After the Tigers beat the Twins to clinch the division last year, Mike Ilitch was sitting next to Victor Martinez. Ilitch put his arm around him and said “Victor, you had a fantastic year. You displayed great sportsmanship, you never seem to lose your cool and I’m going to take care of you next year.”
I’m going to take care of you next year.
Before knowing what other teams would offer, Ilitch was committing himself to a hefty some of money because he felt like Victor had earned it. Victor’s conduct over the course of the season, and his time in Detroit, was enough for Ilitch to make that promise.
It’s just one story, but I think it’s pretty good reflection of the Ilitch we think we know. He comes through for his guys. He takes care of them even if it’s not the financially savvy move. Sometimes even if it isn’t the right baseball move.
There are two ways to explain what happened inside the Tigers organization over the six days. The first explanation is that Mike Ilitch lost confidence in Dave Dombrowski to the point at which he fired him. The second explanation is that Dombrowski decided he didn’t want to be a Tiger anymore. I’ve been thinking about it and reading the quotes for the last few hours, and while I certainly don’t know it for sure, I’m basically convinced it’s the latter.
I don’t think Mike Ilitch fired Dave Dombrowski.
I don’t think he fired Dombrowski because if this was a firing, it was the weirdest one I could imagine. If Ilitch was planning to fire Dombrowski, why would he leave him in charge of the franchise altering decisions made last Thursday and Friday? If he wasn’t planning to fire him, and then decided to after the deadline moves, why would he have approved the decision to sell? Certainly he couldn’t have been unhappy with the return, which was universally adored.
Even if you get past those questions, you have to wonder why Ilitch would fire Dombrowski only to leave every other member of the front office and coaching staff in place, while promoting the man Dombrowski has been grooming for two decades. If you can get beyond that, you have to explain why the press release said Dave was being “released” from his contract to allow him to “pursue other business opportunities.” The other business opportunities part really stands out. Like the Ilitches wanted you to know that Dave is very much thinking about his next job.
I just can’t put together a logical string of events that starts with Dave getting fired and ends with the announcement happening the way that it did. And that’s before we get to the elephant in the room: Dave Dombrowski had earned as many chances as he wanted from Mike Ilitch.
Ilitch hired Dombrowski to resurrect a tire fire of a baseball team and he gave his boss five trips to the postseason, two pennants, and just three non-competitive seasons since the 2006 revival. And that’s before you talk about the attendance spike and untold value Dave has brought to the Ilitch portfolio. If anyone’s past performance has earned another contract, it’s Dombrowski. Maybe you can imagine a better GM, but if Ilitch is the kind of guy who pulls you aside and says he’ll take care of you, Dave is the guy you pull aside because of what he’s done for you.
I won’t sit here and pretend that I was always in Dave’s camp. I’ve offered plenty of criticism, but his track record is remarkable. It’s ironclad. He has made mistakes and has his flaws [glances at every hard throwing lefty you’ve ever seen], but he routinely made smart decision after smart decision and built a perennial winner. He turned nothing into a powerhouse, and some of the worst decisions of his tenure were clearly guided by ownership.
I can’t imagine Ilitch looking at the last five years and thinking one bad half erases all of that, and I can’t imagine him thinking that the only part of the beast worth removing was its head.
No, I think Dave decided it was time to pursue other challenges. I think this decision was made a while ago. Fourteen years is a long time to have the same, high stakes, stressful job. His contract was up at the end of the year and I think Dave had decided he wasn’t coming back. Ilitch knew it, and once the team decided they were going to punt on 2015, Dombrowski didn’t really need to be there. He led his staff through one final deadline and then it was time to part ways.
There are some good openings right now. Toronto, Seattle, and Boston are looking for new captains. There’s probably a job waiting for him at MLB if he wants it too. I think Dave made the decision that 2015 was going to be his last as a Tiger, and once the organization decided the season was over, it no longer made sense to hang around. Both Dombrowski and Ilitch owed it to Al Avila to give him the reins and Dave probably wanted some time before taking over a new team.
And so it happened a little suddenly, but it happened in a way that made sense. Ilitch wasn’t unhappy with Dombrowski’s performance, but I do get the sense he was unhappy that he was leaving. That might explain the edge to the press release and the fact that Avila made a comment about working for the Ilitches for the rest of his career. I think that was a very clear message that the man who was leaving did not share that commitment. If anything, it feels like the breach of loyalty was felt by Ilitch from Dombrowski rather than the other way around.
Dave decided to leave, and there were a few hurt feelings about that fact. No one said “fired,” or “let go.” He was released from his contract, because his current contract forbade him from interviewing for the jobs he wanted. It was a negotiated peace. It was a long time coming, but when it finally arrived it still felt sudden.
Like I said, that’s my theory of what happened. I can’t really assemble one that fits all the pieces any better. Dave was ready to leave, the team packed it in for the season, and Ilitch basically told him you’re welcome to leave now. And so he did. A long relationship ending not because anything went wrong, but because it was time for the parties to move on.
At this point, it’s worth looking back and looking forward. To look back, we have to acknowledge what happened in Detroit over the last decade and a half. Dave Dombrowski built a franchise so strong that we’re pissed off if they have an okay season. He traded for superstars and found diamonds in the rough. The Tigers won and won and won under his leadership and every time it looked like the run was over, he found a way to restart the clock. First it was Cabrera, then Scherzer, now Norris and co.
Rating a GM or a front office accurately is a fool’s errand, but the Tigers clearly benefited from his cool-headed leadership. It’s easy not to be satisfied until the flag flies in center field, but I would imagine most fan bases would trade their last decade for ours. Even without the big one, it was one hell of a ride. The Tigers went from Lions to Red Wings in just a few short years.
And what becomes of the Tigers now? Without Dombrowski, who will the Tigers be?
Al Avila has been preparing for this moment his entire life. He has the experience to do the job and has been by Dave’s side since the beginning. You never really know what you have until you see it in action, but if you are trying to replace Dave, this is definitely the guy. He was probably ready five years ago and will take over a club with a restocked farm system and a much better outlook on the future than it had a week earlier.
There’s no telling who Avila will keep and who he’ll let go, but the people who have helped built this winner will know that their track records won’t be forgotten by the new leader. Avila will have a chance to bring in his own manager, which I think he probably will. The team needs a fresh start in that department. It’s a chance to shake things up if the process has gotten stale, or an opportunity to keep it going if not.
Change can be scary, but change can also be good. While the Tigers are carrying some contracts they probably wish they weren’t, they have a rich, committed owner and some really good players. There may be some lean years ahead, but the pillars of the franchise are strong and Avila knows where supply room is.
We’ve complained around the margins about Dombrowski plenty, but there are few active general managers who have been more successful in their careers. Like we always say here, past performance doesn’t guarantee future performance, though. Perhaps Dave’s time as an elite GM is over, although the deadline sure indicated he can still throw heat.
While this feels very much like the end of an era, very little has actually changed. That’s the weird thing about this and why I’m so convinced that Dave was the one who made this call. I’m encouraged by the fact that Ilitch approved the decision to sell and then kept everyone else in place. That screams of a stable, orderly transition. When I envisioned this a couple of years ago, I expected Dave would reduce his role and stay on as president, while giving the baseball operations to Avila. It’s the same result from a baseball perspective, but it’s possible that we’ll find ourselves at odds with the former Tiger before too long.
Maybe I’m reading the situation incorrectly. Perhaps an impulsive owner fired the man he’s worked so well with because he was angry about an early postseason exit and a disappointing first half of 2015. And in his haste, perhaps Ilitch then simply promoted a man nearly as responsible for the state of the franchise and gave him a five year deal. Perhaps, but not likely.
I think if this ever winds up declassified, we’ll learn Dave was ready to leave. He’s entitled to that. He made mistakes during his time in Detroit, but on balance, there was far more good than bad. He didn’t deliver the championship that Ilitch and the fans desperately covet, but leaves the Old English D in much better shape than when he found it.