Randy Smith gave Detroit his best shot while presiding over turbulent Tigers era

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

He walked into his interview with Mike Ilitch wearing cowboy boots. And the Tigers owner liked that very much.

Ilitch was drawn to Randy Smith’s youth. To his genuine Texas roots. And, maybe, to a new approach in reconstructing a Tigers team that in 1995 had just wrapped up a second consecutive brutal season and sought a fresh touch.

Randy Smith walks through a tunnel in Tiger Stadium after being named the team's new general manager in October 1995.

Smith was 32. Already he had three years as general manager with the Padres, the youngest man in history to have overseen a big-league club.

Now, that venerable old team from Detroit, a charter baseball town, with a new ballpark coming and only 11 years removed from its last World Series, was inviting him to ramrod a new-era Tigers contender. 

For all the happy visions he and Ilitch held, only Comerica Park arrived. Smith six years and six losing seasons later was gone. And so was his status as a wunderkind GM, which his time in Detroit seemed to have dashed. He never again headed a big-league front office.

"When I came in here in ’96, the organization was at the bottom, we were trying to marry the new ballpark with a rebuilding effort, and so we forced some stuff,” Smith said from his home north of Houston. “It was going to be a long rebuild. The team needed to be torn down and a start-over should have been in place, as they’re doing now.

“But that wasn’t the plan.”

Smith is 56 and still works in big-league ball, as he has for nearly 35 years. He is a senior scout for the Rangers, and doubles as an adviser in Japan, where he assists the general manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the team for which Tigers pitcher Drew VerHagen will pitch in 2020.

As he knows, Smith’s six years in Detroit consisted, perhaps fatally, of trying to straddle a fence that left him with a tail full of splinters and a team that as he departed was about to lose 106 and 119 games.

He was supposed to have pulled off a neat daily double: rebuilding the Tigers while simultaneously keeping a team competitive as Comerica Park prepared for its grand unveiling in 2000.

There was only one way to go, Smith believed, as he learned more about a roster and farm system that he had clearly overrated in taking the job.

He got busy with trades, and with acquisitions, scores of which he would make until being fired in April of 2002 by his new boss, Dave Dombrowski.

Trader Randy

Tigers fans with 20-year memories will remember most, if not all of Smith’s major deals, either names of players the Tigers landed, or cargo they sent elsewhere:

Juan Gonzalez, Damion Easley, Dmitri Young, Brad Ausmus (multiple times), Todd Jones, Doug Brocail, Luis Gonzalez, Roger Cedeno, Deivi Cruz, Brian Hunter, Mitch Meluskey, Willie Blair, Karim Garcia, C.J. Nitkowski, Dave Mlicki, Mike Maroth, Danny Patterson, Wendell Magee, Chris Holt, and many, many more.

"Trader Randy" became his moniker. If a mostly tight payroll wouldn’t then allow billboard player add-ons, Smith was determined to at least rearrange roster furniture with annual trade flurries.

“Most of the trades we made were nothing for nothing,” Smith said of flesh-peddling that might involve as many as nine players. “We were just hoping to get lucky with, say, an Easley for Greg Gohr (1996 deal).

“It was like: We know this piece doesn’t work. Maybe this next piece might. Most of those deals were just transactions. It wasn’t that they were done recklessly. It was knowing what we had and hoping something we’d pick up would fit better.”

Randy Smith acquired Juan Gonzalez from the Rangers in November 1999.

Smith had been rehearsing all his life for a GM job, in Detroit and elsewhere. His dad, Tal Smith, had been a GM or a chief executive with the Yankees and Astros, and in fact was heading the Astros during Randy’s days in Detroit and San Diego.

San Diego: That’s where his reputation had been forged. He was 29 when he became Padres chief at midseason 1993, the youngest man ever to be a big-league GM. And it wasn’t long before his trade flair was bringing aboard Ken Caminiti, Trevor Hoffman, Steve Finley, and Ausmus (Smith seemed to trade for Ausmus, or deal him away, every other year), even if it meant that nabbing Hoffman from the Marlins came at a stiff price: giving up Gary Sheffield.

At the time San Diego called, he had been an assistant GM with the Rockies, where a man named John McHale then was employed, having headed Colorado’s push for a new ballpark, Coors Field.

McHale soon was coaxed to Detroit as Tigers president in Ilitch’s bid to get Comerica Park built in downtown Detroit. McHale was the son of John McHale Sr., who had been a Tigers GM in the 1950s. McHale needed a captain to run the roster and picked Smith, who had impressed him in Denver and with his Padres work, to build a new team in Detroit.

There was three-part harmony here, Ilitch, McHale, and Smith were convinced.

But the Tigers were a mess, particularly in the lower levels. Drafts had tumbled after Bill Lajoie departed as scouting director in 1983 to become Detroit’s GM during the Tigers’ rollicking years beginning in 1984.

There had been three GMs in a handful of seasons before Smith arrived. And he was about to preside over pure desolation, with the 1996 team finishing 56-106 and setting a big-league record for abominable ERA: 6.38.

Damion Easley

What tends to be forgotten is the Tigers’ 1997 rebound: They played nearly .500 ball, finishing 79-83. So wowed were outside appraisers that Baseball America made the Tigers their 1997 Franchise of the Year, while Smith was named Baseball Executive of the Year.

He had pulled a trade heist in Easley, a second baseman who could hit. He had plucked a designated hitter in Bob Hamelin, who finished ’97 with an .853 OPS. And there had been a big year from a kid outfielder, Bobby Higginson.

The pitching had calmed down thanks to Justin Thompson, Brian Moehler, and Willie Blair. Ground was being groomed for Comerica Park. Baseball life in Detroit was brightening.

But the ’98 team finished 65-97, and the Tigers were little better (69-92) in 1999, the final year for Tiger Stadium. There was a rebound in Comerica Park’s debut season, 2000, with a 79-83 run, followed by Smith’s final full year, 2001, when payroll had been cut and the team chugged home at 66-96.

Big misses in draft

That other prime-time area of adding talent, the big-league draft, was treating Smith the way it treats most, if not all, clubs: With hits and misses.

Beginning in ’96, Smith and his team, in first-round order, took Seth Greisinger (sixth overall), Matt Anderson (first), Jeff Weaver (14th), Eric Munson (third), Matt Wheatland (eighth), and Kenny Baugh (11th).

Greisinger should have been a solid long-term right-hander, and pitched well until hit by arm ills. Anderson threw 100 mph, but he was a reliever. Picking him ahead of Troy Glaus, Vernon Wells, Lance Berkman, Jon Garland, Michael Cuddyer, and Jayson Werth invites then-and-now second-guessing that’s an annual part of draft reviews.

Tigers general manager Randy Smith chats with manager Phil Garner as they watch minor league pitchers throw in February 2000, in Lakeland, Fla.

The Tigers made a nifty pick in Weaver at No. 14 overall in ‘98, and a year later plucked Munson just behind Josh Hamilton and Josh Beckett, which seemed, in the eyes of most evaluators, reasonable when Munson was a lustrous left-handed batter and catcher from Southern Cal.

Wheatland was a prep prize and right-hander from San Diego who soon was felled by a bad arm, while Baugh only weeks after he had thrown 171 pitches in a game for his Rice University team, tore a labrum during his first minor-league summer. He was all but finished as a serious big-league prospect.

It meant the Tigers, in a narrow window, weren’t about to cull enough farm help to gird Smith’s time in Detroit, although here it gets tricky. He and scouting director Greg Smith scooped up Brandon Inge in the 1998 draft’s second round, and in February 2002, a waiver claim would help big in 2006’s turnaround: outfielder Craig Monroe.

Two months after Dombrowski fired him, the Tigers draft team, which was still Smith’s crew, took a third-round crack at a college player, Curtis Granderson, who was about to become a star and something of a Motown lineup hero. It was Greg Smith who two years later pounced on one Justin Verlander.

Randy Smith figured in those first years in Detroit that he had one option, other than rare free-agent splurges of the kind that brought brawny third baseman Dean Palmer to Detroit. Smith shopped often at big-league baseball’s trading post, always armed with mounds of baseball hides.

And those deals, many of which were multi-player parcels, kept coming — 23 of them in his first year, 1996. For sheer theater, none matched his two offseason blasts in 1999 and 2000.

The last involved six players: Hunter, Meluskey and Holt to the Tigers for Brocail, Ausmus and Nelson Cruz (relief pitcher, and not the long-time power hitter who bears the same name).

Quickly gone 

The ’99 deal was Smith’s crown jewel: Juan Gonzalez, an outfielder and basher then headed for the Hall of Fame, was bound for Detroit alongside Danny Patterson and Gregg Zaun, with the Tigers sending a six-player parcel to Texas: Thompson, the oft-injured left-hand starter; Frank Catalanotto; Gabe Kapler; Francisco Cordero; Bill Haselman; and Alex Webb.

Gonzalez was to be a hitting dynamo and celebrity attraction the Tigers craved, both in their lineup and as a headliner for Comerica Park’s grand entry in 2000.

Juan Gonzalez hit 22 homers in his one season with the Tigers.

Gonzalez proved to be only lukewarm in 2000, batting .289, while a man who had averaged slightly more than 43 homers during six of his seasons with the Rangers hit 22 for the Tigers in 2000. A year later for the Indians, Gonzalez clubbed 35 homers.

Yes … the Indians.

Gonzalez’s time in Detroit was a single season.

“Horse---- ballpark,” Gonzalez said of Comerica midway through 2000, three years before Comerica’s Gargantuan dimensions were semi-trimmed, with the bullpen in right moving to left field.

The Tigers had tried to coax Gonzalez from free agency with a mammoth deal: eight years, and what has fashionably been described since as $148 million, total. But the figure is disputed, firmly, by Smith, who says it never was that lofty — that it did not top $119 million.

Either way, by 2000 standards, it was dramatic money and duration for a man who that October was about to turn 31.

Gonzalez balked. He would trust free agency. He signed for a single season, with the Indians, where he put together standard Gonzalez numbers: .325 average and .960 OPS to go with his 35 bombs.

But by then hamstring problems were haunting him. Gonzalez played only four more seasons, finishing in 2005. He made $38 million after leaving Detroit. He had lost more than $80 million by not biting on the Tigers package.

“I know people like to pick on the Gonzalez trade,” Smith said last week, “but it was done in trying to create interest going into the new ballpark.

“I think if you look at it today, it certainly wasn’t one-sided, it wasn’t like we got crushed. It was a deal that created excitement. And even if we didn’t sign him (to an extension), it was going to work out. We got draft choices going forward.”

Those draft picks, as compensation for losing Gonzalez, turned out to be Michael Woods and Matt Coenen, neither of whom made it to the big leagues. Although the Tigers had rocked baseball with the Gonzalez mega-swap, it brought to Detroit only a single season of superstar sizzle.

Almost a Tiger 

And then there was the deal that happened. But didn’t happen.

Smith is yet so boggled by what went down in November 1997 that he keeps the records framed on a wall in his home office.

It was a Tigers-Yankees trade, and a biggie: Bernie Williams, then 29 and a Gold Glove center-fielder who had made two All-Star teams and twice had finished in the top 20 in MVP voting, was on his way to Detroit for a pair of prospect pitchers: Mike Drumright and Roberto Duran.

The Yankees' Bernie Williams homers in a 2005 game against the Rangers.

Smith has the Yankees stationery confirming then-GM Bob Watson’s signoff. Watson had chosen Drumright and Duran from a list of players. The Tigers had their press release ready for print and airwaves.

And then Watson backed away.

“It wasn’t going to turn around our ballclub in ’98,” Smith said, “but it was a deal we had agreed to.”

Williams was headed for free agency at the end of the ’98 season. The Tigers might have him for only months, but Smith wanted badly to land a gold-star player who, more than likely, would have given the Tigers a sweet trade chip at July’s deadline.

Williams had a career 49.6 WAR and in ‘98 had a typical Williams season: .339 average, good for the American League batting championship; .997 OPS, and a Gold Glove, while finishing seventh on MVP ballots. That autumn, as a free agent, he re-signed with the Yankees.

The Tigers had come within an eyelash — or by way of some intervening action from Commissioner Bud Selig’s office, enforcing the trade — of making a signature deal that would have cost no more than two pitching prospects. Of the two, only Duran, a reliever, made it to the big leagues, pitching in 31 games for the Tigers.

Payroll then was an issue in the world of Mike Ilitch and the Tigers. He had spent $200 million of his own cash on Comerica Park and the debt load was heavy. Payroll was pared back for 2001, even when it had been hardly lush at any point during Smith’s time: $17 million early (raw salaries, not complete payroll data), stretching to a few years of $20-million-plus, with payroll topping out just beyond $50 million in 2000, ahead of a cutback in 2001 when Comerica’s novelty was gone and the team was about to draw fewer than 2 million.

By this time, Ilitch was souring on Smith’s five-year rebuild, and not happy that the Tigers hadn’t had a winning season since 1993.

He hired as overall chief Dombrowski, who had won a World Series with the Marlins and who, of deep delight to Ilitch, had shown during his days as Expos GM that he could win with a tight payroll.

Smith was on vacation in Maui when Ilitch called Dombrowski for a sit-down. By mid-November, Dombrowski was Detroit’s new baseball general and Smith’s boss.

“Dave and I had a long talk that December and I offered to resign,” Smith remembers, explaining that his relationship with Dombrowski, which had spanned a number of years, was solid and remains so. “But Dave said no. He said he respected my baseball IQ, that we had similar philosophies.

“I don’t know, it was my 10th year as a GM and I’m not sure it would have worked, anyway. You’re used to making your own decisions. But we said, OK, let’s give it a shot.

“The shot lasted six games into 2002.”

No second chances

The Tigers began 2002 miserably: 0-6. On a cold, wet, gray Monday morning in April, Smith was summoned by Dombrowski. He and manager Phil Garner were done in Detroit.

It was baseball business, as baseball men come to see it. Nothing personal, both Smith and Dombrowski have always maintained. And in fact, they have remained cordial through the years.

But for Smith the six-year stint in Detroit was a career blow. He had gone from serious GM status, with multiple job opportunities in 1995, to being regarded in 2002 as someone quite different because of those bumpy years of transition in Detroit.

Randy Smith on his time with the Tigers: “I think, in looking back, the time and the place simply didn’t match up for me.”

“I had multiple other opportunities before I went to the Tigers, and I do think it had an adverse effect in terms of getting another GM offer,” said Smith, who in 2003 returned to the Padres and where for the next 13 years he worked in a variety of front-office and scouting roles before joining the Rangers and Japan’s Nippon Ham Fighters.

“But, heck, I went back to San Diego, I worked under four different GMs there, I was vice-president of personnel and scouting, and I always felt I’d get another chance at being GM.

“But back then (2002), unlike recent years, it wasn’t common for guys to get second chances at being a GM. And that’s somewhat surprising, because I felt a lot smarter when leaving Detroit than when I got there.

“But things worked out.”

He says that in retrospect Detroit represented good times, personally and even professionally. He married his wife, Erin, during his time with the Tigers. Their two sons, Quinn (University of Arizona junior) and Shane (sprinter and hurdler at Hastings College), were born here.

He and Erin live in Bentwater, Texas, along Lake Conroe, and life is good. They even keep tabs with old friends from Detroit: Scott Bream, a longtime Smith pal who heads the Tigers’ pro scouting, and Gwen Keating, the Tigers front-office assistant renowned for her skills and grace.

He runs on occasion into Tigers general manager Al Avila and Smith says conversations are always friendly, and maybe empathetic, given the team’s straits and how they match a certain team’s situation 20 years ago.

He says, with deep sentiment, that being on hand for Tiger Stadium’s final game in 1999 was unmatched for personal baseball emotion, with Alan Trammell’s final game as a Tigers Hall of Famer right there.

And he has no bitterness over Ilitch’s decision to open the bank vault after the 2003 season — 18 months after Smith was cut loose.

“There is no question in mind that Mr. I always wanted to win,” Smith said. “The Tigers were so near and dear to him. And I think when all the issues with the stadium were ironed out, he could then invest in the Tigers and the Tigers had a great run.”

He knows what a team and its fans are dealing with in 2019 and says: “I think this time they’re doing it the right way rather than trying to rebuild on the fly, which we were doing when we really didn’t have the pieces to do it.”

If you want testimony to his feelings about Detroit, he says, simply inspect his home office.

“I’m not a big memorabilia guy,” Smith said, “but there’s a lot of Tigers stuff that sits right here. You can’t help but think about time then, and not only the what-ifs.

“I’ve never understood GMs who have criticized, afterward, the people they worked for. I don’t get it. I never questioned anyone’s desire to win.

“I think, in looking back, the time and the place simply didn’t match up for me.”

Smith’s six seasons

Randy Smith’s record as Tigers general manager:

1996: 53-109, fifth in AL East

1997: 79-83, third in AL East

1998: 65-97, fifth in AL Central

1999: 69-92, third in AL Central

2000: 79-83, third in AL Central

2001: 66-96, fourth in AL Central

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.