Lions starters open preseason with a roar on offense, whimper on defense

Dombrowski has Tigers in his rearview mirror

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Boston — Apart from the year, almost to the day, when he last worked as Tigers architect, little has changed with Dave Dombrowski.

He sat in the Red Sox dugout late Monday afternoon at Fenway Park and was a replica of the Dombrowski a Tigers audience came to know in detail during his 14 years as front-office chief.

He of course was dressed expensively: Tan-and-yellow pinstriped suit. Cream oxford shirt. Gold, brown, and white tie, an ensemble capped by Dombrowski’s mound of immaculately coiffed silver hair.

He smiled impeccably. His comments doubled as targets bullseyed with alternating rounds of command and diplomacy, and with a clear message that Detroit, like Miami and Montreal and past Dombrowski stops, is history he views like photos from a scrapbook. With a happy distance.

“I had a good run there, 14 years, and that’s the best way to look at it,” said Dombrowski, who is now Red Sox president of baseball operations, a job he took only a couple of weeks after Tigers owner Mike Ilitch notified him the first week of August of last year that Dombrowski’s time in Detroit had ceased.

Dombrowski said Monday’s reunion with his old team had been reassuring after he hadn’t been “sure about how I’d feel after all those years and with all those friendships.” But he stepped onto Fenway’s field earlier in the afternoon when some Tigers players were taking early batting practice “and it was very comfortable to say hello.”

He talked respectfully about the man who succeeded him as Tigers GM, Al Avila, even if it is clear a long friendship is not, and probably cannot, be as thick as it was in the years they teamed at Miami and in Detroit, all before Avila was told last Aug. 1 that he was assuming executive control of the Tigers.

Dombrowski was asked if he could recall specifics of his final conversation with Ilitch, on Aug. 3, a Tuesday when Ilitch notified Dombrowski he was being discharged, immediately, with his contract about to expire.

“I can,” Dombrowski said with a wide smile as sharp as a razor’s edge, “but I choose not to.”

Dombrowski’s imprint on the Red Sox was clear and indelible Monday as the Tigers moved into Fenway for a three-game series. Drew Pomeranz was to start for the Red Sox and Pomeranz is the latest product of Dombrowski’s famous ways in July. With the Red Sox only 1.5 games out of first place in the American League East, and with Boston in dire need of powerhouse starting pitching, Dombrowski on July 14 made a trade with the Padres that sent prized pitching prospect Anderson Espinoza to San Diego in a straight swap for Pomeranz.

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Fittingly, perhaps, Dombrowski’s last act as Tigers GM came a year ago this week. Ilitch had agreed, lamentably, with Dombrowski’s conclusions the Tigers had no constructive ability to be trade deadline buyers.

“In my heart, we were not good enough to win,” said Dombrowski, whose team was eight weeks from finishing in last place in the American League Central. “I felt it was important to make the right decision whether I was a part of it or not.”

Dombrowski acknowledged Monday he was “pretty sure” Ilitch had decided not to renew his contract. But he worked for the remainder of the trade deadline’s hours as if a World Series was at stake.

He pushed ahead with a trade that sent David Price to Toronto for three pitchers: Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt. He sent a premium reliever, Joakim Soria, to the Pirates and got a potential starting center fielder in return, JaCoby Jones, who is polishing his game at Triple A Toledo.

In the closing hours before the July 31 non-waiver deadline arrived, Dombrowski held out, attacking the deadline as if it were a last-hand poker showdown. He dangled the dynamic Yoenis Cespedes and found a suitor in the Mets. Dombrowski was adamant: The Tigers would get a hotshot pitching prospect, Michael Fulmer, or there would be no deal.

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With scant minutes to go, Mets boss Sandy Alderson phoned Dombrowski: Fulmer, whom Alderson had refused to yield, could be Tigers property. The Mets had to have Cespedes.

“There’s a lot of people who contributed to that,” Dombrowski said Monday, sidestepping credit others on hand during those feverish closing hours have steadily heaped on the then-Tigers GM.

But that is all archival business as far as Dombrowski is concerned. He is boss now of a Red Sox club flush with the capital to spend on contracts and, as he mentioned Monday, talent “in Latin American and the Far East.” One of those players, second baseman Yoen Moncada, is headed soon for Boston and for likely super stardom.

The Red Sox farm system is breathtakingly deep. The big-league roster and Dombrowski’s pet, pitching, is adding muscle with no guarantee he is done dealing ahead of this year’s Aug. 1 non-waiver deadline.

Detroit is a long time ago. At least in the manner Dombrowski now views his time with the Tigers.

“We were so close so many times,” said Dombrowski, who, ironically, perhaps lost his best chance for a world championship when the Red Sox destroyed the Tigers bullpen in the eighth inning of Game 2 of the 2013 ALCS at Fenway Park. “The only thing we missed accomplishing was a world championship.

“So many great players, and we fell short. It’s just the way it is.”

Now, he and his family are in Boston after his wife, Karie, and son, Landon, spent a final school year in Bloomfield Hills.

The job he nearly took with the Blue Jays only a week after Ilitch’s phone call? Dombrowski ended up with what would appear, to anyone in baseball’s intimate industry, to be an extraordinary move with a world championship or two possibly, if not probably, ahead.

“It seemed like an ideal structure, an interesting situation,” said Dombrowski, breaking into, yes, the brand of CEO smile people in Detroit so often observed.

“It’s great.”