If You Build It Right, Millions Will Come

Illustration by Matthew Allen

As a prelude to sticky baseball issues he would tackle in Detroit and elsewhere, Dave Dombrowski had a decision to make that late autumn of 1977.

Should a senior at Western Michigan University, with your typical college student’s lack of cash, spend a bank-busting $1,500 on a ticket to Hawaii, which, sadly for Dombrowski, happened to be the site of that year’s Baseball Winter Meetings?

His parents, working-class all the way, Chicago South Side in culture and in finances, had their answer: No. Double no. Triple no. One thousand, five hundred times: No.

Dombrowski somehow bought the ticket. And one of the more exceptional careers in the annals of baseball general managers was conceived. His vocation took him from Chicago, to Montreal (where he learned to speak French with sufficient fluency to address business audiences), to Miami, and — for the past 13 years — to Detroit and to an ultimate reconstruction job with the Tigers.

One of baseball’s most bedraggled teams has become one of the game’s best. The only void stems from two World Series appearances that resulted in victory parades in St. Louis and San Francisco rather than along Woodward Avenue.

It has been quite a ride: three consecutive American League Central titles and four deep postseason runs in the past eight years, with a near-miss coming in 2009 in an epic playoff game against the Minnesota Twins. The Tigers, improbably, have won all of their first-round division series since 2006, which is akin to four times making it across a minefield.

More critically to Tigers owner Mike Ilitch’s business empire, since 2007 the Tigers have been three-time conquerors of the mystical 3-million mark in attendance at Comerica Park. Impressive when only seven times in the 1900s did the Tigers draw as many as 2 million in a single season.

This isn’t supposed to happen in bankrupt towns, let alone in states as stressed as Michigan during the bitter recession. However, the Tigers are one of professional sports’ elite stories, complete with Nielsen-rocking local television ratings and with some of the heaviest logoed merchandise sales in all of baseball.

And whether one cares to attribute such grand times to Ilitch, the team’s beneficent owner, or to Dombrowski’s oversight of a baseball roster, the fact Dombrowski was made Supreme Commander with authority to re-design Ilitch’s then-woeful baseball team makes clear the influence wielded by a 57-year-old man who officially carries the titles of president, general manager, and chief executive officer.

The Making of a GM
But back to that December of 1977. Flying to Honolulu had not been the student’s idea. It was recommended.

Roland Hemond was general manager of the Chicago White Sox in 1977. Dombrowski was working on a senior thesis paper titled “The General Manager — The Man In The Middle,” and won an interview with the venerable man who headed South Side Chicago’s resident team.

Just before he exited Hemond’s office, the senior thesis author had one more question: How might he pursue a career in baseball?

Hemond suggested a trip to the Winter Meetings. Baseball’s offseason convention was where the game’s Who’s Who assembled. Here were people who might hire a bright Ivy League-grade gent (Dombrowski spent his freshman year at Cornell University before transferring to Western Michigan) versed in business and mathematics, who had played his share of sandlot baseball in Chicago, and who was good enough to have played first base (and defensive tackle in football) as a freshman at Cornell.

Dombrowski popped for Hawaii and somehow avoided starvation. He also further impressed Hemond, who had a job waiting following graduation in 1978, complete with a whopping salary of $7,000.

Dombrowski pushed Hemond up to $8,000. And he could live at home now that his parents had forgiven his Honolulu boondoggle, and at least keep gas in a car and help with mom’s groceries.

The Next Commissioner?
A career was born, so luminous it has sparked national chatter that Dombrowski might win the “Who Will Replace Bud Selig?” sweepstakes once baseball’s commissioner retires at the end of the 2014 season.

Dombrowski’s name is mentioned as a possible successor for reasons beyond the reality that he has been a very good general manager since he got his first GM job, at age 31, running the Montreal Expos, which after 2005 became the Washington Nationals.

He looks and acts the part of a mogul: Silver-black hair cresting his trim, 6-foot-2 athlete’s build. Wardrobe from Madison Avenue. As skilled at knowing names as his timing is acute for when to charm and when to be detached. Organized almost to a point of incredulity. A disciplined jogger who manages 35 minutes of hard running almost every day. Husband to an attractive, accomplished wife (Karie Ross was an ESPN television reporter in Miami when she and Dombrowski met) who carries the aura and influence of a first lady in her intersections with the baseball world.

He can trade a quip even faster than he can sort out an algorithm, the brand of mathematical skill that first drew him to Cornell, and later to academic elitism at WMU, where he migrated after housing-aid red tape (Ivy Leagues do not offer athletic scholarships) priced him out of Cornell’s sphere.

A Recipe for Success
The Florida Marlins grabbed him in 1991 and won a World Series in their fifth season of existence.

When then-owner Wayne Huizenga’s payroll demolition bombed the Marlins to rubble, Dombrowski shopped for a new home. The Red Sox, Rangers, and Dodgers inquired. So did a man from Detroit named Ilitch. His previous generals had delivered the new ballpark he wanted (Comerica Park opened in 2000). But the team was mostly a cobbled mess.

Ilitch gave Dombrowski near-absolute authority and a fat contract befitting his truckload of job titles — $2 million at a time when most general managers were making more in the neighborhood of $200,000. What he imagined was Dombrowski becoming his version of Jimmy Devellano, who had custom-built the Red Wings mini-dynasty.

It was a grand vision, with one hang-up: Baseball is the most brutal of all professional sports in which to achieve sustained success. Projecting big-league talent is like pulling a slot-machine lever, although the casino might carry better odds.

Dombrowski’s recipe for the Tigers was to trust his basic baseball credo: Build a power-pitching staff that gives a team its best chance to win a short playoff series. And, equally, hire smart scouts whose eyes and reports, more than any rigid statistical analysis, help secure those power pitchers.

Dombrowski’s blueprint is, of course, more complex and more nuanced. It needed to be even more sophisticated once he and his right-hand men (including top lieutenants and scouts Al Avila, John Westhoff, Scott Reid, David Chadd, Dick Egan, etc.) got hold of the Tigers.

He had to spin off the occasional talented trade piece (Jeff Weaver, for example, in 2002) for multiple players who might give a barren roster broader help. But mostly he began working on Detroit’s pitching as the Tigers moved from helpless to hopeful. Justin Verlander was drafted in 2004, just as Ilitch was deciding that he could trust his new gurus to spend fresh cash for players who, along with better pitching, would make for a historic turnaround.

Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez helped redo a batting order. Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones fattened Detroit’s rotation and bullpen ahead of the grand 2006 season, as did Placido Polanco, whom Dombrowski all but stole from the Philadelphia Phillies in a trade for a future Venezuelan convict, Ugueth Urbina. Max Scherzer arrived via a trade for Curtis Granderson that nearly led to a fan riot — until Scherzer and Austin Jackson (also part of the Granderson deal) settled in as stars who made the Tigers tougher and Granderson more of a pleasant memory.

A Penchant for Power Arms
This is how he does it. Aided incalculably by Ilitch’s wallet, this is Dombrowski’s formula for keeping a team competitive.

It is not original; it is not exclusive. But in his ability to make pitching the team’s calling card by way of drafts and trades, Dombrowski has taken to a precise competitive edge the mantra that in baseball you win fundamentally with pitching.

Consider last year’s dazzling starting rotation that might have won a World Series had Miguel Cabrera’s sports hernia not crippled his swing, or had Bruce Rondon, who throws baseballs that look like lightning bolts, not been hurt for a disastrous Game 2 of the American League Championship Series.

Verlander was a first-round draft pick. So, too, was Rick Porcello, who is only 25 and who has been pitching since 2009. Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez came by way of July trades made possible by scouts and draft gurus who suffused the farm system with enough talent to swap for older, more established stars. Scherzer, who won last year’s American League Cy Young Award, was part of an earlier trade.

“We’re not going to give away the secret to the sauce,” Dombrowski has said when asked about the Tigers’ ability to project, and profile, pitchers they often rate more highly than other teams. Well, we’ll give it away. It’s a combination of his scouts’ appraisals, body type, mechanics (some deliveries scream future injury — others are smoother and project longer health), and power. Always power.

Every scout, manager, and GM loves the fastball. Dombrowski believes in high-mph fastballs the way a televangelist believes in faith. A hard, well-located fastball remains baseball’s most difficult pitch to hit. It jolts bats, intimidates hitters, and makes a batter more susceptible to the trickery of a breaking pitch.

But none of this matters to Dombrowski’s bird dogs if proper size and arm mechanics aren’t part of a pitcher’s overall package. Consider the case of Jair Jurrjens, a promising rookie who debuted with Detroit in 2007.

Jurrjens had all the requisite pitches, including a mid-90-mph fastball. He had been electric throughout his minor-league apprenticeship. And he pitched some beautiful baseball for the Tigers during that 2007 season, including beating Cleveland, 2-1, on a night when the Indians got one hit in what was one of the single best games played at Comerica Park in its 15 seasons.

Jurrjens finished the year with a 3-1 record and had a lovely WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) score of 1.14. He was all of 21 years old.

A few weeks later the Tigers traded him to Atlanta in what looked initially to have been Dombrowski’s all-time worst deal. Edgar Renteria, a shortstop the Tigers desperately needed, was the supposed big prize, but Renteria showed up out of shape in 2008 and his energy level never quite rebounded for reasons that might or might not have had to do with some new baseball restrictions in 2008.

Meanwhile, Jurrjens was starring for the Braves, with big seasons in 2008, 2009, and after an off-year in 2010, a nice bounce-back year in 2011. And then it pretty much was over for Jurrjens. He has pitched in only 13 games the past two seasons due to injuries and ineffectiveness and was abandoned by the Braves after the 2012 schedule.

What happened is what the Tigers privately thought might happen. Jurrjens didn’t have a body the Tigers believed would hold up. He was generously listed at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, but Jurrjens pitched smaller than that, and when he missed a couple of starts with some mysterious arm pain during his 2007 cameo in Detroit, red flags waved in the Tigers’ executive offices.

Compare the Jurrjens case study to that of Scherzer. He was nothing special during his first full season with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009, crafting a 9-11 record and a 4.12 earned-run average. But, of course, he was 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, and he had a fastball that not only cruised well into the 90s, but it also moved devilishly. He had no sinking two-seam fastball, which is pretty much standard issue for most starters. And he had a lousy change-up. But he had a slider to go with his laser-grade primary pitch.

And while some in Arizona probably worried that Scherzer’s herky-jerky pitching delivery would be a fast ticket to Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, the Tigers weren’t bothered. They liked that he struck out 174 batters in 170 innings after he had whiffed 66 batters in 56 innings during his rookie debut in 2008.

At age 25, they saw him getting stronger. They saw a delivery that could be refined. They saw the embodiment of a Dombrowski pitcher. Scherzer became a centerpiece in the then-inflammatory trade for Granderson. Since May of 2012, Scherzer’s record for the Tigers has been an preposterous 36-7.

Code of Conduct
Dombrowski’s personal and professional style is as inviolate as his creed for acquiring pitchers.

He is uniform, orderly, unwavering. Media hoping for an off-the-record nugget might as well call CIA headquarters. At some point, a CIA operative might talk. Dombrowski doesn’t. Not to anyone. Bob Costas on the phone? Peter Gammons? Forget it. They’ll get what the local press gets, which is nothing.

Ah, but the code of conduct has its flip side. He always returns phone calls. Always, and on the same day a message is left. He might not say anything newsworthy or enlightening. But he’ll call back. He’ll be courteous. It is the way he operates, adhering to carefully crafted policies that have been part of his method of operation, absorbed and refined since he began studying Hemond and iconic White Sox owner Bill Veeck during those years in Chicago.

He has a life away from baseball, mostly spent at his Bloomfield Hills home. Karie and he have a serene marriage and two teenage children.

Dombrowski likes movies. He loves Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream and, of course, any such indulgence will be incinerated during the next day’s 35-minute jog.

And then it’s back to baseball. Strict constructionist baseball, with pitching its eternal truth and way, followed with perpetual devotion by a man named Dombrowski.