It was 3 p.m. on Tuesday and Dave Dombrowski was taking care of routine Tigers business at Comerica Park.
There was a ballgame in four hours against the first-place Royals. There were texts and emails and, of course, phone calls to acknowledge.
One phone call, in particular. It came from Tigers owner Mike Ilitch. In polite and concise words, Ilitch’s front-office chief for the past 14 years was told he was out and Dombrowski assistant Al Avila was the team’s new general manager.
Speaking from his Bloomfield Hills home Wednesday, Dombrowski was among those puzzled why Ilitch, a week after authorizing three roster-changing trades involving star Tigers players, would choose Tuesday to end a relationship marked, on balance, by success.
It was a partnership that had delivered five postseason runs, two World Series appearances, and a steady box-office bonanza as the Tigers rebuilt from earlier desolation a 115-year brand name.
“You’d have to ask Mr. I,” Dombrowski said, referring to Ilitch, who has owned the Tigers for 23 years, more than half of them spent with Dombrowski as the team’s overseer. “I respect that when you own the team you can run it however you like. I’ve had a wonderful 14 years here, and that’s a long time in this game.
“But owners can do whatever they like. It’s their particular desire, and I understand that. Nobody owes me any explanations.”
Ilitch was diplomatic in a Tuesday statement, thanking Dombrowski for his tenure, acknowledging that their shared success failed only in delivering a World Series championship, and that, finally, “I feel this is the right time for the Tigers to move forward under new leadership.”
Ilitch was asked Wednesday for further comment on Dombrowski’s exit but declined to elaborate.
Dombrowski said Wednesday one commonly suspected cause for his exit could be ignored.
“It had nothing to do with contract negotiations,” said Dombrowski, who was in the final year of a five-year agreement, one that in most years had put him among the top-compensated executives in baseball.
3 big swaps capped tenure
Still, it is known August is the latest Dombrowski has gone in any contract year minus a renewal. And he was aware of it last week even as he worked with urgency to make three trades ahead of big league baseball’s July 31 deadline.
A man renowned for his skill at making deals pulled off three high-profile swaps, the last of which, for star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, was made scant minutes before the market closed.
Dombrowski also dealt elite pitcher David Price, as well as Cespedes and bullpen closer Joakim Soria, to three different teams for a six-player windfall that included five pitchers.
The front office’s decision to trade, Dombrowski said, was made at a July 27 meeting at the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida, where team executives and scouts huddled during a series against Tampa Bay to talk strategies as the trade market approached its final hours.
Dombrowski and Ilitch had agreed before last week that the team would try to add a starting pitcher, which might preserve Detroit’s playoff run. But the trade market rocketed. The Tigers had raided their minor leagues for prospects that had been dealt for earlier help. And now the team had too few chips to secure a strong starter.
Dombrowski told Ilitch the next day the Tigers were looking at a single option: trade their marketable players, all of them soon-to-be free agents, for multiple prospects that might craft a stronger long-term team at Comerica Park.
Ilitch told Dombrowski on Wednesday, July 29, two days before the deadline, to proceed with what became a relative fire sale.
The moves were widely applauded by national critics, but apparently could not save Dombrowski. Ilitch notified Avila on Saturday that he, a top Dombrowski aide since both were with the Marlins 20 years ago, would be the team’s new GM.
Those familiar with Dombrowski and Ilitch say the relationship endured, for a lengthy time by professional sports’ standards, despite squabbles and tensions two forceful businessmen might long ago have found untenable.
The key to their longevity was winning. Ilitch had turned to Dombrowski when his franchise was on the verge of becoming historically inept. But by 2006 the Tigers were in the World Series. In a four-year span from 2011-14 the team won four consecutive division championships.
In four of those playoff runs, the Tigers went deep into October. Twice they made it to the World Series, only to lose to the Cardinals in 2006 and Giants in 2012.
This year, the team has nosedived after an 8-0 start and sits beneath the break-even mark, all but out of contention, wrecked by long-term injuries that have, at various times, shelved Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander.
Starting pitching has been a Dombrowski hallmark since he began his GM career in the 1980s. It has fueled the Tigers’ past playoff seasons. But it has been a troubled unit in 2015, as has another area that often has perplexed the team, its GM, its fans, and doubtless, its owner: the bullpen.
“Some of the moves we made — I made, ‘we’ is an improper word and I take responsibility — unfortunately, a couple didn’t work out,” said Dombrowski, whose team got hurt when a return package in 2013 for Doug Fister didn’t pay off and begot another trade for Shane Greene that also has come up short.
“And then Justin getting hurt (triceps muscle). If you were going to say at the start of the year that Justin Verlander would have one win in August, anyone would have said: ‘The Tigers are going to be in trouble.’
“And then Victor gets hurt (knee) in spring training, and we lose Miguel (torn calf) and, now, because of past trades we’ve made, we’ve thinned talent at the minor league level, and when you add in a couple of guys with disappointing seasons, it’s not the year we hoped for.”
July 10 collapse a factor?
Dombrowski was on hand for a game July 10 at Minnesota that might have, at least symbolically, been a death knell for his team. The Tigers had gotten a superbly pitched game from Verlander and led, 6-1, with two outs in the eighth inning.
The Tigers were four outs from a road victory against a team one place ahead of them in the standings. The Twins instead bludgeoned the Tigers bullpen for seven runs and an 8-6 victory.
Relief pitching has been a Tigers sore spot since 2012 when Jose Valverde nearly cost the Tigers a World Series shot during a pair of destructive playoff appearances. They cost the Tigers a possible World Series shot in 2013 when a big lead against the Red Sox, in a series the Tigers already led, turned into a traumatic defeat at Boston.
“Yeah, it did,” Dombrowski said, acknowledging the bullpen’s travails. “People keep talking about the back-end relievers, but for most of the time Soria was good, and in 2013 Joaquin Benoit was good, except for one pitch (in Boston) everyone remembers.
“Valverde had been outstanding, an All-Star,” Dombrowski said. “And then we signed Joe Nathan and that didn’t work out. So, we were struggling for a closer.”
Dombrowski says one factor contributed heavily to the bullpen’s erratic ways: a career-ending injury to former fire-thrower Joel Zumaya, and Bruce Rondon’s 2014 Tommy John surgery. In both cases young pitchers with comparatively low salaries were lost, knocking a bullpen out of equilibrium, physically and fiscally.
“We’ve had a very hefty payroll,” Dombrowski said, “but if you’re going to spend in other areas, you’ve got to pick other areas to not spend as much, and that has, at times, been the bullpen and bench. I can say it now, although I couldn’t say it then, because it’s just reality.”
Dombrowski said he will take time deciding on a new job that is almost certain to come his way, perhaps soon. There are openings, or potential openings, at Toronto, Philadelphia, Los Angeles (Angels), Boston, and, perhaps, Seattle.
Blue Jays president Paul Beeston is retiring from his post at the end of this season and there is considerable chatter that Dombrowski, who was a GM in Canada when he ran the Expos ahead of their move to Washington, could easily return to a different Canadian team.
Dombrowski, who last week turned 59, won’t speculate on where, or when, he might next work as a baseball executive.
But his family will not be leaving Bloomfield Hills at least for a year, he said Wednesday. His daughter, Darby, is a senior at Sacred Heart Academy and will finish school there ahead of entering college in 2016. His son, Landon, is a sophomore at Birmingham Brother Rice.
They will remain here, with Dombrowski’s wife, Karie, even if Dombrowski must commute for his next job — somewhere in baseball.
“I feel great and I’m ready to go,” Dombrowski said, speaking of his next stop. “I think it’s actually very good in that I know there are people that envision I could be of some help because of all my experience.
“Things will work out fine. I’m just very grateful for the opportunity here in Detroit. It was a good run.”