Henning: Dave Dombrowski's legacy could take a hit in sign-stealing scandal

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Baseball still can’t quite believe it happened.

And yet it should have been anticipated all along, the sign-stealing mayhem that last week tore apart the Astros upper levels, and now endangers the Red Sox even after they said goodbye to manager Alex Cora ahead of what figures to be a similar clobbering from Commissioner Rob Manfred.

Former Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, right, hired Alex Cora, left, to be the Red Sox manager in Nov. 2017. In 2018, the Red Sox won the World Series.

Technology has swamped our lives. It’s naïve to believe that tech’s wizards were going to take some kind of sabbatical from baseball when world championships and playoffs and 162-game seasons were at stake. Some team, somewhere, was going to show that baseball can’t be morally precluded from using 21st-century gadgets to get an edge. And just to prove it, we have the Astros, and from all reports and intelligence, the Red Sox, all about to prove it.

What hasn’t been widely discussed is how the past week’s earthquake might yet sully a general manager who was in charge during the Red Sox’s reported year of mischief, 2018. Dave Dombrowski was at the wheel in Boston, where he had landed after 14 years with the Tigers. And as improbable as was his firing by the Red Sox last September, it seems just as crazy that Dombrowski could potentially be implicated in 2018’s bad acts, even if it was simply because a man who theoretically should have been aware, in fact wasn’t.

Here is irony looming. Dombrowski: always by the book, always above reproach, always impeccable, always, it seemed, in control. And headed for a Cooperstown plaque that was all but delivered after the Red Sox partied following their 2018 romp.

Winning that 2018 world championship made Dombrowski a GM who had notched a World Series in each league. It was a capstone on 40-plus years in baseball. It helped compensate, at least personally, for the grand prize that had slipped from his and owner Mike Ilitch’s hands in Detroit.

Dave Dombrowski, right, helped put together teams for the late
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch that reached the World Series in 2006 and 2012.

This fairly inevitable trip to Cooperstown was going to be Dombrowski’s just as it had been for past GMs like Pat Gillick and John Schuerholz. Factor in World Series trophies from each league with the knowledge Dombrowski’s teams had prospered wherever he had worked — Montreal, Miami, Detroit, Boston — and he was on his way to enshrinement.

Now add in a persona Dombrowski had for decades spent each day polishing, and he almost certainly was Hall of Fame-bound.

The day it all changed

Until, perhaps, the bulletin from New York arrived a week ago informing baseball’s shaken world that Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were being suspended for a full season, just before Astros owner Jim Crane fired them.

A couple of days later, Cora, who had been hired by Dombrowski, was gone. Joining Dombrowski in some potentially tragic irony, Cora was a skipper who had been seen as luminous, as much personally as professionally. It didn’t save him from what could be permanent exile from baseball.

The next victim was Carlos Beltran, for a few weeks the new Mets manager who was tied to the 2017 Astros and to the bad acts that felled Luhnow, Hinch — and Cora, who bears sign-stealing allegations tied to two teams.

That makes three managers and a single GM from two implicated clubs casualties in this cheating scandal. Only one principal from the above groups has been largely ignored: Dombrowski, who, again, if he didn’t know of the sign-stealing conspiracy will likely be vulnerable to charges he should have known. Direct or indirect knowledge seems not to be a distinction Manfred is drawing as he nails those in charge. Nor, perhaps, will it be a hair split by future Hall of Fame committees.

Efforts to contact Dombrowski the past week have failed. Given past standards, he would not comment, anyway, particularly when Manfred’s investigation technically continues.

But this can be considered by those who know Dombrowski, and who particularly know of his discipline in conduct and to his image, to be every bit as staggering as events proved to be for Luhnow, Hinch, Cora, and Beltran.

It matters not that he is 63 and at the moment isn’t working with any team after the Red Sox, as is their habit, cut loose a GM who did a deft job making them better. 

He likely would have been invited to work elsewhere. In fact, had matters not come unraveled because of cameras and videos and trash bins, Dombrowski might have been an easy choice to replace Luhnow at Houston. Irony never is more than a few seconds away as this whole lurid episode unfurls.

It raises that popular follow-up question: Should participating players, too, be punished?

Former Tigers president Dave Dombrowski, right, with former Tigers manager Brad Ausmus in 2014, might find getting a job in the major leagues tough if it's found out he had any connection in the sign-stealing scandal.

Will this affect the Hall?

There’s less culpability here. Somewhat, anyway. You’re asking individuals to do something their bosses and teams weren’t doing at an institutional level. That forces players to counter permissiveness that was being sanctioned, even tacitly, by those in charge. It asks them, in the course of a season or during a playoff run, to become snitches against their own leaders and teammates.

The players could have, should have, called a halt to it. But primary responsibility here isn’t on them. It’s on the men heading them.

You wonder at an even more base level how this could not have been foreseen.

The signs-stealing malevolence was product of not thinking terribly critically. It sat there, waiting to happen, the rough equivalent of a hanging curve, with technology all but begging something as simple as signs flashed by a catcher to be thieved and relayed.

Manfred had cracked down, verbally, on using electronics for illicit gains. But why should his veritable finger-wag have blocked at least one team or two or three, or whatever, from doing what too many people have always done — in business, politics, taxes, marriages, whatever?


What you do when don’t-you-dare warnings haven’t worked is show, conclusively, that consequences are now in order and that those consequences are going to be stiff and not necessarily equally fair to all involved.

You can know what was happening, as Cora obviously did, and find yourself in jeopardy of never working again in baseball. You can be semi-acceptant, as Hinch seems to have been, but know that you’ll likely be forgiven and brought back, probably with a hug or two, after his year on the shelf has expired.

You can profess to have been unaware, as Luhnow stated, and find that it’s not enough. What mattered to Manfred, and to Crane, were that a GM was in charge and, in this case, in charge of a franchise and culture that didn’t make many friends and, in fact, because of its ruthlessness made too many enemies.

Or you can be a man like Dombrowski and be seen as the last GM who would OK sign-stealing. You can be a GM who nonetheless hired a man at the center of this whole ugly interval as his manager. You can be a GM who sat however many yards away from a team that allegedly was getting tainted help and testify quite candidly that you had no clue.

You can be a GM who nonetheless hired as his manager a man at the center of this whole ugly interval. Perhaps worse, given all he put into his Cooperstown dream, it could be the forfeiture of a summer speech and a hallowed plaque that was about to consecrate his otherwise laudable life in baseball.

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