mess of a baseball season in Detroit almost certainly created a tipping point. But something else had to have happened between Ilitch and Dombrowski to have spurred Tuesday's exit by a man who helped craft Detroit's baseball restoration after Ilitch hired him in 2001.

Was it Dombrowski's restlessness at age 59 a year after he missed out on a job he would have loved: succeeding Bud Selig as baseball commissioner? Did his boss, who knew of Dombrowski's hopes there, wonder if it was a sign Dave needed a new venue and fresh challenges?

Was it Dombrowski hoping to become more of a president and CEO and less of a GM that led both men to wonder if another town and building project might be prudent? Each party was inclined to look at Al Avila as a capable nuts-and-bolts GM who could handle the everyday machinations of running a team and its roster. It could be after this year disintegrated that Ilitch was ready for a new architect, a new voice, and that it made little sense in either man's eyes for Dombrowski to hang on in a ceremonial role.

Was it possible that part-ownership was a Dombrowski dream? It's not uncommon these days for a consortium of investors to buy a high-profile sports franchise, which would have made such a move, at Dombrowski's age and with his assets, at least feasible. Was there any sense on the Ilitches' part that Dombrowski was contemplating such a goal in the years ahead? And if they had such an inkling, however valid or baseless, could it have created resentment?

Record of success

It simply strains credulity to believe the Tigers' roster and a team's sub-.500 record, however significant to Ilitch and to his fan base, could by themselves explain Tuesday's divorce. The two men had been through too much together. These dual engineers, owner and GM, had rebuilt from the rubble of 12 years ago a historic sports brand name and restored its old luster.

Four years of 3-million-plus attendance. Two trips to the World Series, even if neither gained a grand prize. Five postseason runs, four of which lasted deep into October.

This has been an extraordinary partnership, even if it failed to deliver a Woodward Avenue championship parade.

The owner appeared to say as much last week when he gave Dombrowski the go-ahead to trade David Price and Yoenis Cespedes and re-craft his baseball team. Dombrowski, after properly convincing his boss that the playoffs were probably a mirage, worked like anything but a lame-duck GM as he played sweaty-palms poker with his cohorts and began to retool the Tigers with a series of bold deadline deals.

Then, just as Dombrowski and the Tigers were getting back-slaps from national critics for biting the bullet and setting up a better baseball future in Detroit, there came Tuesday's news bulletin.

Dramatic change

This move will be cheered by some of the Tigers fan base. They'll say Dombrowski "failed" at delivering a World Series and deserved firing.

But that's ignoring reality in today's sports world where every team wants to win, where most teams are given the means to win, and where most clubs don't come close to tasting the postseason as regularly as have the Tigers these past nine years.

Ilitch paid the bills, generously, even lavishly. And credit fundamentally for a reinvigorated baseball team at Comerica Park goes to him. But it still took a commander-in-chief to sort out the enormous number of complexities, to make the fine-line judgments, which go into building a good baseball team.

Dombrowski was made to be a baseball CEO. The job demands an incredible degree of dimension and leadership. He had it. He retains it as he moves on, as a hot ticket, to another club, which almost assuredly will happen in the coming months.

Avila takes over as all along was anticipated. He has a splendid baseball pedigree. He is well-liked. He is not as iron-fisted as Dombrowski, which means he will have a different leadership style. Of great interest and significance will be his choice for a No. 2 man in the Tigers' front office.

What anyone should know today is that life just changed, dramatically, on the Tigers timeline. What we aren't sure about yet, and perhaps may never know, is what precipitated so rapidly a split between an owner and a trusted baseball overseer who together designed one of the most sustained periods of baseball pleasure Detroit has ever known.